When Wood Speaks

By Jim Dodson • Photographs by Bert VanderVeen

The rugged cherry bed is old, reportedly once belonging to the household of my maternal West Virginia grandmother, Margaret. It is a nicked and scratched pineapple poster bed that came my way about two decades ago.

As befits a family heirloom from another time, the old bed had already traveled far but was destined to journey much farther in my company — from Carolina to Georgia — for seven years before rambling to the snow country of Maine. There, it served the noble purpose, among other things, as my daughter, Maggie’s, childhood bed until she left for college, later following her to Brooklyn, where it filled the smallest bedroom in all of Christendom before finally making its way home to Greensboro a few years back. By this time, as most material things and people do, the bed was showing the wear of the road, giving out in the form of an iron flange that wiggled free from its mooring in a side rail, a factor that soon consigned the handsome old thing to the dust of the garage.

Not long ago, however, I decided it was high time to restore this link to our family’s past and began asking around about local restoration experts. I was pleased to learn there are at least half a dozen skilled restorers in the Triad, possibly the happy effect of the late furniture industry’s dominance in the region. The name that kept cropping up consistently belonged to the Gate City’s Ted Keaton and son, Ted Junior.

Thus, on a late winter afternoon, I dropped by the Keatons’ longtime shop at the corner of North Church and Pisgah Road to investigate what might be done about Miss Margaret’s old poster bed.

Keaton’s cozy shop, just 1,200 square feet in size, is an oldfashioned place rife with scents of sawdust and seasoned wood, glue and hardware, hearking to a golden age of carpentry when people made things by hand and cherished the workmanship.

The afternoon I appeared, Ted Senior’s longtime assistant of 34 years, Jack Latham, had just finished work on a walnut occasional chair, circa 1860, that he’d meticulously taken apart, scraped every joint, refinished and glued back together. It sat on a nearby table, its vital joints secured by no less than a dozen wood clamps. “It was very wobbly when it came to us,” Jack says, explaining that the chair’s original glue was made of animal hide and thus subject to moisture, which inevitably made it brittle and subject to breaking its bond. “We use a super aircraft epoxy that is almost impossible to give. That chair will never wobble again,” he adds with a smile.

Near the front of the shop, Ted Junior pauses in his sanding of another gem from the mid-19th century, a chest of drawers that had been damaged in a New Orleans flood, purchased by a customer who hoped to give it as a wedding gift in the spring. His specialty is stripping furniture and removing finishes down to, as in this instance, a rare and beautiful Santo Domingan mahogany. “It was damaged by the flood,” Ted Junior explains, “but clearly worth restoring. The workmanship in those days was so good, when all is said and done, we simply have to take it back its original state and rebuild some of the pieces.”

“That’s the kind of wood that speaks to you,” chips in Jack Latham, the shop’s prime woodworker who restored the drawers’ distinctive cock beading by hand.

Within days, a 12-step refinishing process would begin under the aegis of the shop’s boss finish expert, Marvin Theodore Keaton, aka. Ted Senior, a youthful 74-year-old who likes to say that he’s on his “second career doing something fun with my hands.” At that moment, Ted Senior is looking over the work on an antique linen press that a customer hopes to transform into a television cabinet. He shows me the unique crotch grain of the press’s doors and explains how the goal was to bring back the beauty of the piece while preserving the whorled beauty of the grain.

Ted grew up in Greensboro’s historic Glenwood neighborhood, dreaming of playing in a rock band. “I’m a pure product of the hippie era,” he explains with a winsome grin, noting how he first taught himself to play guitar but soon switched to a Hammond B-3 organ. He eventually formed a band named Kallabash that toured the East Coast for more than a decade and backed up just about any R&B act you’d care to name at the legendary Castaways Club on Greensboro’s east side. You can still see them perform on YouTube.

“It was a blast, something inside me, something I always wanted to do,” he allows. “But after 10 years on the road, with a wife and two young kids, I decided I needed something a little more predictable and steady. I was always good at fixing things, taking them apart and putting them back together again. Especially wooden things.” His father, after all, the original Ted Keaton Senior, was a beloved “fixer” who worked for prominent families across the north side of the Gate City, repairing everything from stubborn doors to broken chairs. A classic, self-taught “touch-up” artist. That gift was “inside” his son as well.

Through friends, Ted the Rocker heard that St. Francis Episcopal Church might need a handyman and soon found a regular paying gig working for the late beloved rector of the church, the Rev. Roland Jones. “He passed on not long ago, a truly beloved gentleman,” Ted recalls fondly, explaining that the two shared an interest in woodworking. “I showed him picture frames and headboards I’d made, and he soon had me working all over the church, repairing and refinishing this or that. I loved the job. He made me the church’s ‘property manager,’ which was a fancy name for the simple jobs I did.”

It was Rev. Jones, he adds, who convinced him that his talents deserved a wider audience — or, as it were, customer base. “He encouraged me to open my own shop, which I did in 1979, on Battleground Avenue — across from the old Krispy Kreme store.”

Fortunately, Ted’s connections with parishioners at St. Francis Church brought him a ready supply of new customers with larger projects in mind — chests to be refinished, broken dowels replaced, family heirlooms of every sort to be restored or simply “refreshed a bit.” Prominent northside patrons like Ruth Wilcox, Joan Bluethenthal, and Joanne and Bill Craft spread the word about Keaton’s handiwork.

After three years on his own, Ted hired Jack Latham, who had honed his craft for years in Ohio, and relocated to a larger site on State Street owned by Greensboro realtor and antiques dealer Harry Adams. “That’s where I was able to add a real spray room, the part of the restoration process that really interested me most,” he says, noting the complex system of finishing that begins with color matching and proceeds to a sealer, glaze, additional sealer followed by four coats of lacquer and hand buffing to achieve the proper luster.

In 1982, Ted and Jack moved to their current storefront on North Church, formerly a laundromat that was ideal for the kind of hands-on shop the craftsmen needed. By then, oldest son Ted Junior was working part-time with his dad. After completing degrees in business from Liberty University in 1995 and a Master’s in theology two years later, Ted joined his father’s shop, taking over much of the hand-stripping and sanding process, freeing up his papa to concentrate on the refinish process he’s worked to an art.

In addition to a steady stream of customers who heard about their work by word-of-mouth, the Keatons have restored everything from a table that belonged to Stonewall Jackson to the counter at the International Civil Rights Museum. Following a terrible fi re at the L. Richardson Preyer Federal Building around the turn of the new millennium, the Keatons were hired to restore much of the woodwork of damaged tables and furniture. “I don’t think there’s a judge’s or lawyer’s table in that building we didn’t have our hands on,” Ted quips. “It was quite a job.”

These days, he adds, people who value antiques and well-made vintage furnishing are “furniture spoiled.”

By this he means, “Wonderful old pieces are really everywhere these days at consignment stores throughout the Triad — things you can pick up for almost nothing compared to their real value.” Part of this is due, Keaton notes, to an older generation passing along heirlooms and old furniture to children who don’t share their passion for antiques, or who simply have tastes that run toward more modern styles, eschewing wobbly chairs and worn-out hutches.

“On the other hand, it’s a great time to pick up great pieces if you’re into antiques. We’re always amazed at the beautiful old pieces people have picked up at auctions or consignment shops and bring to us to restore,” chips in Jack Latham. “But there’s also a lot of fake antiques out there now. The Brits and French in particular have become true artists at making furniture look old. The tipoff is that some of that is made too well,” he adds with a laugh. “Something won’t show any sign of age.”

“But whatever it is,” adds the Boss, “we’re happy to work on it and give it new life.”

A typical restoration of a chest or table can take anywhere from a week or 10 days to complete, as a rule. Ted Junior estimated that the chest of drawers that survived the flood in New Orleans, for instance, would require about 25 hours worth of work at a cost of anywhere from $600 to $700 dollars.

My granny Margaret’s old poster bed, by contrast, simply needed new hardware and perhaps a modest refinishing job — a bargain by any price, it seemed to me, already picturing it in our new guestroom for when the grown-up college girl and her Brooklyn boyfriend come to visit later this spring.

When he isn’t crafting stories, Jim Dodson spends his time restoring old gardens.

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