Upholding his end
Friday, August 23, 2013
Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a new monthly series called Artist Spotlight. With an abundance of artists in the area, we felt it necessary to showcase their work to our readers. If you would like your work or someone else’s highlighted as part of this series, email Editor Erin Place at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Merrimack’s Michael Demanche has a quick explanation when a shopper at his occasional yard sales is shocked to see perhaps a dozen or more pairs of heavy-
duty scissors, some nearly a foot in length.
He says they are perfectly fine scissors for use around the house. He has more demanding needs when it comes to scissors, as he is the owner for “a gazillion years” of Demanche Upholstery. The scissors Demanche uses need a razor edge for cutting through multiple layers of fabric, vinyl or leather. Those that have lost their bite find their way to the public.
His tools of the trade include scissors, electric foam cutters, a vintage Singer sewing machine, a glue bottle with a spray nozzle, a steamer with a long cord, pliers, screwdrivers and other implements including a slender, brass-headed hammer with a magnet embedded in the recessed tip. He has owned the hammer since the 1960s.
Demanche, a Vietnam-era veteran of the Army, is old school when it comes to using small metal tacks to secure a piece of fabric onto the frame of a chair undergoing an upholstery job. He deftly pops a handful of the tacks into his mouth. He positions the pointy cluster of perhaps 20 or more tacks by rolling them with his tongue into an orderly line. Then, he touches the hammer to his lips and allows one tack to adhere to the magnet on the end of the hammer. A smooth move it is from lips to hammer to a light tap that drives the tack into the chair frame.
“They come sterilized,” Demanche said of the tacks. “It takes a long time to be able to do tack work smoothly and quickly. Imagine if I had to pick up each one by hand and hold it while I tapped it in with the hammer.”
He finishes a row of tacks. Then, he calls across the room and asks his dad, Willie D. Demanche, 86, to hand him the skeleton of a living room chair in need of a new seat. Willie has just inspected the chair for damage and stripped it of its old fabric and nails. Willie, a World War II Navy veteran who retired after 20 years with Sears, frequently assists Michael with the prep work that enables Michael to use his skills for completion of the project at hand.
“If I don’t take it apart, Mike has to and that takes up his time,” Willie said as he peeled off a layer of cloth from the bottom of the time-ravaged chair.
Michael Demanche continues his work on a rocking chair in for replacement of a seat cushion and a padded backrest. He pulls on the webbing that will support the new seat cushion. The webbing is comprised of ribbons of fibrous jute set in a criss-cross pattern within the frame of the seat. This webbing passes Michael’s stress test.
“If I can rip it with my hand, it needs to be replaced,” he said. “Jute is a strong material. Sometimes, it’s perfectly fine. This time, I just need to make a new cushion.”
Michael Demanche’s first upholstery work was done at a shop in Nashua. He was a kid then and worked there during high school.
A stint in the Army interrupted his apprenticeship with mentor Mike Dell Isola. The expert eventually retired and in 1980, Michael became the shop’s new owner. He relocated the shop to Merrimack some 15 years ago.
“It was a high school job that turned out to be a career,” Michael said. “Who knew? I learned the old-fashioned way. It was repetition. It was learning all the techniques over and over.”
He said there are a million things to know – tieing springs, putting tension on springs, measuring, cutting, sewing, gluing and adding the decorative touches that include covered buttons and welting, a trim comprised of a thick length of rounded cord covered with fabric. He said some people refer to welting as “cording.” Incorrect, he adds.
“Chairs from the ’20s, ’30s, ’40s – they all had hand-tied springs,” Michael said. “If you buy a chair today and it has hand-tied springs, you know it’s a better chair.”
His mastery of all the techniques he uses on a daily basis is not only a pride but an economic no-brainer.
Upholstery leather can cost around $10 per foot. Top-grain cowhide is the best to use for a luxurious feel and finish when dealing with leather coverings. A full hide of top-grain cowhide can cost around $500.
He talks as he finishes the chair cushion. Now, he pulls a length of eight feet from a 300-yard roll of nylon zipper. The job at hand soon will be another job well done.
“When it comes to furniture, I’ve pretty much seen it all,” Michael Demanche said. “After 45-plus years, I’m a master craftsman but sometimes a lightbulb goes off and you find a way to do something better.”
He often makes his own patterns. A skirt around the base of a chair cover, a slipcover, a kick-pleat, a cushioned backrest – none present obstacles. He takes requests for reupholstery of classic chairs, covered valances, office chairs, padded examination tables and cushions for campers and boats. Custom-made headboards have received rave reviews.
Michael and his wife, Donna, are parents of three grown girls and grandparents to four. Donna pauses to chat as she departs on a round of errands. She is leaving as Michael is accepting a new project, the delivery of a couch in need of attention. He will give it a new lease on life in the comfortable workspace that is his shop on the ground level of his Merrimack home. The house a tree-shaded domicile for Michael and Donna. Michael’s dad and helper, Willie, and Michael’s mom, Claudette, also share quarters in the spacious house.
The new job is a wreck; the couch a ragged mess. The edge of the cushions are tattered. The fabric lining on the underside of the piece shows a thatch of dog hair.
Michael Demanche knows with one look that the cushions have been well gummed by a dog – a pet with sharp teeth. He’s seen worse. He goes to work.
“Whatever the issue is, you just take care of it,” Michael said. “Dogs are great for business.”
For more information on Demanche Upholstery, located on Meetinghouse Road in Merrimack, call 429-2180 or visit www.