Richard Adams points out a large gold-plated Regency mirror. It has swirling designs on the corners and top of the frame.
The owner stumbled on it in the basement of his new house, Adams says. That happens every now and then in the north inner-city, says Adams.
Restoration of this one is nearly done, he says. The glass still looks dark and patchy and struggles to reflect much. The frame looks like it still needs a fresh coat.
Sure, he could make this mirror look almost new, says Adams. But this is what the owner wants, he says. “To retain that distressed appearance.”
All around the one-room workshop on Ballybough Road, is dark wood furniture. Mirrors, chairs, chests of drawers and a whiskey cabinet, in various states of repair.
It smells of wood and dust. Antique chandeliers hang from the ceiling. On the walls there are antlers and clocks. Shelves hold books, statues and ornaments, gathering a little dust.
Adams, now 76, has worked here for around 25 years. But he’s been in the trade much longer. He started his apprenticeship when he was 14, with his brother, training in French polishing, he says.
They worked with both modern furniture and antiques, Adams says. Antiques caught his interest most though – and he began to research their history, the different eras and designs, he says.
“I would have specialised, when I was really working, in 18th-century and 19th-century furniture,” he says. Restoring for the likes of Adam’s Auctioneers and the Chester Beatty Library, he says.
Nowadays though, he is semi-retired. That means he can pick and choose, and work on pieces he likes, jobs that catch his interest.
Which jobs attract him?
About 10 years ago, Adams took the sign down from the front of his shop. At 66 years old, he was ready to call it a day.
Then came the Covid-19 lockdowns. He found himself back here, fixing up some of his own antique pieces.
“I had a lot of stuff here that I had accumulated over the years so I started repairing them,” he says.
He didn’t want to leave a headache behind for his kids to sort out in years to come. “It might end up in a skip,” he says, laughing.
Once he was back, a few old customers began to call: could he maybe do a job or two? He was back at work.
But he definitely isn’t scouting for business, he says. “If something was interesting I would do it.”
That means just anything he likes the look of, he says.
“That’s Scottish,” he says, pointing up to a dark timber mirror with gold leaf, hanging on the wall beside a whiskey cabinet. “When Prince Albert popped his clogs, Queen Victoria liked everything to be dark.”
Adams recently restored a commode, which he finds amusing. He is working right now on a brown leather armchair from the Georgian era, repolishing the legs with dark French polish.
There’s a big hole in the leather of one of the arms. The chair looks worn and dirty. But he will bring that back to life, no worries, he says.
Peaks and troughs
Back in the 1960s when he started his apprenticeship, lots of businesses in Dublin made furniture, says Adams. “The furniture that was popular was mid-century design.”
Furniture makers made replicas of antiques too. “Chippendale-style chairs, Queen Anne-style suites,” he says.
At the same time, many Irish antiques were being exported to the United States, he says.
Lately, there has been a resurgence of interest in quality antique furniture, says Adams. There have always been peaks and troughs, he says.
A surge in interest from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, he recalls. And during the Celtic Tiger. During the Celtic Tiger, some people paid over the odds, he says.
At the moment, interest is pretty high, he says. “It’s not back to the same extent as it was.” Small apartments are holding some people back, he says.
There’s nothing he can remember that he couldn’t restore, says Adams. “Some things are harder than others,” he says. “It’s timber basically.”
He had a beautiful job recently, he says, an old grandfather clock. “It was a really nice one, 1720 or so,” he says. Valuable, but badly damaged.
The owner is a major collector, says Adams. He has around 45 grandfather clocks in his house. “He must like clocks.”
The clocks are worth more after restoration, he says. As are other antiques. And, for those with quality modern furniture, restoration can be worthwhile too, he says – cheaper than replacing.
As he talks, Adams polishes the legs of the brown leather Georgian armchair. He uses filler first to smooth any dents, he says, and then dark French polish with shellac.
How much it costs depends on how long it takes, says Adams. “The material costs are generally very small.” The labour can add up on a tricky job, he says.
For a chair passed down from a grandmother, say, it may cost more to restore than the chair is worth in cold hard cash. “But it has a sentimental value,” he says.
So generally, people go for it, he says, still rubbing the armchair legs gently with a sponge.