Arts September 25, 2018

Doing It the Old Fashioned Way

In this age of disposable everything—when shoes are not made to be repaired, stoves last a mere five years instead of 20, and even smart phones are obsolete after two years—it’s refreshing to find a business where “old” is valued for form, function, and beauty.

ArtCraft Idaho, a Boise family business, has built a reputation for reliable craftsmanship in restoring, repairing and conserving antiques, family heirlooms and modern furniture using old-world techniques.

Curt Wonacott, owner of ArtCraft

Josh Pew, the newest addition to ArtCraft

“We recently completed a complex job for the great-granddaughter of Cornelius Vanderbilt,” said Curt Wonacott, who with his wife Janet is one of the current owners. Vanderbilt made his fortune in railroads and shipping in the late 1800s. “We were charged with restoring, actually conserving, many of the family antiques. One was a 1901 Louis Vuitton steamer trunk of which the exterior had totally rotted. We obtained impregnated canvas like that used on the original through an interior decorator.

“Another piece was Mr. Vanderbilt’s desk, which had legs and drawer pulls with rosewood veneer set [on} a bias. The substrate beneath the veneer had shrunk, so when the piece was handled, little chunks of veneer would drop off. We had to put them back on so they would stay,” he grinned.

There is an important distinction between restoring and conserving. Wonacott explained that in conserving, you restore or stabilize the antique using the same techniques as were used when the piece was originally crafted, much as museums do. So that means using glue made from rendered hides or hooves or nails that are of the kind used when the piece was built. Often no nails were used at all.

“Earlier craftsman would dovetail two pieces, use a mortise and tenon joint or Japanese joinery,” said Josh Pew, Wonacott’s apprentice who will take over the business. “These techniques take patience and precision, which I enjoy.”

Many of the heirlooms that ArtCraft restores have intricate inlays or marquetry of different woods. A number of the Vanderbilt pieces had been “painted” with gesso, a powder which, when mixed with water, is applied like plaster and gives depth and contour to the underlying material. The gesso was peeling so the ArtCraft crew “stabilized” it to keep what was left intact. Then they applied what is called French polish: an 18th century technique of rapidly wiping on multiple thin layers of shellac by hand, which yields a lustrous shine that accentuates the grain of the wood.

Other projects include restoring the Governor’s Desk and committee room chairs during the Idaho Capitol restoration, weaving cane and wicker, and acting as the service center for Brown & Jordan lawn furniture.

ArtCraft is a family company, at present three generations deep. Edmund Fortin, a French Canadian unafraid of breaching old boundaries, left his small hometown in Quebec province in 1915. He eventually relocated to Salem, Mass., where Edmund began refinishing pianos.

His son Roland settled in Boise after World War II, marrying Ruth, a farm girl from Meridian. He expanded the scope of the business and brought in his daughter Janet, as well as an apprentice named Curt Wonacott. Curt and Janet married and solidified ArtCraft’s reputation for its attention to detail and artisanship. Recently, they began to think about retiring.

At the same time, Josh Pew had attended the Oregon College for Art and Craft, and moved to Boise to pursue his dream of making furniture. A chance meeting at Treefort brought them together. Chatting about the band on stage, Pew mentioned that he was looking to buy a woodworking shop. “I said ‘Guess what?’” recounted Wonacott. “I have one, and I’m looking to sell it!’ Josh is a good kid. A fast learner, hard worker, and I think he’s gonna do just fine.”

Pew’s brother Daniel plans to join him in the business, and they have a vision of adding a retail storefront and a colony of artists’ studios.

“It’s been 46 years since we started with my dad. I know he would be incredibly proud and immensely happy if he could see what his dream has become,” said Janet. “Josh and his brother are incredibly talented and motivated. I think they’ll take our business to a new and exciting level.”

This article appears in the Fall 2018 Issue of Territory Magazine.