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Master woodwright restores history

Chris Trimble, owner of Trimble Tavern, displays a Revolutionary War era musket.

Story and photos by Renss Greene

Eastern Virginia and the Northern Neck are steeped in history and it would be hard to find a person more intimately acquainted with some of that history than Chris Trimble.

Owner of Trimble Tavern in White Stone, he has been selling and restoring antiques since 1978, specializing in 18th and 19th century furniture and weapons. Trimble opened his first shop on Main Street in Suffolk in 1987, and hung his shingle in White Stone in 2005.

His restorations are nearly impossible to detect, and his original furniture is difficult to distinguish from actual 18th and 19th century pieces. In fact, he’s had to start marking his own pieces to distinguish them from 18th century historic pieces.

“I was making 18th century furniture, and I was aging it and making it look old, I wasn’t marking it, and I was selling it for contemporary prices,” Trimble said. “And then people were buying it, turning around and selling it as the real thing. So I kind of had to nip that in the bud by putting my mark on everything. But it was funny, because people were selling my stuff as the original 18th century stuff, not as a reproduction.”

Keeping history alive is a family tradition for the Trimbles. His brother and mother operate Lewis Trimble Decorative Arts and Antiques in Kilmarnock. His father owned the Trimble Collection in Williamsburg, and his grandfather owned Auslew Gallery in Norfolk, both specializing in historic art.

“We all enjoy doing that,” Trimble said. “Taking something and making it into something that’s worth something, that otherwise would be probably overlooked or misplaced.”

Trimble began restoring antiques at an early age, beginning with oil paintings at his father’s gallery.

“The very first painting I did was back when I was a little kid, and it scared the hell out of me because I was afraid I was going to damage it,” Trimble said. “But it worked out okay.”
His lifelong interest in antiques naturally led him to restoration.

A 1781 Grasshopper cannon, used by militias in the American Revolution.

“Since I’ve been doing antiques, it was kind of second nature to fix them,” Trimble said. “Buy broken ones and fix them and put it out. You just learn over time.”

Over that time, he has become a respected authority on historic furniture and a master craftsman.

“You could buy something at a reasonable price, fix it up, and you could get full retail for it,” Trimble said. “I got to the point where I was really good, I’m considered a master woodwright.”

He builds his own pieces from scratch using the same styles and techniques as 18th century craftsmen, and takes pride in the painstaking accuracy of his originals and restorations. Minute details can make a big difference in the accuracy of a piece, he said. Knowing the history of a piece gives vital information for the restoration.

He gave the example of a chair he is currently restoring.

“If parts are missing off of it, and you know it’s a South Carolina chair, you know what parts to put on, in comparison to doing a repair that looked like the same chair from New England,” Trimble explained. “That’s why museums bring me things to be restored, because they know that I do the little details and do the little details right.”

“I’m a big history nut, and even furniture has got its own history,” he added. “We strive in the areas that we work in to know more than our clients.”

Trimble’s restored pieces don’t look new; they look like the 200-year-old historic pieces they are. He draws that distinction between repair and restoration.

“We actually don’t do furniture repair, we do restoration,” he explained. “The terms are totally different. You want something repaired, that’s so you can use it every day. What we’re trying to do is, if something comes in with a crack, we put it together. We do it so it won’t happen again, and blend it so it doesn’t look like it ever happened, trying to bring it back to the original glory.”

This Chippendale bureau was built by famous Williamsburg cabinetmaker Peter Scott in the 18th century.

“We didn’t want to over-restore it,” he said. “The worst thing you can do, a lot of times, is to fix all the little problems, because then you take away the character of the piece. It’s the major problems you fix.”

Sometimes finding historically accurate materials proves challenging. The American landscape has changed drastically since the 18th century.

“Sometimes, I’ll buy other old pieces of furniture that are just too far gone just to get the certain types of woods,” Trimble said.

He gave an example: “Heart pine is a hard one. Heart pine was harvested out in the 1890s, over 120 years ago. That was the end of the heart pine. They were over harvested. Most of it came from here, Lancaster County.”

The business of restoring antiques in the modern day brings a balance between centuries-old techniques and modern technology. In some cases, he uses modern power tools to recreate historic techniques.

“Here I can use modern equipment and so forth to cut corners, but not quality-cutting corners,” Trimble said. “It’s just time saving.”

All the construction techniques are the same, he added.

“You don’t have to lose quality when you use power tools,” Trimble said. “A lot of people say, ‘Well, if you use power tools and modern equipment, it’s not the same quality as in the 18th century.’ It just saves time, that’s all it is.

“Sometimes the best jobs, though, still rely on the old techniques and old equipment to do it.”

posted 03.20.2014

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