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Woodworker removes furniture's history, layer by layer

To resurrect the craftsmanship and finishes of antique furniture Missoula's John Kjelland must be a chemist, a historian, an artist and an excellent woodworker. Photo by MICHAEL GALLACHER of the Missoulian

By BETSY COHEN of the Missoulian

Uncovering the past

In John Kjelland's careful hands history is reawakened.

The Missoula man is a master woodworker and conservator whose passion is to peel back the layers of time to allow historical wood finishes to shine.

With nearly 30 years of experience, a microscope and ultraviolet light, Kjelland studies his subject with the patience of a forensic sleuth.

He first counts the coatings long-dead hands have applied over the decades and centuries, dissects their ingredients and then formulates a plan of action to release the original finish from its binds of time.

It is all done slowly and analytically in an effort to prolong history.

He toils away in his crusade to protect the historical furnishings because they have so few allies, he said.

"There are a lot of people working in historical preservation - of preserving buildings and community districts," Kjelland said. "But for furnishings and objects there really isn't anyone or any group as well organized. I think the furnishings particular to a time period tell a part of a persons' story a little better than architecture," Kjelland said. "They tend to show how much a person had, how they lived - what they liked."

He confirmed his belief while working on an 1860s chest of drawers for a Hamilton client last fall.

"This one piece was restored with square nails and it had a lithograph sandwiched between a repair board and the original backing panel," Kjelland recalls.

When he pulled the drawing off the repair board he discovered "two very proud African Masai leaving a white guy with a spear in him," he said. "I thought maybe a slave restored the piece and put it in there...as this piece was refinished so misguidedly."

This week in his shop on Missoula's west side, Kjelland is restoring a 1740 French glass case and late 1880s Spanish dresser believed to have been owned by Spanish royalty.

In the corner of the shop glow three restored chairs once owned by copper king Marcus Daly.

The ornate oak Victorian pieces were a part of Daly's furnishings in hisHamilton mansion, Kjelland said.

They now belong to a Missoula couple who bought them in an estate sale and wanted them restored to their former beauty.

What the chairs tell Kjelland is that Daly liked formality in his life, and Mrs. Daly had the means and the obsession to redecorate - frequently.

"You have to sit up straight in these chairs," he said, running his hands over the tall, stiff back of one.

Their formality, he said, is accentuated by the lion's head carved with great detail on the chair's arms where a person would normally rest their hands. In keeping with the throne-like style, the front legs are carved in the likeness of the formidable paws.

The discovery of numerous nails pounded into the seat frame tell Kjelland the dowel-jointed chairs were recovered often.

"She must of really enjoyed changing her fabrics because there are so many nails," he said. "I've worked on older pieces that had less nails than these," he said of the turn of the century chairs.

After the chairs are reupholstered by other Missoula craftsmen, Kjelland will assemble a restoration diary of the chairs and send them to the Daly Mansion for their records.

"You never know with these historical pieces, it is highly likely they will return there one day," he said.

The original green fabric on the chair backs and seats will accompany before and after pictures of Kjelland's restoration process, as will a detailed recipe of the potions he used to strip the wood down to its original finish.

He will also note the ingredients of the retractable finish he put on the chairs to protect the wood while the chairs are in use at their Missoula home.

"I think it is important to prolong these things because it reflects to us a sense of time, of where we've been as a people, and maybe, we can find out we're we are going," Kjelland said.