At the auction, Rick Douglas saw only the legs of the table. He knew it was a diamond in the rough. For a $43 bid, it was his: a stack of legs and warped boards.
His wife, Betty, took one look and asked, "Why did you buy that piece of junk?"
But the wood was solid walnut. Rick took out the warp, renewed the finish and replaced the pegs. He found the piece cataloged among historical antiques, an 1800s Federal-style Pembroke drop-leaf table. Its value: $2,500.
This sort of thing happens to Rick Douglas. It's no accident. For 20 years, he's devoted himself to restoring fine furniture. His work is on display at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
After refinishing the Pembroke table, he told Betty, "We can't get rid of this. We'll have to move." So the Douglas family, including John, 9, Jaime, 4, and Julie, 18 months, moved about six months ago from Catonsville to the heart of Hampstead's antique district.
"It's great having a little auction place [Snyder's] around the corner," he says, pointing to two 80-year-old chairs in his garage-turned- workshop. He bought them at Snyder's for $5 each. After he works months of his magic on them, he says, they'll be worth $100 each.
Mr. Douglas restores furniture by hand, using homemade French polish and other time-consuming techniques from the Old World. His mentor was Wolfgang Thoma of Huntington, Long Island, where Mr. Douglas grew up.
"This incredible guy took me under his wing," recalled Mr. Douglas. "I was 17 when I started. I'd always been fascinated by wood. I walked into his shop and said, 'This is what I want to do.' He said, 'It's not so easy.'
"The first five years were really tough. He taught me the old way, as his grandfather had taught him. If he didn't do it right the first time, he'd had to do it over. So I'd work on a piece for a week. He'd look at it and say, 'It's no good.'
"I learned how to do it right the first time," Mr. Douglas laughs.
He studied with Mr. Thoma for 13 years.
He learned to use French polish, a type of homemade shellac applied eight or 10 times with a thick cotton pad. He now uses water-based lacquers, too, because they are environmentally safe. For patching, he finds wood of a similar age and grain pattern. For one worm-eaten table from the 1700s, Mr. Douglas matched the wood, the grain, even the wormholes. That table, purchased for $500, later sold for $15,000.
One key to restoration is discovering how a piece had been crafted, he says.
"To know a piece of furniture, he [Mr. Thoma] would sit me there for an hour and talk about the type of person who made the piece. That was rewarding. That's how you know if you have a reproduction. Every part was put in for a certain reason."
Mr. Thoma's shop was frequented by staff of The Met and Sotheby Parke Bernet, the New York auction gallery. That's when Mr. Thoma and Mr. Douglas would play a game. They'd pull out antiques that had something slightly awry. The wrong drawer pull, perhaps. Or a reproduction leg. They wanted to see if the experts would be fooled.
In Hampstead, Mr. Douglas works on commission while preparing to open his own shop. He's employed full time by Gaines & McHale Antiques in Baltimore, which specializes in converting large furniture to modern function. They've turned a wardrobe into a mirrored bar with a wine rack, for example. The conversions are done to be reversed at any time without compromising the value of the antique piece.
In his shop, Mr. Douglas has a dilapidated pie safe, a style of cupboard that was used to store pies and other foods safely away from flies. The original side panels have warped; they were not oak, like the rest of the cabinet, so he is milling oak replacements.
One thing he won't replace is the sizable row of bite marks that a mouse chewed into the front shelf some time ago. "I like finding things," he said. "A mouse [bite] proves this is old, because there are no mice in houses today. For character, I leave it in.
"It's true that what some people do to an antique can destroy it. People years ago would take nice pieces and paint them."
But before anyone removes the paint now, he says, it should be evaluated by someone who knows good furniture.
"One of the joys is finding pieces, going to shows and estate auctions," says Mr. Douglas, who think there's a lot to be found in Carroll County. "If you find a piece and it's not totally destroyed, there's a way to take the finish off . . . and leave the patina."
Douglas Furniture Restoration can be reached at 239-3947.
How can you beat the heat -- or cold -- when you're a senior? Services for seniors will be discussed by a Baltimore Gas & Electric Co. representative at the North Carroll Senior Center in Greenmount at 11 a.m. today.
The air-conditioned center has seen a lot of new faces during the heat wave. Dorothy Houff, the center's manager, said almost twice as many people have been coming to lunches at the center. "It seems they're coming in here from the heat," she said. "They're welcome all the time."
On Friday, the center will welcome card players to a card party featuring all kinds of games, followed by refreshments.
The North Carroll Senior Center will begin a series of speakers on senior health issues on July 29. Medical experts from the community will speak and answer individual questions. Most of the speakers will begin at 11 a.m.
Psychiatrist Dr. Richard Krebs will address senior issues July 29.
Dr. Stanley Katz will be featured Aug. 6. He's known for his entertaining speeches about podiatry.
Irv Yospa, pharmacist at Family Pharmacy in Hampstead, will talk Aug. 12 about what happens when seniors take too many pills and prescriptions.
Debbie Krolicki, of the dietary department at Carroll County General Hospital, will talk about calories and cholesterol and give dietary advice. Her talk will begin at 9 a.m. Aug. 25. Samples of alternative foods will be offered.