Family Upholstery Apprenticeship

A family apprenticeship

Production upholstery may have all but disappeared in New Zealand in the face of competition from low-cost manufacturers in Asia. But, as Michael Smith reports, small-scale recovery/antique/bespoke businesses are thriving. And none more so than a Christchurch operation where a grandfather is teaching traditional skills to his apprenticed grandson.

Upholsterer Maury Combe started in the trade at age 14 with furniture makers and restorers K.T. Marriott in Christchurch, completing his apprenticeship in 1957. “I was taught everything from woodwork to sewing, which included household re-covering, antique and modern, loose covers, squabs, repairs, restoration and re-polishing woodwork.”

He experienced the manufacturing side early in his working life, but that was never enough of a challenge compared with “bringing furniture back to life”.

“In the late 1950s I was involved in chrome furniture upholstery/manufacturing, but moved on to start a business from home in 1964 and later had a factory for many years. I tried to semi-retire at age 60, but soon found that customers kept looking for me so I just continued working from home. I have never advertised for work and never been out of work.”

A family apprenticeship

Apprentice Ben Nelson with his grandfather, Maury Combe (right), and Competenz-contracted assessor John Abraham (left).

Viable option

With over 60 years’ experience in the industry Maury is eminently qualified to comment on the current state of play. He is encouraged that upholstery is still a viable small business option where skilled and innovative people can adapt and react quickly to changing market needs.

Ironically, he is finding much of his repair work derives from shoddy imported furniture – from broken frames to inadequate springing and webbing. He adds that “people are still prepared to spend on re-covering to get the colour and design they want. And there is a trend towards more antique and retro work with younger customers, as well as different colours on chairs and couches instead of matching suites.”

Maury says the problem now is finding enough competent and experienced tradespeople to train budding apprentices. “Just making new furniture in a factory situation is not adequate in terms of time or expertise to teach the complete job. They’re only handling part of the job … training is needed in deconstructing and repairing, and cutting a job from measurements, not factory patterns.

“I was lucky as all the tradesmen I learnt from were senior craftsmen who were able to pass on their skills, but there are very few left now who can do this.”

Late 1800s gilt decorative chair: stripped, resprung and reupholstered with stud trim.

Late 1800s gilt decorative chair: stripped, resprung and reupholstered with stud trim.

Family ties

And with that in mind Maury was pleased to see his grandson, Ben Nelson, showing an interest in the trade from an early age – in much the same way that Maury grew up, watching an elderly upholsterer at work in his neighbourhood.

Ben talks of being in the workshop at least two days a week from the time he could walk. “I can still remember the first thing I upholstered was when I was six or seven. They had just cut a tree down at my school so I grabbed one of the short logs and made a footstool out of it.

“Once I was in high school my grandmother said I could go down to the workshop for a couple of hours after school to earn some money. That was when I realised I actually enjoyed upholstery and wanted to keep doing it.”

Now nearly a year into his upholstery apprenticeship, which he began at age 16, Ben is confident that upholstery is a realistic and satisfying career choice – knowing that his grandfather has been running a successful business for some 50 years. He likes the idea of eventually working in and running a bigger workshop because of the constant influx of work and their excellent base of repeat customers. But he acknowledges that finding workers/apprentices could be a problem.

Strong connection

Maury says their teaching relationship is based on mutual respect and honest communication – “talking about jobs openly, trusting he can do a job and not looking over his shoulder all the time. I teach on whatever happens to be in the workshop that week, so Ben is doing some things that wouldn’t be expected for assessment for maybe another year.

“It’s hands-on learning in a stimulating environment, talking to and advising customers, and discussing the best way to tackle projects. It makes the student think things out and would be nigh on impossible to successfully teach if you kept to a strict curriculum … things just don’t work that way.”

Ben adds that their family connection is the basis of a strong working relationship and that his grandfather’s teaching methods give him the confidence and the skills to put forward his own ideas.

Apprentice Ben Nelson is expected to finish his apprenticeship in three to three-and-a-half years, and is already well up with passing the necessary units. For further information on upholstery manufacturing/furniture making/finishing (polishing) apprenticeships, please see the furniture page at competenz.org.nz

Early 1900s walnut frame chair: completely stripped and repaired coil springs and webbing; traditionally deep buttoned and upholstered with a gimp trim; woodwork rubbed with a wax – all done by Ben nine months into his training.SAM_0232SIZEDEarly 1900s walnut frame chair: completely stripped and repaired coil springs and webbing; traditionally deep buttoned and upholstered with a gimp trim; woodwork rubbed with a wax – all done by Ben nine months into his training. 

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