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Fix Import Repair Problems

Furniture World Magazine


Learning to repair imports so they can be sold as first quality instead of being sent to clearance, presents special challenges.

My old college roommate, Steve, is a big New York Yankees fan. We were in school at Penn State in 1988, working that summer cleaning student apartment buildings around campus. After work we’d watch Yankees baseball on television, and I remember one game where the commentator, Phil Rizzuto, told his fellow announcer that he remembers when Philadelphia was a lot farther away from New York than it was that day. Phil’s friend replied, “Uh, Phil, they’ve always been ninety miles apart…”

We made fun of it at the time, but Phil was actually right, at least in theory. The world does appear to be shrinking. Retailers who used to sign contracts with manufacturers located in the same state now arrange for containers of product from faraway places such as Guangdong, China and Cebu, Philippines. Emails shoot messages around the globe in seconds, putting manufacturers in touch with retailers, suppliers in touch with manufacturers, and customers in touch with everybody.

But while this economic revolution continues to unfold, one basic fact of furniture manufacturing seems to be forgotten: It’s still a relatively primitive practice, making things out of trees. Oh sure, these days hollow plastic castings have replaced carved moulding, cast aggregates are used instead of cut-and-polished marble, and synthetic compounds are poured into molds to make just about everything. But while furniture is now made more cheaply, has the average retailer learned how to repair these components when they get damaged? The answer is a resounding NO!

Last week I asked a man hired to strip furniture at our shop in Hickory, to remove the finish from a pedestal table base. He began with the column and had to stop. What is this gritty white stuff underneath the finish, he asked? I had no idea, but it looked like a marble-impregnated resin. So that’s why the thing weighed a ton, I thought. But now what? I tried sanding the stuff with 100-grit paper, and it was a waste of time. I finally figured out what to do with it, but I’ve been doing this for ten years. What would the average retailer have done? Probably bought another one at an enormous loss.

Imported furniture has introduced the American furniture-buying public to myriad colors, textures, and shapes. Truly, while the impact of international trade presents new challenges to the previously well-protected domestic furniture industry, the average person working an average job can buy furnishings from overseas that look elegant and expensive, but cost rather little. In fact, some of it costs so little that my business of repairing furniture for trucking companies, retailers and consolidators has actually shifted away from repair because more of it is either being trashed or returned for salvage.

No doubt if you are reading this article, you are probably a retailer, and you probably have augmented your offerings with imports. You are undoubtedly aware of the following problems that some imports present:

Lack Of Available Parts. Domestic manufacturers usually have parts available when something goes wrong, like a broken leg or a split top. However, if the same problems occur on an imported piece, you may find yourself presented with the choice of fixing it or selling it as-is at clearance. Overseas parts are terribly hard to come by. One can’t just unscrew a top from a culled piece and send it to you, because typically, imported pieces are difficult or impossible to disassemble. Moreover, since production tolerances found on lower-end goods are not well standardized, components are not easily interchangeable. Another pervasive problem is that some factories outsource parts and materials to many small, independent tradesmen, making standardization virtually impossible under even the best scrutiny.

Disguised Wood Problems. Ordinarily, stripping a table doesn’t make an experienced repair person stop to think about possible dire consequences, but imports can bring my shop to a screeching halt while we think the option through. What’s underneath the finish? Inexpensive finishes can be painted or dark, and there’s a reason for that—the wood underneath isn’t always the best quality. Some of it is hastily filled and repaired, or full of mineral streaks, or just downright rough. Low-quality cuts are saturated with fillers and resins to keep the surface looking even, locking grain into place and filling worm holes and defects. Stripping removes these fillers, returning the wood back to its original condition.

Hand-Applied Detailing. A surplus of highly skilled and talented artisans overseas allows manufacturers in southeast Asia, for example, to paint beautiful scenes on even the least-expensive furniture. Remarkably intricate details are seen on chests, tables and cabinets. Terrible damage, such as knife cuts on base mouldings and forklift tine-impaled doors is sometimes inflicted on such pieces. Duplicating this artwork is sometimes extremely difficult. Achieving an exact color match can be frustrating; duplicating a specific sheen or background color to go with that precise detail painting can be downright nerve-wracking.

There is an intimate relationship between the value of a piece of furniture, and the methods that must be employed to fix it. For example, a repairman must use extraordinary care when repairing a gouge in a Karges dining table top, since the final product will no doubt be well scrutinized due to its cost and value. The materials used must perfectly complement the piece. Entry-level pieces, however, do not demand such attention to detail. If you look closely at some furniture you will see that while it looks pretty good from six feet away, the luster fades the closer it is examined. Flip the piece over, or look inside with the drawers removed, and you might see black paint has disguised some pretty hasty assembly techniques. Machining and cutting tolerances aren’t as exact on low-end furniture that instead rely on filler and putty to make the joints look flush and full. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that since the overall finish isn’t perfect, the repair needn’t be one-hundred-percent perfect either (unless the customer has seen the damaged area, then you’d better be right on the money).

Common manufacturing problems you may see in your shop have simple solutions at the manufacturing level, but not-so-simple solutions at the retail level are:

White Grain Filler. As mentioned before, low-end overseas manufacturers have varying cutting tolerances, resulting in gaps between components often filled with putty to make pieces look complete. Domestic manufacturers have long known that furniture consumers do not expect that joints to look like plastic. Imported furniture made of wood expands and contracts - and in doing so, filled joints may crack revealing the white filler used by many companies to smooth over the substrate. Since a lot of imported furniture is painted or dark, white joints show up like a neon sign. This problem can be solved at the manufacturing level by improving cutting tolerances and limiting the use of filler, or by using fillers that match the final finish. The problem can be corrected in your shop by using stains, wax fillers and colored caulking. Caulking is available in hundreds of tones and shades, and is an excellent solution for wide gaps where the wood won’t draw back together under pressure or refitting.

Filler Matched To Dry Wood Color. Many pieces that have clear finishes (wood grain is not disguised and the finish has no opacity) are crafted from lower-quality wood first patched with wood filler, then sanded and finished over. Problems arise when the filler appears lighter under the finish, and stands out. Many manufacturers match filler to the dry wood color and not the wet wood color. To see what a piece of wood will look like after applying a lacquer finish, simply spray it with naphtha: You will see the detail of the grain, the color of the wood, and the clarity of the final product. Mahogany is an excellent example of this change in color. Dry, it is pinkish; lacquered, it is blood red. Filler matched to the dry wood color does not change finished color as dramatically, and will appear lighter. This problem can usually be repaired in your shop by attempting to shade the off-color patch, or stripping and refinishing the component.

Damage To Faux Graining. Another common technique seen in imported goods is faux graining. This process allows manufacturers to use lower-quality cuts of wood. There are two ways to achieve this effect when repairing damaged goods:

By painting out the grain (using an opaque finish made of pigments) but not actually filling the grain pores, the wood’s appearance can be made uniform. Just apply a dark wood filler that packs the pores. The background color becomes uniform, and the actual grain structure is revealed.

You can also use a natural wood filler and then basecoat (paint out) the wood so that grain and defects become completely invisible. Glaze can then be used to simulate grain. By striking the surface with a coarse paint brush, the resulting brush strokes make the wood look as though the grain is showing through.

The question becomes, How does a retailer balance the need for higher-margin imports, yet be able to react successfully to the challenges that they can bring? The simple answer to the question is: Buy up. You can buy a cheap car and deal with all of the squeaks, rattles and eccentricities, or you can buy a luxury vehicle and not worry at all. The American buying public, however, is not heavily weighted toward the rich side, so buying up doesn’t always work if your customers can’t afford what you’re selling. It helps, therefore, to have a working knowledge of how imported furniture is built, the materials from which it is made, and how to repair it.

Depending on the country of origin, the furniture’s primary finish might be nitrocellulose lacquer, polyester, polyurethane, wax, or UV… The point is, you should learn from your suppliers as much as you can about their manufacturing methodology and materials, then adjust your repair shop’s supply assortment accordingly. There is usually a learning curve, and that curve can be mild or severe.

For example, if a repairman has never worked on anything except standard American finishes—which are overwhelmingly nitrocellulose lacquer—then his first Italian polyester repair attempt will probably be a nightmare. Polyester repair involves two or three components (resin, hardener and catalyst) which must be measured exactly and thoroughly mixed together, then applied within a certain amount of time, usually minutes. On a “field trip” to a local manufacturing plant I learned that the whole process, from mixing to compounding, involved some fifteen steps using specialized materials such as ultra-fine sandpaper, compounds, and lubricants. The point is, if you’re going to sell it, make sure you know how to fix it. One of my clients in New Jersey actually imports the parts and materials he needs to repair and complete his Italian offerings, and maintains close contacts with the manufacturers he deals with, getting advice whenever it is needed.

Since countries like India, Mexico and China produce metal furniture, it is a good idea to have someone handy who knows how to weld. This individual should know how to weld brass, cast iron, steel and aluminum. Each metal requires specific welding techniques and materials. Using the wrong welder or the wrong materials can result in a failed weld or in some cases a violent reaction between the welder, the welding material and the piece being welded. It is important that the welder you use be experienced and careful, because welding equipment is complicated and dangerous to use. It can blind, seriously hurt or kill an untrained user.

Textured finishes can be frustrating, so employing the skills of an artist (a student from the local college, for example, who’ll work for cash) to figure out how to make, for instance, a stippled finish, or a crackled finish, would certainly benefit your shop in the long run. Trial and error is fine, but not all materials are compatible with one another, and an incorrect repair can come flaking off in a customer’s home, which will certainly be embarrassing.

Imports are a necessity these days. They come with several key advantages, like better profit margins; more adventurous finishes, shapes and styles; and a wide range of price structures that help capture a larger market share. Choosing furniture at markets based on looks and repairability means that you will be able to make repairs whenever necessary, turning damaged goods back into first quality rather than sending them to the clearance center.