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September 21, 2014
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Reuse, recycle, restore it!

Mark Weller, co-owner of Sterling Upholstery Co., Inc., is restoring a Victorian gentleman’s chair, circa 1880-1890.
Photos by Tammy Compton


“Is it Monday yet? Can I please go back to work?” asks Judy Shaffer, emphasizing the word “please.”

For the past 18 years, Judy has worked side by side with Mark and Andee Weller, owners of Sterling Upholstery Co., Inc.(www.sterlingupholsteryco.com/), located at 50 Neville Rd. in Moscow, PA.

“We love what we do, and it’s very easy. We found what we’re good at,” says Mark.

What they do is restore and refinish furniture, from a favorite rest-your-weary-bones recliner to family heirlooms that have been passed down from generation to generation.

Now in its 22nd year, the business offers full restoration, refinishing and sales. And nestled within its walls is wife Andee’s specialty: Sterling Custom Picture Framing, specializing in needle points, shadow boxes and special requests.

Mark, who’s been working in the trades since the age of 15, left home for a time to serve in the U.S. Navy. Reaching the rank of E-5, he was a Russian linguist, a cryptology specialist during the Cold War, trained to listen in on Russian communications and interpret the level of threat. For four years, he proudly served his country before returning home to Northeast, PA and resuming his life’s work.

Walking around his well organized work room, it’s easy to see Mark’s love for his craft, for intricate carvings, and history. It’s as if he sees things that others might not. When he looks at an original piece, his fingers tend to follow the path of his eyes as he examines and admires someone else’s work.

Picking up an acanthus leaf carving in his shop, he explains it’s from an old buffet dating back to the turn of the last century or early 1900s. Though moisture and water damage have taken their toll on the original piece, Mark sees potential in its parts. “Somebody carved that and I can’t throw that out,” he says. The beautiful carvings will be repurposed to create an aesthetically pleasing, artistic piece by Mark. Along with a delicate, wooden heart, centered at its top, the acanthus leaf carvings will form the frame of an antique mirror.

He has a knack for creating something out of nothing. Take the one-of-a-kind wooden cabinet, holding a large fish tank in their showroom. Fashioned from six or seven different antiques, Mark used pieces from a chestnut church pew, a herter sofa, and even a piece from an old pump organ. The eye-catching piece can’t help but be admired. Mark humbly says it was completed within a month—“playtime” between customer projects—not that he has a lot of free time.

“We’re a seven-day shop,” explains Mark. “I wake up every morning with way too much to do.” A smile finishes his sentence. He truly loves what he does.

With clientele stretching from Connecticut to New York, from New Jersey to Pennsylvania, his company is kept quite busy. Projects keep flooding in as their workmanship spreads by word of mouth and industry awards. He’s worked on carriages and surreys, a buckboard dating back to the 1830s, and a rollercoaster car from the original amusement park in nearby Lake Ariel.

Each new customer brings a new piece of history and heritage. “Sentimental value trumps most of the pieces I do here,” Mark says.

His favorite pieces to work on are from the Victorian era, like the antique gentleman’s chair he’s currently restoring for a customer. “Solid poplar finished in cherry, circa 1880 to 1890,” he says, smoothing a hand over the wood.

“I have a reverence for pieces,” he says. There’s no need to explain.

An unusual piece on a nearby table catches one’s eye. An obvious carving of sorts, it demands a closer look. It’s the leg of a marble-topped coffee table waiting to be lovingly restored. On closer inspection, it reveals itself to be an intricately carved swan; all four legs will match once Mark is able to place them back together.

“A family piece pulled out of an attic,” Mark shares. To an onlooker, it may seem just a jigsaw of pieces, but Mark has already envisioned it fully restored. His excitement is contagious.

The payback for all of their hard work? “Seeing [the piece] when it’s done,” says Judy. “Seeing people appreciate it when they get it back.”

No matter how challenging a piece may be, Andee says, “You can’t give up hope.” After 15 years of marriage, she knows her husband’s capabilities and just how hard he’ll work to restore someone’s treasure.

“We do full restoration on pieces. We try to follow the original intent and the original design,” he says.

Highly skilled in vintage furniture, the talented trio can also refurbish late-model furniture. Perhaps you have a favorite recliner or sofa that you just don’t wish to part with. If it’s got a good frame, then it’s worth re-upholstering.

“This is the most economical way to go,” says Mark. Depending on fabric selection and re-upholstery costs, most furniture can be restored for less than half of its original cost. “It’ll be rebuilt solid as a rock for less than half price, quality for quality,” Mark explained. “An upholsterer has an option of choosing better materials [to restore the piece].”

When choosing fabric, Mark says the most important thing to consider is abrasion count. Abrasion count is determined by how the fabric rates in the double-rub test, a standard used to check the fabric’s durability. The fabric is passed through a machine and rubbed back and forth, counting as one double rub. “You definitely want the highest count of the double rub,” Mark explains. An abrasion count of 9,000 to 12,000 would be for very light duty, where you’re going more for the beauty of the fabric chosen and not necessarily durability. The higher the abrasion count means the more you can sit on that fabric before it will start to fray or disintegrate.

A medium-duty fabric would be one with an abrasion count above 15,000, whereas anything over 30,000 double rubs would be considered heavy-duty. For a customer looking for extreme durability, Mark recommends a commercial grade fabric. According to sources, a heavy-duty commercial grade fabric would be 100,000 double rubs or more.

An equally important aspect is fabric protection, such as Scotchguard™. It’s important to know the stain-resistant properties put into the fabric to help resist dirt buildup, Mark explained.

As far as advice on re-upholstery estimates? Mark says, “Just because someone is a re-upholsterer doesn’t mean they do the same quality of work. There’s a difference between applying fabric and methods of application.” It’s important to check springs, glue joints, interior burlaps or materials, and the quality and density of the foam used. “An upholsterer has choice and control and can step into much better materials,” he said.

“My business is to build that piece of furniture better and make it last longer than industry standards,” Mark said. ”We’re still doing that old-fashioned workmanship with old fashioned quality materials.”

When choosing an upholsterer, Mark recommends visiting their shop. “Take a look at work that’s being done at the time. How do they approach their work?” he said. Ask for testimonials or recommendations of past customers.

“You have to be wary of someone who gives you too high of a price or too low of a price. That’s done by research. Take a ride to their shop and see what they do,” Mark encourages.

To learn more about Sterling Upholstery Co. Inc., visit www.sterlingupholsteryco.com.