A local furniture refinishing company had its craftsmens’ reputations set four generations ago because the family patriarch could paint a very straight line.
W.H. Luhm began his career as a car painter in East Duluth, Minn., in the early 1900’s. He became known for the durability of his paint jobs and the quality of his detailing, which back then consisted of long, painted stripes applied to the roofs and fenders.
Word got out to people at the Pierce-Arrow factory in Buffalo, New York, and they came to Duluth to find out why Luhm’s paint jobs stood up under the Florida sun, where many well-to-do Pierce-Arrow owners kept their cars. Luhm refused to give up his paint secrets, but kept painting and striping for many years.
His grandson Derrick described the process: “My grandfather would paint the car bodies and then pin-stripe them. He’d take a quarter-inch brush and go over the hood, down the top and down the back. Then he’d take an eighth-inch brush and put curlicues on the edges of the windows. It took him a half-hour to pinstripe a car, and two hours to clean the brush. The bristles on the pin-striping brushes were two feet long. Once you dipped the brush in paint, you had to paint the whole car; you couldn’t stop.”
He said his grandfather was a real craftsman. One day, a Duluth city official came to his shop and told him he paid his people too much money. The other shops were paying ten dollars a week, and his grandfather paid twenty, saying, “They’re worth it.” The official said, “If you keep doing that, we won’t support you.” Derrick added, “My grandfather, being a stubborn German, said, ‘Do what you like.’”
In 1953, Luhm’s son, Ben Luhm Sr., began refinishing furniture for his friends, and the wood restoration business began. Beginning in his basement, the family moved the business to 1626 NE Jefferson St. Luhm’s Son, Ben Jr., took over in 1972, and brought his son Derrick into the fold in 1987.
Derrick took over the business in 2016, at their shop at 936 33rd Ave NE, and has three fellow workers: his father Ben Jr., Bralio Rico, and Graeme Thompson. The 3,900-sq.-ft. space has spaces for storage, spraying booths, and work tables. A number of current projects take up floor space.
Derrick talked about some of the company’s larger projects: the restoration of the Central Library entrance in downtown St. Paul, and a house near Lake Harriet where wood walls and furniture had been damaged by fire. Both were six-figure jobs. The company works with insurance companies, and also sells pieces retail.
Derrick said they get a lot of return customers, and a lot of referrals. “Even though this is the age of the world wide web, we still feel our business comes primarily from referrals. I would say maybe we get five to ten percent from the web. The word of mouth has a lot of power.”
Piano refinishing is also a company specialty. Former Governors Rudy Perpich and Arne Carlson have had their instruments restored there, and others have come from as far as Alaska. A piano that was refinished by the company was featured on an LP cover for Doc Severinsen’s band. The curve of a grand piano’s top is part of the Luhm’s Logo.
Other unusual projects included refinishing a 30-ft-high oak display unit originally created for the 1893 World’s Fair and restoring 10 wooden doors for an oil baron in Saudi Arabia. Derrick added, “We refinished Billy Graham’s pulpit.”
The shop also restores antique car components, such as dashboards, and wooden boat parts. Derrick said, “Car restoration people will send us the parts; we may not even know what they’re from, but wood is wood.”
Asked about current economic conditions, Derrick said, “The phone just doesn’t ring — we’re not even getting telemarketers! And we have work in the shop that’s done but hasn’t been shipped because some customers are nervous about deliveries. And if we can’t deliver, we don’t get paid.” He’s concerned because “We don’t know where the end is.”
He recalled the dot.com fall and the 2009 recession: “We had 300 boards, one foot by one foot, to be sprayed blue, and that was the only job we had in this entire shop. You wouldn’t have seen any of this furniture then; you could have parked cars in here. We’re not at that level now, but this seems scarier. We have been having trouble getting masks; we wash and recycle our N95s. Nothing’s nice about this pandemic, but typically we wear masks and respirators all the time, and we can each have our own room if we need to work down here.”
Derrick mused about his family: his great-grandfather worked until he was 91; his father still works in the shop. His youngest son is a freshman in high school; one of his sons is a computer programmer and a U of Minnesota graduate; and one is going to UMD for accounting. All of them worked in the shop the get themselves through school, “So if anything goes wrong with my computer, or I need a hand, they’re around to come and help me.”
Below: Owner Derrick Luhm in one of the shop rooms, refinishers at work, and some finished items waiting to be shipped. (Photos by Mark Peterson)