Lying in the back of Audrey Adams' large white van in Ballyfermot is a dining table from the Princess Grace suite in the Shelbourne Hotel, while her workshop holds the Lord Mayor's bed along with "a huge amount of stuff" from the US ambassador's residence in the Phoenix Park. They await the capable and skilled hands of Adams who specialises in restoring, French polishing, stripping and redoing furniture.
"We have done handrails, the front doors of Trinity (which took four layers of varnish) and Christ Church and we have French polished tables and bookcases in the Law Library, " she says, showing me her kit, a weathered brown leather satchel originally bought in Greece as a handbag. Now it contains the materials and tools of her trade – wax for filling in holes, white oil, different powder colours, French polish, graining and touching up brushes.
It takes about seven years, she explains, to learn how to French polish furniture by hand the traditional way and it was once a female occupation. “You have to strip down the furniture to the bare timber, fill in the grain and make sure you get the polish straight,” she says, mimicking the rhythmic figure of eight and straightening actions involved.
“You have to be completely relaxed and you can’t be distracted because it is too easy for things to go wrong. Polish is like moisturiser for the timber – it brings out the best in the wood,” she says, showing me pieces that look like broken bits of hard toffee – this is the shellac from which French polish originates, which is liquidised in methylated spirits.
Bit of a tomboy
The second-youngest of six daughters of Paddy Adams who founded the business in 1955 in Montpelier Hill (and whose father was the well-known second World War veteran Richard “Dicky” Adams), she remembers being brought in on Saturdays with her sisters to sandpaper heraldry plaques.
“He did thousands of them at the time and it was fiddly work,” she recalls. “I was a bit of a tomboy, so we got on well together and I was a lot more interested in the work than the others.”
After school, she moved to the UK to study nursing for a few years, but returned home to help her father who was fighting a difficult period for the business. “I suddenly realised I was being coerced into a job and then I discovered that I loved it”, she smiles.
“I started helping with hand polishing and primarily what we did was that, stripping and redoing dining tables, spraying and restoring old paintwork.
“You could never make a living doing only one or another – you had to diversify to survive.”
Paddy Adams was a popular and much-loved figure with a dry sense of humour, according to his daughter. After his death, she took over the company but retained its name Adams and Daughter. “My name gets me a lot of business – 15-20 per cent – and word of mouth.”
Most of it originally was through trade and joinery firms but now Adams prefers, she says, to be less industrial.
“People want tables and chairs painted and old pieces of furniture given a new lease of life,” she says, showing me a badly damaged oak cabinet that was totally transformed after restoration. “We can also do lime finishes and colour matching because we are French polishers.”
She moved to Ballyfermot 15 years ago and now employs two people full time. On the day of my visit a console was being sandpapered in preparation for being recoloured and recoated – for heat and moisture resistance – while a mahogany trolley was being painstakingly stripped readying it for French polishing.
“It’s on-the-job training. Rachel has been here three years and is now starting to be really useful without supervision. I will discuss strategies with Mark. We are all still learning.
“The pool of people who do this work has got small, so work has improved and business is definitely picking up,” says Adams, whose portfolio includes most of the leading Dublin hotels and a host of private and corporate clients. A lot of her work is done in situ.
Mahogany table rescue
Just recently she saved a magnificent 12-seater mahogany dining table with six chairs which was about to be cut in half and thrown on a skip in Fitzwilliam Square. “I was driving by, saw what was happening and stopped the car just as they were making the first cut.” The rescued table now lies in her workshop awaiting a more salubrious fate. “Bigger dining tables are now used as boardroom tables and generally given a hard finish and sprayed,” she says.
She cautions against wax polishing furniture because it creates a sticky surface. “Never put vases on French polished furniture unless on a dish with something under the dish because condensation on the outside of the vase causes the problems. The most important thing is to clean furniture with a mild solution of water and a tiny drop of detergent using a damp – but not wet – cloth. Give the furniture a wipe, and then dry.”
So what does she love about the job? “There is a massive sense of satisfaction seeing something being resurrected. I have seen people burst into tears when they see the renovation – they can’t believe it’s the same piece of furniture. It may have been something inherited from their mother or grandmother. It’s amazing.”