Though John Coffey has been working with wood since he first started repairing small wooden sailboats, it wasn't until he worked in an upholstery shop that he knew that he wanted to work with his hands. He had a brief desire to build guitars but after bouncing around in a number of trades—tent-making, piano repair and finally antique restoration—he found what would become his life long pursuit. The process of repairing antique furniture not only provided him the opportunity to learn 18th century cabinetmaking skills but has also put him in contact with countless examples of some of the finest wrought objects in the world. He also sees countless examples of poor repairs—lessons on what not to do! John has taken conservation classes at the Smithsonian Institute and at Dakota County Technical College (MN) with senior conservator at the Smithsonian, Donald C. Williams. He has assisted with the "Ten Thousand Springs Pavilion" exhibit for the Smithsonian Institute in both Washington, D.C. and when it was in Flushing, Queens, N.Y. Recently, John began teaching at the Connecticut Valley School of Woodworking. John holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Hobart College (NY).
The value of an antique is not just about its monetary worth. It has value in its function, in its beauty and in the history that it has captured not just at the time it was built, but over the years of use, acquiring the inevitable blemishes and damage while serving its function as a chair or table. Because most antique furniture is in use in the home and not in a museum, repairs often are a compromise between preserving original material and making a repair strong enough to fulfill its function. Yet, always there is an attempt to preserve, not just original material, but the marks that testify to its history and age.
When commissioned to make furniture, John uses traditional 18th century cabinetmaking techniques: hand-cut dovetails, mortise-and-tenon construction, and French polish for the finishing. He uses mostly domestic woods or woods harvested from sustainable forestries. He builds for those who know the difference between factory reproductions and traditional craft—and desire for something with value beyond today, but value to be enjoyed by future generations. The process usually begins with the owner's need for a particular form and sometimes the period from which to draw inspiration. Once those decisions have been made, John researches the period and form for examples which are well proportioned or have interesting elements which might be incorporated into an original design. From this research John will work up some sketches for approval. At this time a deposit is taken, a fully-fleshed out drawing is made and wood is selected. Traditional joinery insures that the wood is worked slowly so as to acclimate to the new shop environment so that when finally assembled, all the components are stable. Since wood selection is an important part of the design, rarely is the wood stained, rather, it is finished with a slightly amber shellac, applied in the traditional manner of French polish, giving the wood a luster and clarity unrivaled by other finishes.