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Issue Date: July 2002 Issue


Fix It


Linda Feagler

Your grandmother's antique phonograph, which has been sitting in a damp basement for 40 years, looks and sounds like it's destined for the scrap heap. That Lladro wedding-cake topper the caterer dropped on your big day a decade ago has been sadly relegated to a box on the bedroom-closet shelf.

There such items will likely remain until the tidal pull of a garage sale or spring cleaning causes you to let go of the memories and the keepsake.

But it doesn't have to be that way. Your family heirloom or precious antique can be brought back to life with the help of 10 Northeast Ohioans who are experts at fixing broken treasures. Some are private people, preferring to work solely by word-of-mouth. Others have businesses with names that are instantly recognizable. All are artists.

Think it can't be done? Read on.

Figuratively speaking

A chance encounter with Benjamin Franklin led Mabel Snider, then 26, to discover her knack for knickknack restoration. While helping her mother take out the trash, Snider spotted a tiny porcelain figure of the famous American statesman peeking out from among the tin cans and newspapers.

When she asked why it had been discarded, her mother explained that the left leg had broken off and couldn't be found. Snider retrieved the statue from the garbage can. First, she fashioned a new porcelain appendage. Then, she shaped, sanded and painted a buckled shoe, stocking and knickers to match its counterpart. Three weeks later, Snider presented the finished product to her mother.

"She said, ‘If I knew you had the other leg, I wouldn't have thrown it away,' " Snider recalls with a laugh.

That was all the incentive the Beachwood resident needed to hang out her Mabel's China Repair Shoppe shingle and get down to business. She spent an afternoon distributing 500 leaflets in Cleveland Heights mailboxes announcing her venture. When she returned home, the line of potential customers already stretched around her block.

That was 52 years ago.

Today, the grandmother of two repairs Lladros, Hummels and Norman Rockwells as well as porcelain, china and ceramic heirlooms from a workshop in the back bedroom of her home.

Snider's slogan, "Broke Your Figurine? Don't Panic. I Will Fix It," understates her talent, which leaves customers wondering how something smashed to smithereens could be made to look so out-of-the-box new again.

"Since I can't draw from scratch, I don't consider myself an artist. Actually, I'm more of a technician. What I can do is copy what's already in front of me, using the figurine or a picture of what it should look like as a model." "Since I can't draw from scratch, I don't consider myself an artist," Snider says. "Actually, I'm more of a technician. What I can do is copy what's already in front of me, using the figurine or a picture of what it should look like as a model. I also have an instinct for understanding what goes into creating color."

On this May afternoon, Snider's workshop tables are lined with a menagerie of porcelain dogs and china cats needing reconstructive surgery on tails and paws. A 3-foot-tall plaster-of-Paris Pinocchio needs a hand, which Snider will design to mirror the right one that's still intact.

Snider employs an eight-step process — which includes mixing a batch of her secret-formula bonding agents and porcelains, fashioning a metal frame to hold them and painstakingly applying epoxy as a protective coating — before pronouncing a piece finished. Her cache of tools resembles that of a dentist, the favorite implement being the minuscule Black & Decker drill her kids bought her for Mother's Day last year.

"The first step is getting everything to fit," Snider explains. "Although people think they have all the pieces when they bring something to me, they usually don't.

"But that doesn't scare me. I expect it."

When an item breaks, she adds, missing parts often fall to the floor and ricochet off baseboards. "I tell customers to look before vacuuming," she says.

Snider estimates that 95 percent of her business is based on sentimentality. Seniors who want to spruce up neglected heirlooms for grandchildren and distressed newlyweds who have broken a beloved family treasure rely on her to make it right.

Her most memorable assignment involved restoring three Kiddush cups for a Holocaust survivor. They had belonged to the customer's parents and were dropped by a careless housekeeping crew.

"Somehow, she managed to get them out of Poland," Snider recalls. "It bothered me that these cups, which had survived so many years, were broken."

There's no project too big for her to tackle — as long as it's no bigger than her dining-room table, where she places items for pickup. Her latest masterpiece is a foot-high limited-edition Lladro guardian angel that arrived in 32 pieces.

"The bigger the challenge, the better I like it," Snider says, "especially if someone brings me something and says, ‘I know you can't fix it but...' Wow. I want that job."

Call (216) 464-5821.

Piano Man

Bill Kap sells and services Yamaha electrics and Steinway baby grands. But to him, nothing compares to the splendor of hearing "The Old Piano Roll Blues" tinkling from a player piano — like the Baldwin in his showroom — manufactured in the instrument's heyday of the 1920s.

"You have to appreciate them," he says. "They're actually the earliest form of computer. When it comes down to it, the standardized music rolls are nothing more than computer printouts."

"I have an ear. I listen. I understand the mechanics. I know what it's gotta do." Kap, 71, has been buying and selling pianos in his East Cleveland store for more than 40 years. He got into the player-piano repair business out of demand. Today, for example, he fields a phone call from a Cleveland woman cleaning out her mother's house in Chicago. The family is debating whether the player piano in the basement is worth keeping.

"I told her to forget about it," Kap says. "By the time you total up the cost of shipping it up here and restoring it, you may be talking about thousands of dollars. It's really rolling the dice to take a chance."

It's advice Kap doles out often. Of the 300 or so player pianos he'll be asked to look at and listen to this year, he estimates that only one in 10 will be worth salvaging.

"Think about it. An 80-year-old piano is like an 80-year-old person," Kap reflects. "You don't know when it's going to die. As wood gets old, it dries out. The valve system that produces the tone loses compression. Everything you rebuild in a piano, you have to do 88 times [once for each key].

"Still, when you find one with potential and you've finished it and start pumping it and the whole thing comes alive with music ... well, it's a beautiful thing."

Kap's also an expert at restoring music boxes and nickelodeons. The massive Orchestrian he built from scratch, which resembles an upright piano but contains an accordion, drum, triangle, piano and tambourine, holds court in the corner of his showroom.

All this from a guy who can't play a note.

"I have an ear. I listen," Kap explains. "I understand the mechanics. I know what it's gotta do.

"It's like my brother — he rebuilt airplane engines, but he never flew a plane. Likewise, the pilot can't rebuild the engine.

"If you're a piano mechanic, you live and die it. That doesn't mean you have to be a pianist."

Bill Kap Pianos is located at 14130 Euclid Ave. Call (216) 541-6078.

Cloaked in history

As Sue Berry puts the finishing touch on a star and begins a stripe, the image of Betsy Ross, America's first flagmaker, comes to mind. Although Berry — former curator of the Western Reserve Historical Society's Chisholm Halle Costume Wing — has built her reputation around breathing new life into vintage garments, Sept. 11 has led to a surge of requests for flag repair. This morning, she's working on one that was carried in World War I, which she's restoring for the University Hospitals archivist. Made of silk, the flag needs to be patched and mounted on acid-free fabric. When that project is done, she'll add cotton batting to an 85-year-old American Red Cross flag.

Berry, who works out of her living-room studio in Little Italy with her bulldog boxer, Cosmo, for company, is intrigued by the story behind each project. Over in the corner is a 1920s flapper dress that needs to have its 500 beads shored up, a time-consuming task that involves at least 10 hours of hand-sewing. A teal taffeta party dress from the '50s, which Berry describes as "pure Mrs. Cleaver," requires a stitch or two under the left arm. Wedding season is in full swing, and Berry is helping sentimental brides-to-be tailor gowns worn by their mothers and grandmothers to suit their own taste.

"I'm really committed to preserving the integrity of garments I work on. Because the items are so fragile, you can't just grab a sewing machine and go to it. You have to be sensitive to every inch of fabric." "It's gratifying to know that through my work I'm helping families add to their history by prolonging the life of a garment so it can be worn again and again," Berry says.

Berry, 47, wasn't sure about her vocation after graduating from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1976 with a bachelor of fine arts in textiles and weaving. She found her niche during an internship at the historical society, sandwiching 19th-century petticoats in silk for safe storage and reattaching flowers to leghorn hats from the 1900s. Two years ago, she decided to leave the WRHS, opting to focus on building her own business.

To make a beaded chiffon dress from the 1920s virtually indestructible for a client who planned to wear it to a round of dances, Berry fashioned a liner that will support the garment's weight and keep it stable.

"I'm really committed to preserving the integrity of garments I work on," Berry says. "Because the items are so fragile, you can't just grab a sewing machine and go to it. You have to be sensitive to every inch of fabric. I believe in making all my repairs and changes reversible so the item can be returned to its original state. That means no discarding of material. I hem without cutting and leave large seams."

Placing a lace appliqué here, and making a nip and tuck there with silk thread as fine as a human hair, Berry camouflages 50-year-old food and perspiration stains that won't budge from a bridal gown. (She cites Regal Cleaners on Chagrin Boulevard as experts in spot removal. "If they can't get it out, no one can," she says.)

Clothing comes to Berry in all states of disrepair and deterioration. "Customers bring me things that have been in a barn or a box in the basement for years, that rodents have gnawed on. A lot of people give it to me in a garbage bag and say, ‘I'm sorry it's like this.' "

Berry balks at nothing.

She's transformed a christening dress, which resembled Swiss cheese after generations of mice lunched on it, into an heirloom the client's great-grandchild wore during baptism. (Berry used material from the hem and seams to cover the holes.) She's proud of the photo the family sent her of the original wearer — now 90 years old — bouncing his great-grandchild, clothed in the gown, on his knee.

"I'm here to make your dream come true," Berry says softly.

Call (216) 421-7934.

Time travel

Larry Albers is a clock-watcher. It started in 1955, when he and his wife Janet were vacationing in Quebec, Canada, and a glass carriage clock, circa 1870, caught his eye.

"Wouldn't you know, when we got it home it didn't work," Albers recalls. With timepiece in tow, the Cleveland resident made the rounds to three area clock-repair shops. No one knew the first thing about fixing it. Albers, a machinist at the time, decided to take a crack at the job. All that was required, he discovered, was a little fine-tuning on the striking mechanism.

"When it began to keep time properly, I felt like a million bucks," he says. "It was one of the greatest accomplishments of my life — and it's still ticking."

"The synchronization is fascinating. When you think that a clock represents years of development, that the mechanical features are so evolved that it knows when to accurately strike, you can't help but be amazed." Upon retirement in 1980, Albers opened The Clock Shop in Rocky River. Since then, the 85-year-old has repaired 15,691 of them, which he keeps track of via the number on the latest claim check. As cuckoo, grandfather, grandmother and mantel clocks strike in unison around him, Albers describes why time is of the essence to him.

"The synchronization is fascinating," he says. "When you think that a clock represents years of development, that the mechanical features are so evolved that it knows when to accurately strike, you can't help but be amazed."

Customers from as far away as Kentucky and Tennessee have shipped their heirlooms to him via UPS for repair. He's just restrung a Scottish grandfather clock from the 1840s. A kitchen mantel clock, built around 1870, needs a new spring. Albers, who still makes house calls, will travel to Bay Village to repair a leader on a grandfather-clock pendulum. He's also helped install timepieces in the Rocky River and Bay Village clocktowers.

"The fact that people rely on me is very flattering," he says.

Although their exteriors are as different as a Seiko wristwatch and Big Ben, Albers explains, the interior mechanics of most clocks are identical. Single-spring pieces keep time only, while two-spring drives strike the hour and half-hour. The three-spring, most often found in grandfather clocks, chimes every 15 minutes. To Albers, however, none is more impressive than the Swiss Atmos. Invented in 1928 by French engineer Jean-Leon Reutter, the clock literally runs on air. Inside a sealed capsule, a mixture of gas and liquid expands as the temperature rises and contracts as it falls, moving the capsule to and fro in a bellowslike motion. The movement constantly winds the mainspring, which enables the clock to keep perfect time.

"The beauty and intricacy of the Atmos has yet to be matched," Albers says.

The Clock Shop is located at 19142 Detroit Road. Call (440) 356-2880.

Toy land

Arthur Gilham's Rocky River shop is what Santa's would look like if it were geared toward adults. A bartender manufactured out of tin in the 1960s prepares to pour himself a drink. Flip the switch and he raises the glass to his lips. As he imbibes, his face turns red and smoke billows from his ears. A papier-mâché bulldog from the 1930s, which snarls when his chain is rattled, awaits a mechanical makeover.

Since 1969, Gilham, 68, has been called upon to repair antique toys ranging from an 18th-century puppet to a Punch and Judy bank from the 1930s.

The toy-repair business is a sideline to Gilham's true love, which is collecting and dealing in antique arms and armor. "People would bring broken guns for me to fix," the former Standard Oil of Ohio research technician says. "Then they'd bring me anything mechanical, including toys, that needed repair."

One afternoon five years ago, a customer brought Gilham one of the strangest things he'd ever seen: a 4-foot-tall electric doll smoking a cigarette. When operating properly, the head moved, the eyes rolled and the cigarette would be inhaled. Six months and 20 springs later, Gilham and his 45-year-old son, Arthur, had the Philip Morris bellboy — used by the tobacco company to promote its product at trade shows in the 1930s — back in business.

Next came a 16-inch-long cast-iron statue of a woman taking a horse-and-buggy ride. When it worked, she bopped up and down as the horse moved while, behind her, a stableboy waved his arm as he tried to catch up. Gilham easily replaced the mainspring. Several months later, while perusing a Sotheby's catalog, he noticed that a similar item had sold at auction for $85,000.

"They don't make toys like they used to," Gilham laments. "Some of the cast-iron and tin stuff I see is amazingly tough. So many toys are plastic these days, made to be thrown away." But, the great-grandfather of two adds, "I guess that's understandable given the fact that the old ones aren't particularly safe. There are too many sharp edges, as well as nuts and bolts that could come loose and be a choking hazard. Antique toys are definitely not playthings."

Gilham's Antiques & Restoration is located at 20234 Detroit Road. Call (440) 356-6366.

Picture perfect

She's been part of the team that conserved R.M.S. Titanic artifacts at France's prestigious LP3 lab. She helped the Cleveland Museum of Art retack the edges of Monet's "Water Lilies" on its frame.

So imagine what Beth Campano can do for your great-grandmother's still life. As president of Great Lakes Conservation, the Tremont resident has seen objets d'art at their worst: canvases that have fallen from a mantel perch and been impaled on fireplace pokers, paintings that Fido has put his paw through and canvases "retouched" with Magic Markers by a junior Rembrandt.

All, she says, are as precious as a Blue Period Picasso.

"For me, there's really no difference between working on an original Monet or someone's family heirloom done by an unknown artist," Campano says. "Each painting is treasured by its owner. My techniques at restoration are the same for both."

Campano, 32, earned her bachelor of science degree in the arts at New York's Skidmore College, and her master's at the State University of New York at Buffalo, before completing work in architecture and painting conservation at the Sorbonne and Cambridge University. She opened her own business two years ago.

Campano is most often called upon to clean works clouded by years of yellowing varnish.

"Almost all of the paintings people collect are varnished with resin," she explains. "Exposure to atmosphere, light, oxygen, tobacco and coal heating products makes the finish darken over time. It obscures the painting to a point where you can no longer appreciate it.

"My goal is to return it to the way the artist intended it to look."

She mixes modern synthetic varnishes made from organic materials with "minimal intervention." Tears and holes are fixed by filling in the area and color-matching it to the surrounding paint.

Campano says she believes in restoring beauty while preserving and conserving the original work.

"I make sure any restoration materials I use will last, but yet they can be removed in the future if need be," she says.

Recent jobs included freshening up a wood-paneled portrait by an artist from the school of Hans Holbein, dating back to the 1500s, and a turn-of-the-last-century landscape by Albert Horstmeier.

"People are amazed at what a little restoration can do," she says. "I tell clients never to put it off. They deserve to enjoy a painting the way it was meant to be."

Call (216) 621-4141.

Pièce de résistance

To Victor Lia and his son Louis, it's not just a passé oak pedestal table that was painted avocado green in 1969, or a mahogany dining room set from the 1940s that's seen better days. To Victor Lia & Son Refinishers, these pieces are works of art waiting to be reborn.

Victor Lia, a former Cleveland firefighter, has brought luster to furniture ever since he won national competitions in woodworking back in his high-school days at West Tech. Today, the 37-year-old family business, located in Brecksville, is on the lips of interior decorators and upscale stores, including Fish Furniture, when they're asked for a refinishing recommendation. Angie's List has also awarded them kudos for top-notch workmanship.

"When we do a job, I don't want people to say, ‘Yeah, it's refinished.' I want them to say, ‘Wow. This is great. How did you do it?'" "There's nothing more gratifying than getting something in here that's a mess and having it leave here looking beautiful," says Louis Lia, 37.

"When we do a job, I don't want people to say, ‘Yeah, it's refinished,' " adds 66-year-old Victor. "I want them to say, ‘Wow. This is great. How did you do it?' "

One of the perks of working in the business, father and son agree, is that they never know what the next job will entail. Take the five-piece French provincial bedroom set that a local moving company dropped 10 feet during storage. Headboard, triple dresser, twin nightstands and chest of drawers were delivered for repair looking like a giant jigsaw puzzle. In addition to wanting each piece fixed, the owners decided it was time to change the color from white to cherry mahogany.

"They were thrilled with the results," Victor remembers. "The only way I could prove to them that it was the same set was by showing them the manufacturer's seal on the back of each piece."

The duo has also risen to the tasks of restoring a Drexel Heritage china cabinet — half of which was burned away in a house fire — and fashioning an intricately carved footboard to replace one the owners lost during a transfer here from China. Louis points with pride to the letter those folks wrote praising the men for helping to "put their life back together."

"When your name is on your business," Victor says, "you have to stand behind your work and be proud of it."

Victor Lia & Son Refinishers is located at 6530 Old Royalton Road in Brecksville. Call (440) 838-4210.

Drive my car

One day, he's tooling around in a candy-apple-red 1966 Mustang. The next afternoon, he's test-driving a cobalt-blue 1995 Lamborghini. As president of Autowerkes in Broadview Heights, David Polson's interest in classic cars is fueled every day. Polson, 43, services and restores automobiles for high-profile clients, including the Western Reserve Historical Society's Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum. (He got the Crawford's prototype of the 1932 Peerless up and running by refurbishing the auto's cosmetic detailing — from paint to upholstery — and upgrading its hydraulic brake system.) Polson also stores a range of classy chassis, including Ferraris, Jaguars and Porsches.

"I've saved many a marriage," he says with a laugh. "Wives no longer have to park outside in the winter so that the garage can be reserved for their husband's hobby."

Polson remembers tinkering with his first car "as an infant," dismantling and reassembling his father's Ford Country Squire station wagon.

"I was always under a deadline," he says. "I had to put it together again in time for my dad to go to work." Over the years, he's rescued a 1929 Model A pickup from the woods of rural Pennsylvania and refurbished a 1939 Buick Roadmaster convertible to family-heirloom status. Chrome, he says, is the hardest item to restore because it deteriorates rapidly over time.

"We think of old cars as being clunkers, but the ingenuity in manufacturing back then was superb," Polson notes. "Auto manufacturers were experts at making interchangeable parts — a concept that's making a comeback."

Right now, he's working on a 1953 Buick Woody Roadmaster station wagon. "The car represents a marriage between wood and steel," he says. "It's a challenge to restore; the car was thrown together on the assembly line and not meant to last 30, 40 or 50 years."

But when he's finished, it will.

Call (440) 838-1812.

Out, out, damn spot

After Sears carpet-cleaning technicians mistakenly moved two cherry armchairs around on a still-damp carpet, leaving 20 rose-colored squares behind, they called Allen Barb to fix the mess. Using a freshly mixed batch of one of his 30 special potions, Barb made the spots disappear from the carpeting in 45 minutes.

The 44-year-old Broadview Heights resident, sole proprietor of Kleen-Brite Systems carpet dyeing and restoration company, got into the business 12 years ago purely by happenstance. A cable-TV salesman living in Southern California, Barb returned to Cleveland to care for his ailing father and help manage his dad's small carpet-cleaning enterprise.

"I'd go out on jobs and see rust stains, bleach stains, places where the sun would shine through draperies and the combination of ultraviolet light and heat had left a zigzag pattern," Barb recounts. "I called every single large carpet-cleaning company I could think of and asked if they could solve these problems. They said it couldn't be done, that the carpet had to be replaced."

Barb thought there had to be a better way. He remembered lessons he'd learned during his art and chemistry classes at Cleveland State University. He practiced mixing just the right amount of red, blue and yellow pigments to create a palette to match virtually any rug. "Carpet dealers will tell you that dye jobs do not last because they want you to buy new," he says. "But that's not true. It's all in the chemicals and application techniques used."

Through trial and error, he discovered how to combine sodium with other elements to break down the composition of stains ranging from Kool-Aid to nail polish.

In Barb's experience, there's been only one spot he can't eliminate: the one caused by fertilizer that has splattered when potted houseplants are watered. To lighten the stain, he applies a layer or two of a bleaching compound. When all else fails, Barb will do a patch job by using carpeting concealed under a couch or in a closet and dye it, if need be, to match.

"When I finish, it's not only right, it's perfect," he says.

Call (216) 631-4499.

Everything Edison

To Don Gfell, Thomas Edison is not only a hero — he's also a lifelong hobby. Gfell, proprietor of Sights & Sounds of Edison in Milan, collects everything having to do with the American inventor, from his incandescent light bulbs, which date back to 1879, to advertisements for the first motion-picture camera, circa 1891.

But a glance around his antiques shop reveals that, without a doubt, his favorite memorabilia is the windup Edison phonograph — the great-grandfather of Sony, Bose, Kenwood, Pioneer and Panasonic — that was invented 125 years ago. They're everywhere: from 1880s tin-horned, table-sized machines made to play cylinders to floor consoles from the '20s encased in English oak cabinets roomy enough to store disc records.

The ones that don't work won't stay that way for long.

"I'm a lot like Edison," Gfell says with a laugh. "I love spending time in my shop."

A former physics teacher at Roosevelt High School in Kent, who later served as Milan schools superintendent, Gfell, 60, credits Edison with leading him to his life's vocations. It all started in sixth grade when he chose Edison as the subject of a history report and began keeping a scrapbook on the inventor's accomplishments. Soon, he was hooked.

"Like me, Edison grew up in Milan," Gfell observes. "So there was a natural connection there."

And, like Edison, Gfell enjoyed tinkering with electronic gadgets — so much so that he double-majored in mathematics and physics at Bowling Green State University.

Throughout his teaching career, Gfell repaired Edison phonos purely for stress relief. But after retiring from public education in 1995, he began pursuing his passion full time. As word of his skill spread via the curators at the Thomas Alva Edison Birthplace Museum, phonograph owners began bringing their relics to him. He branched out, becoming an expert at fixing all makes of antique phonographs, Victor and Columbia included.

Some of his projects simply need a new spring, needle or maybe a wooden horn, which he fashions out of oak. Others require more extensive attention.

"The worst Edison machine I've ever seen had been in a house fire in Columbus," Gfell recalls. "When the firemen came to put out the blaze, they tossed it out the window. Smashed and burned, it needed 100 percent restoration."

At first, Gfell refused to take the job. But the customer was persistent. "You don't understand," Gfell remembers the man pleading. "My grandfather traveled by horse and buggy into eastern Pennsylvania to purchase this machine. It's really the only family heirloom we have left. You're the only person who can help me with this."

Gfell and his son-in-law, Tim Spurrier, replaced the charred cabinetry, reproducing the polygon pattern on the lid and hinged drawer. They outfitted the machine with parts, including a turntable and crank.

Six months later, it looked like new.

"There are no shortcuts in my work. My goal is to make a respectable piece no matter how long it takes. It's really a labor of love." "So many of the people who own these machines are in their 80s," he says. "There's nothing more pleasing to them than to hear some of those songs that meant so much to them."

Still a teacher at heart, Gfell shares historical tidbits about Edison's perfectionism in invention: how he handpicked the artists chosen to record for his company and would, when a new record came out, get an audience together to take the "Is it real or is it Edison?" test. Gfell explains how the Victor Talking Machine Co. — later called RCA — battled for market share in the early 1900s, forcing Edison to replace cylindrical recordings, which had better sound quality, with flat discs that were cheaper to make. Not many people, he notes, realize that the phonograph featured in the famous painting of Nipper the dog listening to "his master's voice" is really an Edison. (Although the ad was for Victor, the company did not make a recorder for home use at that time. Edison did.)

"There are no shortcuts in my work," Gfell says as he begins repainting red roses on a blue horn. "My goal is to make a respectable piece no matter how long it takes. It's really a labor of love."

Bobbie Gfell, his wife of 40 years, agrees. And, she adds, "he grossly undercharges."

The Sights & Sounds of Edison is located at 21 S. Main St. in Milan. Call (419) 499-3093.


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