Inside Peter McDonald’s simple, cinder block garage-turned-workshop in Frankfort, hidden treasures abound, including an elaborate late Victorian easel afrill with decorative flourishes and an early 19th century Dutch secretary richly inlaid with gold-hued flowers and animal faces.
For McDonald, a 67-year-old antique furniture restorer whose business motto is “Good as Old,” work is a sort of treasure hunt. He finds the beauty in old wood that has been neglected so long that its shine and grain have faded away to darkness. Restoring antiques to their original luster is a slow job that requires much time, patience and layer after layer of carefully applied resin. But it’s worth it, he said.
“I like the process. It’s nice to save something,” he said. “You think about the fact that you’re going to preserve this object for a long time. I do restoration, not conservation. I want to return it to use.”
He restores furniture by using the French polishing method, which would be familiar to craftsmen of decades or even centuries ago. That’s a wood finishing technique that results in a very glossy, lovely surface, and was the original finish of most antiques. It consists of applying many layers — maybe a thousand — of shellac made from resin excreted by an insect in Thailand and India. Dry flakes of the golden- and amber-hued resin are dissolved in denatured alcohol to make shellac, which he puts in a rag wrapped inside a rag and spreads over and over again on the surface. The ancient technique gets great results, McDonald said, and has extracted a toll on his body.
“It’s why I have tendonitis in my shoulder and arthritis in my hand,” he said.
He didn’t always have a passion for furniture restoration though. After growing up in western Massachusetts, McDonald enrolled in the University of Massachusetts to study political science. But his heart wasn’t in his coursework, and he kept dropping out of school. One summer, he was doing manual labor when he got injured on the job and was sent to a rehabilitation facility in Boston. There, he learned about the North Bennet Street School, which trains students for careers in traditional trades such as bookbinding, violin making and cabinet and furniture making. McDonald was interested. He decided to study cabinet making and spent more than a year learning how to use hand tools and traditional methods. After finishing the course, he and several friends from the school opened a shop in Boston that specialized in making custom furniture.
“We did anything,” he said. “If you wanted a piece, we’d go to a museum, measure it out, draw it and build it.”
After a few years, McDonald decided to try his hand at something completely different. He’d seen the movie “Raging Bull,” starring Robert DeNiro, and thought, hey, I can do that.
“I decided to become an international film star,” he said with a smile.
He moved to New York City and got work as an extra in a couple of forgettable films, but ultimately decided he didn’t have a future as a second DeNiro. So it was back to furniture for McDonald. He answered an ad in the newspaper for Sotheby’s Restoration, part of the auction house’s New York business conglomerate. He got the job, spending four years as Sotheby’s principal furniture restorer, working all over the country and in well-heeled New York City apartments.
Memorable clients from those days included the Greek shipping tycoon Stavros Niarchos, a corporate lawyer who lived in George Gershwin’s pied a terre and the president of the cosmetic company Revlon Inc. He took on the Revlon job shortly before the company was sold, and because officials there were worried about industrial spies stealing information, they sent an armed guard to watch over McDonald as he worked on the president’s furniture.
He also worked for talk show juggernaut Phil Donahue and his wife, actress Marlo Thomas, and learned that furniture isn’t good at keeping secrets.
“I was always getting watermarks off of stuff because they wouldn’t use a coaster,” he said.
One watermark on the table next to Donahue’s bed was a familiar size and shape. McDonald suggested to the couple’s butler that the television host drank beer in bed. The butler demurred, horrified, but McDonald went down to the kitchen and fetched a bottle of Budweiser from the refrigerator and fitted it precisely into the stain on the wood.
In general, he enjoyed the work at Sotheby’s, which was diverse and interesting.
“Sotheby’s was the candy store,” McDonald said, adding that he appreciated the opportunity to work on meaningful pieces. “One time we had Thomas Jefferson’s dining table in an apartment. I had two young apprentices with me, and told them, ‘Hang on. Sit down a minute. Let’s try to imagine all the other people who have sat around this table.’”
But after a while, the glamour of the job and New York City faded. In 1990 McDonald and his then-wife moved to Maine, which they were familiar with thanks to their visits with former BDN reporter Walter Griffin, a lifelong friend.
“We used to come up and thought it was great because it was August,” he said. “We moved up here and found out it was August and winter.”
Still, they stayed, and McDonald opened a restoration shop in downtown Belfast, bringing his traditional skills to Waldo County. After 16 years at that location, he closed it and now works out of his Frankfort shop. During his time here, he has found that Mainers appreciated his ability to make old wood beautiful again, even if the pieces he works on here often have different pedigrees than the ones from New York. One of those is a 1913 Emerson upright piano that was purchased years ago by a woman from Aroostook County who saved up her potato money in order to buy it. When McDonald was asked to do what he could for the piano, the old finish had dried so that you could no longer see the grain in the wood, and light no longer reflected off the surface. He set to work to turn it around, first taking it apart and then cleaning and refinishing it, a task that took months. But it was worth it, he said, showing off the piano, which appeared to glow in the fading autumn light of his workshop.
“The excitement and challenge in this is figuring out your problem and then the journey,” McDonald said. “For me, the end result is the joy.”
To contact Peter McDonald, call 223-5416.
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