By Richard Payerchin, The Morning Journal
The chair maker and friends are ready for a renaissance.
Chair maker Garrett Aston is going into his eighth year building and rebuilding furniture in The Chairmaker and Friends, his store at 5629 Liberty Ave. in Vermilion.
The friends are a new team nurturing the business while Aston works with wood in the back.
Kathleen Schoene is the business administrator while Janet Hannaway works with decorating and hunting down old furnishings ready for new uses. Apprentice and designer Kelly Walker brings twentysomething perspectives and skills in computer aided design.
“What I think is really interesting is, we each have different strengths,” Schoene said.
“We kind of feed off of one other,” Aston said. “I think that’s what works.”
MEET THE CHAIR MAKER
Aston, 63, a native of Lakewood, first worked with wood as a boy with his grandfather. But It was 1996 when he realized he did not want to continue his day job.
His wife, Karen Ann, was understanding.
“I said, I want to be a chairmaker. She said, go be a chairmaker,” he recalled.
Aston learned the trade at the Windsor Institute workshop in New Hampshire, where chair maker Mike Dunbar conducted a series of courses to teach participants how to build the seats in their home workshops.
Aston set up shop for seven years in Seville, then moved to Vermilion.
“I came here really to be an artisan,” Aston said.
The Windsor chairs remain his specialty.
“We make the chairs in the same way they did in the 1700s and 1800s,” Aston said. “Honestly, I would love to be making chairs all day long.”
He admits to using an electric-powered lathe to shape legs, but he uses handheld calipers to measure them.
“Everything else is done using an adze or using a spoke shave or using the drawing knife,” Aston said, referring to his carving tools.
With their interlocked wood pieces, Windsor chairs don’t necessarily need nails or adhesives to hold together, but Aston glues the parts to reassure customers.
He leaves some tool marks in the wood.
“It’s rough, but that’s what we want,” Aston said. “We want it to age as if it was a chair made in the 1700s.”
TAKING A BREAK
The Chairmaker and Friends went on hold starting in April 2015, when Aston’s wife, Karen Ann, was in a car crash. She has since recovered, but Aston described how the incident caused him to reflect on the future of the shop.
The couple do not have many family members living nearby, so they rely on each other, Aston said, and he credited his wife as the strength in their relationship.
“I took that much harder than I think most husbands would,” Aston said. “When that happened, I really didn’t care about the store. I just was concerned about her and trying to get her better.”
After April 2015, Aston admitted there were times he worked shortened days or stayed in the back of the store, where the woodworking happens. Other merchants in town noticed, he said.
But the Chairmaker and Friends gained the new friends last year.
Ideally, Aston could start a Windsor chair with wood on Monday and have it ready to sit in by Friday.
“That’s never the case,” Aston said, because of the daily tasks such as calling customers and suppliers, keeping track of finances, managing the store’s online presence or simply figuring out which project is due next. “That’s why I need Janet and I need Kathleen.”
ADDING TO THE CAST
Schoene went to school in Fairview Park and her husband, Jim, is an alumnus of Lorain Admiral King High School.
When the couple moved out west, Schoene recalled they said they would never come back. Eventually they returned to northern Ohio from Washington state to help family members, and they settled in Vermilion.
“When we were here, we saw, oh, so many cool things that have occurred,” Schoene said about the town.
“They came in and saw a table that I had made,” from wood dating from the early 1800s, Aston said. “They saw it and had to have it for their new home. That started a friendship.”
In May last year, Hannaway moved up to Vermilion from Westerville when her husband transferred north in his job.
She made her career in law firm administration consulting, but worked with gardening, flowers and decorating on the side.
Hannaway began visiting the store as well, looking at pieces and bringing in fabric.
“Every time I came in here it was, like, 2 ½ hours before I got out, but I had such a great time,” she said.
Aston asked if she was a decorator.
“I said no, but I love to decorate, so we just kind of kept talking and kind of decided it might be a great fit for both of us,” Hannaway said. “So I’m just thrilled to be here and having a ball.”
NEW SPACES INSIDE
The friends are making the space in the store for their business plans.
From Liberty Avenue, there is a display window that Hannaway decorates. The front door opens into a showroom with a counter.
“We try not to have anything in here that he didn’t make or re-cover,” Hannaway said about the chairs, tables, shelves and lamps there.
A back room will become an office area.
The Chairmaker and Friends has planned monthly craft classes for the winter. Aston hopes the classes and conversations take on the energetic vibe of the Arabica coffee shop on Shaker Square when he and his wife frequented Shaker Heights in the 1980s.
In the workshop, Aston and Walker keep hundreds of tools, patterns, paint cans and wood.
Windsor chairs sit in various stages of creation, along with other projects.
A battered wooden boat hatch cover will become a table for a customer who found the piece floating off Key West.
Another tabletop for a boat has a compass rose inlaid into the wood. Another table will get a decoupage top with a chart of the Great Lakes, while a chair will be restored to become the new favorite sitting place for a couple’s cat.
“So we do a lot of crazy things,” Aston said. “That’s what’s kind of nice about this. We never do the same thing day in, day out. We’re always doing something different.”
“You never know what’s going to walk in the front,” Hannaway said.