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Book teaches steps to restore furniture

The Baltimore Sun

If you've been wondering whether that battered desk Aunt Lavinia left you is worth restoring, Ina Brosseau Marx and Allen Marx may have your answer.

After all, Professional Painted Finishes, the Princeton couple's 1991 book, demonstrated that, with patience and experimentation, it was possible to restore Asian lacquer and gilded objects to their original glory.

According to Ina Marx, the book "convinced hundreds of people, many of them doctors and dentists, to start their own businesses restoring painted finishes." It sold 80,000 copies.

Their new book, Furniture Restoration: Step-by-Step Tips and Techniques for Professional Results (Watson-Guptill, $50), should "appeal to a much larger audience," her husband says.

"If you write a book that provides clear and well-written step-by-step instructions, it can be valuable to both the amateur and the professional," Allen Marx, 85, says.

"When you teach, you teach clearly, and don't teach down to those who are amateurs. That way, they will not be intimidated, and their skills quickly will rise to a higher level."

Restoring furniture can be "time-consuming," but once you learn the steps, the "operation can be simple," Ina Marx says.

"It is more problem-solving than anything else," Allen Marx adds.

The book works on four levels, he says: as an entry point for people who have never restored furniture; as a chance for amateur restorers to move to the next level; as instruction for professionals frightened to try something new; and as education for appraisers and curators about restoration and what can be accomplished.

Along the way, the book offers lots of details. For example, it addresses how to reassemble a piece of furniture that had to be broken down before refinishing or repairing could begin.

You can use dowels, biscuits, splines, hinges, glue blocks, battens, corner braces, or an "innovative go-between" -- one-of-a-kind connectors that fit your repair job and no others, the book says.

The Marxes tell you how to do it and, better than that, how to pick the right connector for your job.

Stymied by a piece whose veneered surface is beyond repair? Furniture Restoration offers a three-point solution to removing it:

Lay an open brown-paper bag on the surface and slowly glide a household iron over the bag.

When the glue has liquefied, slip a palette knife under the veneer, then gently and slowly pry it off.

To save the old veneer, clean the glue from the back (with warm water, vinegar and a utility knife), sandwich the veneer between two tightly clamped boards, and keep a weight on it until you are ready to reuse it.

The Marxes, married for 58 years, developed their methods for The Finishing School in Floral Park, N.Y., which offers courses on how to reproduce and restore painted finishes and is directed by Robert Marx, one of their four sons.

"We are self-taught," says Ina Marx, 78, who with her husband founded the school in 1983. Together, they have restored pieces for the Metropolitan Museum of Art; Cooper-Hewitt, National Design Museum; and the Yale University Art Museum, among many others.

"If we can do it, everyone can," she says, with enough certainty in her voice to convince the most entrenched skeptic. "Still, we are very careful always to say that the particular way we restored a piece, or the techniques that we used, worked for us. We don't have all of the answers."

In the beginning, Allen Marx was a merchandise manager for various department-store chains, including Gimbels. Ina Marx was a couture dress designer who worked for private customers.

It was while she was raising her sons, Ina Marx says, that she developed a fascination with restoring painted surfaces.

"When I had learned what I needed to learn to begin, and the time came to begin restoring, I discovered that no one was doing it," she says.

"There were a lot of people restoring furniture, but they were primarily removing old finishes and creating new ones," says Allen Marx, adding that his wife led him into the field, first with gold-leaf restoration.

"Most of them were afraid of dealing with painted finishes, and that's why we started getting the commissions to do the work," he says -- including restoring movie props.

"We helped bankrupt United Artists," Ina Marx says, laughing.

Their now-30-year career was launched at an exhibition of the New York Historical Society in Manhattan, where they learned that even museum curators could be uncertain about what they had and how it could be restored.

From the start, the Marxes say, they were dealing with objects valued in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Restoring Asian lacquer pieces, some of them ancient, became a specialty because it required such intensive labor that few wanted to do it.

These days, the couple say, though there is a great deal of information available on restoring furniture, including painted surfaces, there is also much misinformation.

"Not as much misinformation as incomplete or not clearly written," Allen Marx says.

"Oh, no," interjects Ina Marx. "There is a lot of misinformation, and some of it leads people not to try things. Our first book was called 'the bible' because we presented information in a way that was easy to follow."

The new book also offers practical information to help readers "become confident enough to take on projects that they would not have thought they were able to take on," Allen Marx says.

"It comes down to confidence," Ina Marx says. "With the right tools and the proper instruction, anyone is capable of achieving professional results."

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