Kirstenhof couple makes ‘old’ look good

Hugh and Verna Lane established their antique restoration business from their Kirstenhof home in 1989 and have not looked back since.

Hugh, 59, got involved with antique restoration through his brother, Frank, who was a dealer in cottage furniture at the time.

“My brother said he needed French polishers, and that’s how I started,” he says.

Cottage furniture is also known as Cape furniture and is made of oregon pine or oak.

Before Hugh started out in the antique restoration business, he did various things, such as working as a chef and prospecting for mining. “It’s the first time I’ve stuck at something,” he says. “I’ve always fiddled with wood since I can remember. It was go-karts and tree houses.”

Verna, 52, a fine-arts graduate, sold and designed clothing before getting into antique restoration in 2000.

What she enjoys most about it is bringing life back into something and “keeping things alive”.

The couple say the business has allowed them to work from home with their daughters, Sarah, 19, and Robyn, 23, around them.

They specialise in French polishing, veneers, and marquetry with most of their clients being private customers.

French polishing, is a wood-finishing method that gives the wood a shiny finish that’s rich in colour. Veneers refer to a thin slice of often very rare wood, that’s glued to the outside of a wooded object giving it its aesthetic appeal. Marquetry is when veneers are cut into various shapes.

Hugh was doing handyman work at the time and wanted to learn as much as he could about French polishing, so off he went to the library.

“I actually started at Wynberg library because I didn’t know what French polishing was. I sat there with a notebook,” he says.

There was a shortage of people with the skill and soon the information he’d gleaned from library books was landing him work at various small shops. ”Then I got a break in Stellenbosch while trying to sell Verna’s clothes one day.”

Hugh met Vivenne Pieber, who owned Wayne’s Antiques in Stellenbosch. “I went in and I showed her a little plank that I had French polished, and she liked it, and she said to me, ‘Can you do this?’ And she showed me a walnut table, and I said, ‘Yes I can’. I had no idea,” he said. “I took it home and just did what I could do.

“I brought it back at the end of the week really nervous, and she loved it.”

Vivienne introduced Hugh to another woman who gave him a short but life-changing course in antique restoration. “This lady taught me for a week, with a short course and turned my life on its head,” he said, describing how he had learnt all about veneers and how to repair them.

Working with antiques was a natural progression for Verna who has always loved working with her hands. “I studied fine art, so I’ve always been that way inclined,” she says. Hugh does more of the construction work, while Verna gets stuck in to the intricate detail.

One of the potential pitfalls in the business, say the couple, is underestimating the scale of a project.

“Something can appear a superficial problem, and the more you start fixing a piece the more you realise there’s trouble that hasn’t been noticed.

“We’re not going to leave a piece undone, so we eventually do double the work than we originally thought,” says Verna. “The client doesn’t always know all the internal stuff you’ve done.”

Some of the most rewarding pieces they’ve restored are ones that have a lot of sentimental value for the customer. “Some don’t have a lot of value, but have a lot of sentimental value, those are the nicest ones to do,” Hugh says. “There was a tannie who had an English piece of furniture that her granny had, and she wanted it in a certain manner. I did it, and I got it as best I could.

“I took it back, and she burst into tears when she saw it. That’s the biggest reaction I’ve ever had, because it was exactly how her granny had it.”