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Palo Alto Weekly

Real Estate - January 25, 2013

Revering the old

New class deals with the care and preservation of antiques

by Ranjini Raghunath

In a small village in World War II Germany, a young boy's curiosity to know how things were made guided him from one workshop to another, picking up woodworking, painting, gilding and metal work — skills that ultimately fueled his passion for fine furniture and antiques.

Today, Ottmar Alois ("Al") Umhofer is a specialist with 50 years of experience fixing and restoring antiques made from all types of materials, including wood, metal, pewter, glass, brass, bronze and wrought-iron.

Drawing from his extensive experience, he will offer a class on the care and preservation of antique furniture, along with his co-teacher, Patricia Evans, through Palo Alto Adult School on Feb. 2. His class will deal with identifying and measuring the value of antiques, different causes of damage and necessary precautions to preserve their value.

"Abuse by humans is the most common cause of damage," he said, adding that people sometimes lift and move antiques carelessly or place them incorrectly at home, such as keeping an antique table under the sun, which would bleach the wood.

Born in Heimbuchenthal, a small community in Bavaria, Germany, Umhofer worked in antiques for 20 years, before moving to the United States and establishing his own business under the name "Edelweiss Restorations."

Some of the unusual antiques that he has worked on include a secretary desk from the 1500s with secret compartments, an astronomical clock nearly destroyed in the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, a dresser from the mid-1800s made from a single piece of mahogany, a 400-pound Venetian mirror mounted on a hand-polished and chiseled marble stand, and an ornate picture frame he once fixed for the actress Kathryn Crosby.

Though he spends most of his time fixing antiques damaged by improper care, bad weather or pets, a large part of his work also involves correcting misguided attempts by people to fix them. In his class, he will discuss appropriate quick-fixes that everyone can apply, along with a list of materials to have at home for spills or minor damages. He will also give tips on securing furniture properly to protect them from damage due to earthquakes.

Restoring antiques can be more challenging when there are missing parts, especially if they are very old. "Some of these antiques, for example, are made from the wood of trees that don't grow anymore," Evans said. When he can't find a missing part, he simply makes them from scratch.

"He makes every single piece he needs: tiny screws, wood pieces, keys — even the supports to hold the antiques in place when working on them. He is unbelievably talented," she added.

Each piece he works on is a learning experience, requiring patience and remembering what was applied to a similar piece earlier. Never having an assistant or apprentice may have made it more challenging, but he admits that he would rather be responsible for every piece himself.

"I can't wait for Monday to start working on a new piece," he said, with the excitement of a scientist looking forward to his next experiment.

In many ways, restoring antiques is a science, according to Umhofer. You have to study each piece carefully, analyzing the physical properties of the material and working out how to bring it back to its original state, before "rolling up your sleeves and starting to work on it." "Restoration is like color photography: You need to get the right color and finish from different angles. The same laws of physics, of reflection and absorption of light, apply here."

Ultimately, restoring antiques is all about bringing them back to their original state and not about making them look fancy or better. "I don't do cosmetic repairs. My work should not be seen. If you see something I did, then I did a lousy job," he said.

During the class, he also plans on giving suggestions on what to look for when visiting an antique or furniture store. He laments that modern furniture is short-lived and mostly made using machines and computer-aided programming.

"Machines don't know where the strength of the wood lies. Nobody learns woodworking from scratch anymore; the knowledge and the craftsmanship is gone," he said.

He owes his knowledge to the fresco painters, druggists, woodworkers and blacksmiths in his village, from whom he learned most of his skills. He still reads a lot and is constantly updating his knowledge on new methods and techniques. He also documents his work meticulously and hopes to give this accumulated knowledge back to the world one day.

"It is challenging, but I like it," he said, adding that antiques are his calling.

"I love what I do and it gives me a lot of satisfaction."

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What: Care and Preservation of Antique Furniture

When: Saturday, Feb. 2, 10 a.m. to noon

Where: Palo Alto High School, Room 1701, 50 Embarcadero Road, Palo Alto

Cost: $35

Info: 650-329-3752 or www.paadultschool.org

Editorial Intern Ranjini Raghunath can be emailed at rraghunath@paweekly.com.

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