In recovering upholstered treasures, Rick Kidwell finds satisfaction in place of glamour
Rick Kidwell’s hands are almost solely the ones that do all of the upholstery work at his shop. Over the 10 years that he’s been operating Kidwell Upholstery, Rick Kidwell has pulled covers off and put them back on some very interesting things, including antique furniture, classic car seats and some things that aren’t fancy but important enough that customers want them restored. He is 53 years old, has one employee who works in the shop and his wife, Beverly, works at a local bank and keeps the books for the business. Here’s his story:
“Stress? Yeah, there’s a lot of stress in it. You think a lot about what you have to do the next day when you go to bed. It’s important to get a job out when you tell people you will. Sometimes you’ve got to call and say you’re behind.
“My wife and I always talk about our day. She lets me know that you can only do so much in a day.
“This started as a hobby. I did floor covering for 31 years, but I had knee and back problems. I did (upholstery) in my garage at home and it got out of control, so I told my wife I couldn’t do floor covering anymore. Then we bought this building and opened up shop 10 years ago. We’ve been very fortunate. I can’t explain it.
“I was getting jobs, I started doing automotive. There were a couple of car dealers that brought their cars over and wanted them redone. It got to be more and more and it seemed my garage was full with stuff to do. I like the satisfaction of taking something old and making it new again.
“We do boats, cars, furniture and awnings. A buddy of mine’s dad was an upholsterer and we hung around his shop. I bought a machine and started doing it. Whether it’s a boat, car or furniture, it goes together pretty much the same way.
“We’ve had a vehicle come out that we did, a 1963 (Plymouth) Valiant that won the Mopar National car poll. The car was beautiful, it wasn’t just the interior, it was the paint and body. Everything about the car was done right. That meant a lot to me. People realized this guy knows what he’s doing.
“We do a lot of antiques, a lot of repair if something needs to be brought back to life. It’s neat just seeing how it’s built. People have really no idea how a piece of furniture is put together. You tear it down and it’s just a few pieces of wood there.
“When we went to upholstery full time, we had a fear of the unknown. We worried about making it, starting something new. What if it fails, we can’t pay our bills. But we’ve been very fortunate. I did floors for 31 years and knew everything about the trade, I knew people. My philosophy then was, ‘You make more money.’ Then I went from working half as much and making three times the money to working three times more for one-third of the money. It was very scary. It probably took about two years to really decide, OK, it’s actually got it to where it was hard on me getting down to do the floor covering. I had to find an easier trade. But now it’s my hands and carpal tunnel.
“But, the business has been able to take care of itself. About five years into it we started noticing people were coming back with another piece of furniture. We get people that come here as far away as northern Indiana and all over Illinois. You know, people talk about the slow time of year, winter, it slows down. Well, we don’t have that, we just worked every day, we had something every day. I have to thank the people. Without the customers, you’re nothing.
“We’ve grown a lot over 10 years. We just did an addition, 40 feet of new space. It gets so bottled up in here where you have no room to work.”
Asked about his thought process at the beginning of the work day, Kidwell said: “I’m up at 6 o’clock every morning and my mind starts turning from the minute I wake up. I plan my day — I’ve got to get this done, that done. I walk in the shop, check the (sewing) machine. My daily routine is you oil your machine, make sure everything is in order and just start sewing. You’ve got to lay the job out, figure the different colors and how it goes together. I’m usually here nine or 10 hours. We open at 8, I’m here at 7:30. We’ll stay late, if we have an Illinois customer, they’re an hour behind, I’ll wait around for a pickup. Some days you’ll be here longer. We’ll do what we have to get a job done.
“My help is part-time. I’m pretty much a one-man show. A lot of evenings, when I go home, I’m so tired that my wife will be in the middle of saying something to me and I’ll fall asleep.
“I wish someone would walk through the door and say, ‘I need a job, I know how to do this.’ We are in a position to hire someone full-time, someone I don’t have to stand over and who knows what they’re doing. I have looked around and it’s very difficult to find someone. Nobody knows the trade, not many people are doing it.”
On why it’s so hard to find people who know upholstery — “It’s tedious. You may pull 1,000, 1,500 staples out of a sofa. In antique furniture, there are tacks, a lot of little tacks. You have to be careful you don’t scratch the wood. I’ve hired people who worked one weekend and said, ‘This ain’t for me.’
“When you’re sewing, you’ve got to know how a piece goes together, how to work pleats. A lot of times, it’s overwhelming. I wish I knew what I could do to get (workers) here.”
Kidwell said there’s a resurgence in people reconditioning old items in recent years and that it has to do with the quality of the way things were constructed as opposed to modern cheap methods that don’t hold up over time.
“People are realizing that they could go to a big box store and buy a recliner, but it’s done in six months and there’s no repairing it. They’ll bring it in and the cost of repair is more than the cost of a new one. People know when furniture is well-made. Sometimes, they go to Goodwill and buy something because it’s well-made and have it repaired instead of spending $99 on a chair that will last six months. We’re a throw-away society and we’re running out of places to dump stuff.
“I wish I knew somebody to take over when I retire. I’m 53 years old and would like to give it to somebody who appreciates this like I do and who will keep people satisfied. It’s not glamorous. I call (my workshop) The Cave. There’s one window, it gets quiet, you listen to the radio and that’s about it. No glamour. The glamour comes from when a customer comes to pick up the piece and you see how happy they are with it.”
By Rama Sobhani