The phone call Josef Birgmann is expecting is overdue. To expedite the matter, he dials a number and delivers a cheerful reminder about an impending appointment. “I believe in being punctual,” he explains.
An old-world respect for time also inspires the crafts of antique restoration, refinishing and furniture-making at Mr. Birgmann’s Devontry Workshop, 920 Pitner Ave.
A German-born and -trained cabinetmaker, Mr. Birgmann has for nearly 40 years run a North Shore business that depends on people’s appreciation for the value time can bestow on things. During his eight years in Glenview, 12 years in Winnetka and 20 in Evanston, customers have brought him furniture that has acquired importance for them. Some has historical and artistic significance; some, emotional connotations.
This is no “Antiques Road Show,” Mr. Birgmann says. He rarely “discovers” hidden treasures, because, he says, “North Shore people are educated. They know what they have.” He is grateful for their awareness.
He regards the work of restoring antiques as “wonderful.” It is his favorite end of the business, one part he held onto after ceding the large-scale custom furniture and cabinetry division to James Van Cleave, with whom he shares office space. While Van Cleave Woodworking takes on kitchen cabinetry, entertainment centers and the like, Mr. Birgmann now confines his furniture-making to smaller pieces and concentrates on refinishing and restoration.
“It got to be too much,” he says of the bigger jobs he gave up. He adds, with a chuckle, “That’s why I’m not rich.”
But the spacious rooms of his shop are a transient treasure trove, a cache of precious things he fixes, then gives back. Here is a grand English linen press, solid oak and 250 years old. Behind its doors are shallow drawers its owner puts to use in her 21st-century dining room.
A handsome pine dresser bears no trace of the thick paint it wore when he first saw it. He shakes his head remembering the effort required to rid it of those heavy coats. Farther along is a Biedermeier table, its chipped front as forlorn as a broken-toothed smile. Meticulous work with veneer patches will be required to make it glow again. Along one wall the pedestal base of a rosewood game table awaits the day the gaming can resume.
While Mr. Birgmann can envision such pieces refurbished, he says it is more difficult for his customers. Sometimes they balk at the high price of a labor-intensive job. It can cost as much as $6,000 to refinish a dining room set, he says – a table, eight chairs, and buffet or china cabinet.
True, he says, a new set can be bought for less. But the quality is not the same. He says too much furniture today is “a disgrace to our industry.” Once he “get[s] inside the furniture,” he says, he finds inferior materials and techniques.
Furniture made in 1930 or earlier is apt to be of better quality than today’s made-in-China variety, he says. Certain details can help customers ascertain the quality of contemporary pieces – features such as drawers with dovetails, especially handmade, but even machine-made, and backs that are recessed into the cabinet. Beware, he says, the heavy finish that covers up imperfections in the wood of much furniture today.
Mr. Birgmann and his potential clients have a common interest in determining the quality of pieces in need of restoration or refinishing. He says he often asks a customer to bring in a drawer so he can judge “whether [a piece] is worth fixing.”
He then provides a rough estimate of the cost to refinish or restore the furniture. Nearly 70 percent of that price, he says, represents labor. Four employees labor alongside Mr. Birgmann. All four, he says, “do it all” – sanding, touch-up and spraying. One, a 20-year veteran, he says, is a native Spanish-speaker who now, like his boss, speaks English with a German accent.
These days the shop is doing much more refinishing than repair, Mr. Birgmann says. Two of his men are applying chemical stripper to doors as he speaks. The stripper never enters the Evanston sewer system. When he moved into the building, the City prohibited him from installing drains. Instead, Devontry disposes of used chemicals in drums that are hauled away each week. An exhaust system protects the employees, carrying toxic fumes away from the work area.
Furniture building also plays a smaller role in the business nowadays, says Mr. Birgmann. But rather than importing exotic tropical woods for his work, he has found a source both green and close to home. His buys hardwood from a Skokie company called Horigan. They turn trees that needed to be cut down into lumber, offering 22 varieties of locally cut wood. In the hands of Mr. Birgmann, then, a once-beloved tree can live on as a family heirloom, prized in future years by children who never played beneath its branches.