Master woodworker Bobby Franks has been the proprietor of Uptown Restoration for 35 years, a position that’s made this man a beloved figure in antique-loving New Orleans. After Hurricane Katrina, Franks volunteered to give advice to flood victims on how — or if — they could restore storm-damaged antiques. Later, Franks led several seminars on proper restoration and finishing for the Preservation Resource Center of New Orleans.
“Antique furniture is a part of our heritage that must be preserved, and I love doing my part,” Franks says. “There’s always something different and interesting to work on.”
“We combine Old and New World techniques,” says Franks, who regularly reads periodicals to keep abreast of innovations in restoration. “Anything
pre-1900 always has an interesting finishing technique.”
Dedication to authenticity is evident in much of Franks’ work.
“We make our own shellac for French polishing,” Franks says. “There’s an art to putting it down.”
To create his own special blend of shellac, Franks dissolves shellac flakes in denatured alcohol — the specific ratio gives Franks’ blends a unique texture and viscosity. After the right qualities in the shellac are achieved, the French polish process begins: Shellac is applied in a single coat with a lint-free cloth; after it dries, the piece is sanded or smoothed with steel wool. This process is repeated over and over until the desired finish is achieved.
To restore an antique dining table, for example, with French polishing, the polishing alone can take 15 hours. “It’s time-consuming, but it’s an unbelievably beautiful finish,” Franks says.
Painstaking restoration of items with details such as carving, caning, rushing and gilding is lengthy, too. Franks says every piece is different, but most items take two to three months for complete restoration.
Although antique restoration is certainly hard work, Franks says: “New Orleans’ people have always revered and treasured their antique furniture as a part of their history and heritage, and I love being a part of that culture. What would New Orleans be without antique furniture? What
else would people furnish their historic homes with?”
Franks is certain that in a city such as New Orleans, where reverence for the past is almost a citizen requirement, antique restoration solidifies the history of a time and place. It ensures, Franks says, that a person can physically hold an object and wonder what stories the object could tell.
“Woodworking has always been a passion,” says Franks, whose father, a radiologist with a woodworking hobby, introduced him to the craft. “I was born and raised in North Louisiana, and my father taught me when I was young. I can’t imagine working on anything else. It is always different and always a challenge. It’s like performance art; I love to see the transformation and of course the reaction of the client when he sees it.”
It seems Franks’ love of his craft is ingrained in his nature.