The restoration of the “Castro Couch” occurred in early 2022. Charlie Kieffer — Castro volunteer docent, Friends board member, Castro family descendent and, perhaps most importantly, a retired upholsterer — undertook this project and chronicled the effort. Here is Charlie telling the story of the couch in his own words.
Before and after (beginning)
This is what the couch looked like before we started to prepare it to be re-upholstered.
I took all upholstered parts off so we could clean, wax and glue any loose joints. Charlene Duval and I were tickled pink with how good the wood looks!
Castro couch arm
This type of arm on the Castro Couch is notorious for becoming loose. I tapped lightly on the inside of each arm with a rubber hammer and they both came open.
I cleaned up the wood as best I could using a very good wood glue. I always use a lot of glue, as you can see. Once I clamp it, I will wipe off all the extra glue.
The problem with this type of arm is deciding what type of clamp to use. If you use a metal clamp there is a chance you will damage the finish on the front of the arm, even if you have padding on the clamp. The other problem is the back of the couch is at an angle, which causes the clamp to sometimes slide down and become loose!
So, what type of clamp will I use?
To repair the Castro Couch, I used one of oldest types of clamps known to humankind: rope or twine looped around the back and then looped around the front of the arm. In this situation, I used two twines and two different objects to twist with.
After applying glue, I lightly tapped the front of the arm with a rubber mallet to close the gap. Then I pulled the twine tight and knotted it. After that, I put a dowel in between the loop and turned the dowel to twist the twine. I twisted the dowel until the joint was closed tight and the extra glue had squeezed out. Then I rested the dowel against the arm so it wouldn’t unwind, wiped off all the glue and let it dry.
I used a soft jute twine so it wouldn’t damage the finish on the arm. You might be wondering how you can use a long wood dowel to twist — won’t it hit the wood when you turn it? You just slide the dowel down to miss the arm, then turn and repeat. The trick is figuring out which way to turn the twist so that when it tries to unwind it will rest up against something.
Couch arms continued
Both arms were very loose and one arm needed some of the wood replaced. I used every clamp that I own to glue each arm!
Castro couch – other arm
This is the other arm. As you can see, I used screwdrivers to tighten the twine! I also had to attach another twine to pull the main top twine over to the right, to make sure the far outside area of the arm was closed tight. To keep it in place, I attached that twine to the bottom of the couch.
Charlie Kieffer’s upholstery background
In this photo you can also see the twine I used to make sure the front joint was completely closed on the outside area of the arm.
I hope you understand that I’m taking a good deal of pride working on this great piece of furniture. I also enjoy being able to show all the things I have learned from some great old-time upholsterers over the years. I started learning my trade by helping my wife’s father, Robert Fifer. Bob was a fine upholsterer and helped me find my calling.
Patty had a full time job at a bank and we had no children when I quit my post office job to learn upholstery and the rest is history!
These old time craftsmen, including Bob, took pride in their work and would not take shortcuts, even though they knew that nobody would ever see the work that was done on the inside of a piece. It was very important to them because they saw the work that was done on the inside of the piece.
Right now I am lucky enough to get to show you the work that is done properly on the inside of this beautiful couch. The work necessary to repair the frame is now done and I have started on the upholstery part of the couch.
The seat is in very, very bad shape and it will have to be completely re-worked: glued, extra wood added and the seat springs will have to be completely re-tied.
In my opinion, tying springs is a work of art and an engineering marvel. The upholsterer needs to know how to compress springs to a certain height so that the springs work together to make the seat comfortable and yet still strong enough to support the weight of a human being. Most modern furniture today has drop-in pre-made spring units. That is not the case with this antique that I am working on.
I can see what caused certain things to fail — especially in the seat — over the years and I’ll make adjustments to prevent this from happening again. The arms and the back are OK. They don’t have springs, just padding, and I will be adding some extra padding. But first, I’m going to start on the seat, because it will take some time to get it ready to be upholstered.
The back of the couch would not come loose from the arms with light taps from a rubber hammer. So the only thing I could do to strengthen this area of the couch was to drill and put in an extra ½-inch round, 3-inch-long wood dowel with glue. This runs from the back of the couch into each arm to help stabilize the back and arm. I will cut off the exposed dowel later.
This is an easy solution because we will be covering the outside back of the couch with fabric.
Couch mystery begins
What happened that caused the front of the seat to break down like this? Old age? Maybe, but it shouldn’t be this bad. Let’s solve the mystery together. This will be fun. Plus, I’m betting you have never seen the inside of an 1830-40 couch, and this one is a beauty!
With the padding removed, we get a great view of the burlap. We can see that they sewed two pieces of burlap together, and that’s a no-no because, in time, the seam will come apart. You should only use a whole piece of burlap.
This is a close-up view of what the inside of the seat looked like. What a mess! You’re looking at new twine over old twine, some knotted, some not! As an experienced upholsterer, I can tell you this is a disgrace.
We can also see that the twine knots on the springs started to wear a hole in the burlap and the edge of the springs did the rest. When one sits down on a piece of furniture, the springs collapse, causing the burlap to loosen and that starts a rubbing process that degrades the fabric over time. To prevent this from happening, you must hand-stitch the knot to both the burlap and the spring. This is where a curved needle comes in very handy. But, as you can see, that was not done on this couch. (Later I will show you how I made a modern improvement on this process.)
The other contributing factor to the poor state of the couch is a bunch of twines broke. This couch is old, but it should not be in this bad of condition!
I mentioned that when you over-tie springs, you also add more nails to the wood frame. On the left, I have already removed five nails and at the bottom of the photo I’m guessing there are another nine or 10 nails.
With the burlap removed our investigation continues! We know that the front edge had caved in (it’s to the left in the third photo) but why did it cave in?
First, notice the twines on the left front are broken. This happens because when someone sits down, the twines rub on the inside edge of the wood. If you look closely you will see that the edge of the wood is sharp and in due time it will fray the twine until it breaks. To stop this, you have to round the edge of the wood. That’s one of my innovations!
Second, take a good look at the photo and notice the springs. The springs on the left are a couple inches farther away from the wood frame than the springs on the right! What this means is the springs on the left were designed to be in the rear. You need the front spring to be closer to the front to take the blunt force of someone sitting down. The person who reupholstered this piece made a mistake and switched the back with the front, which caused the twine to drop further down when sat on and that caused more rubbing of the twine.
Also, this is also a terrible spring tying job! It’s called an over-tie and using that method is, in my opinion, a bad technique. It just adds more twine, more knots and more nails to the seat frame but doesn’t create a better piece of furniture. This is not a work of art and definitely not an engineering marvel!
What this also means is that I had to cut all the twines out and remove all the nails. There were about 175 nails that had to be removed with hand tools.
What happens when you don’t offset nails? You will probably split the wood. In 8th grade shop class at Freedom School in Watsonville in 1951, my teacher told us to always, if possible, offset your nails in the wood: “if you put your nails in a straight line you will probably split the wood.” Seventy years later, I always, if possible, offset my nails.
If you look at the bottom of the photo, you will see three nails in a row! In the back of the three there were four or five nails in a row. Check out the split in the wood! How do we fix it? I will have to add an extra wood nail rail on the whole inside of the seat frame, because of all the splits.
I used poplar wood, which is harder than pine to add a new nail rail all the way around the old frame. I glued and screwed it to the old frame. I also dropped the wood down about an inch lower to allow the spring twine to have a better chance of not hitting the edge of the wood!
Then I rasped the sharp edge off the nail board. Where the spring twines came in contact, I rounded it even more.
Setting the spring height
The nail rail and springs are in place and ready for tying! Spring ties are notorious for tearing up an upholsterer’s hands. I hope my hands hold up. They (my hands) turn 85 this year and they have not tied springs for quite a few years!
The first twine is always front to rear. I loop the twine around the springs (no knot), which allows me to slide the spring to the proper place. This twine is very, very important! Once you calculate the proper height that the springs should be compressed to, you pull down the center twine to that measurement. You measure from the wood to the center of the twine.
I calculated by measuring the old center twine and then how much tension the older springs have. The springs are 6 inches tall and if the center twine is pulled to 4 3/4 inch the springs should be OK. They are old and have lost some of their tension, but I like to use the old ones.
Once all the center twines were the same height and the springs were centered, I started to tie the twine left-to-right using knots and then I used knots front-to-rear.
Check out these before and after photos.
After knotting side-to-side and front-to-rear, I then tie and knot what is called a fill twine between the springs and also the springs between the wood frame. Notice that there are no nails close together in a straight line anymore.
Also, I’m really impressed with my hands! They tied 175 knots and, yes, they were sore and had some redness, but no broken skin.
End result, before and after
It’s been fun to show what it is going to take to bring this couch back to what it once was — actually, to bring it back better than it was! Not many people ever get a chance to see what is on the inside of a great piece of furniture and what has to be done to repair it.
The other thing is, I’lll probably never get another chance to work on a couch with its history so it’s fun to be able to document it.
Another mystery: #207
One more thing. The arms have a large hand painted number on them: 207. Is that a part number or a couch number? It is another mystery that this couch has presented. What fun!
I believe these numbers could have been put on when this couch was made. It was common practice to put numbers on parts that fit a certain piece of furniture. They did not have the machinery to reproduce exact duplicates. The number could also be a code of what fabric to use on a piece. So far i have found #207 on both arms and #207 on the back of the inside back, but no numbers have been found on the main frame or the seat frame
I’ll keep looking!
Another code on the couch
What other identifying marks did I find? There were two parallel cuts into each piece of the couch, offset a little and about the same distance apart. Maybe they mark the pieces in production so they would all stay together? Maybe later they added the numbers?
#207 — maybe it’s #2 and #0 is the stain on the wood and #7 is the fabric? What do you think? Have some fun trying to come up with why the marks, why the numbers.
With a bright light, I could make out a faint 207, so I inked the original numbers as seen on the right photo. This means that all of the couch pieces were marked with the number 207. This couch is definitely number 207.
We know that #207 is painted on a few of the pieces of the couch. I decided to take some time to brush and wipe off all the pieces that didn’t seem to have #207 on them.
I started with the rear of the inside back. After brushing it clean, I used a bright light to see I could find more numbers. I was able to make out the original numbers on more pieces! I inked in the original number so it is visible without having to search.
Also, I had already covered the seat with white muslin. Before I covered it, I had checked the bottom wood of the frame for #207 and had not found any. But I decided to take some off muslin off and look again on the frames inside for #207. Sure enough, I found a very faint 207. So, of course, I added ink to make it easier to see. Yippee!
I installed burlap over the springs. Notice all the bumps in the burlap on the left — that’s the twine knots and they can wear a hole in the burlap, as I have mentioned. The old “good” upholsterers would have hand-tied a stitch to all the knots to avoid causing the holes. I came up with a faster and better way! I used hot glue to adhere the burlap to the knot. It also adds a layer of glue protection to the burlap.
I added corner braces with glue and screws to the four corners of the couch and also added two seat supports. Screws will be added to the seat supports, which will help stabilize the frame!
The couch is done! I have so enjoyed working on this wonderful, beautiful antique couch.
Coming home to the Castro Adobe
The couch is a beauty. We wrapped it up to deliver it to the Castro and everyone took a turn enjoying a comfortable seat.
History of the Castro Adobe sofa, April 2022
In October 2021, as the restoration of the Castro Adobe was nearing completion, Friends of Santa Cruz State Parks (Friends) put out a request for appropriate furnishings for the historic adobe, located at the newest California State Park in the Santa Cruz District.
Lisa Robinson, the collections manager of the San Lorenzo Valley Museum, emailed Jessica Kusz, Friends historic preservation project manager, because the museum had an Empire sofa that they would be willing to donate for use at the Castro Adobe. Charlene Duval, Friends board member, historian and volunteer who was working on the acquisition of furnishings for the adobe, looked at the photos Lisa sent and said that it looked to be a candidate for the Adobe. She subsequently went to the museum and confirmed that it was in good shape, but the finish needed some restoration and would need to be reupholstered. Charlene contacted Castro descendant and Friends board member Charlie Kieffer, who along with being a Castro Adobe volunteer, had had a long career in Santa Cruz as a master upholsterer. He said he would love to do the upholstery work if Charlene would help with the refinishing.
According to Lisa Robinson, Rex Reiland donated the sofa to the museum about 1991. He told her that it had originally come from San Francisco. Charlene researched Rex and found that at the time of the donation, he and his parents. Peter D. and Elde Reiland, were living in Scotts Valley. She did not find that the family ever lived in San Francisco, nor were they descended from San Francisco residents. She concluded it probably was purchased by or given to his parents at some unknown point in time. The Museum thought that they were going to use the sofa in a house museum, but had abandoned the idea when they acquired their current location in the former Grace Episcopal Church.
Lisa and her husband Timothy brought the sofa to Charlie’s home in Watsonville in February 2021. Not long after, Charlene went to the Kieffers’ home to work on refinishing the sofa’s frame. Charlie and Charlene coated the sofa with Howard’s Restor-A-Finish and, miraculously, the blemishes disappeared, making the mahogany glow. Thankfully, it was a simple process and the original French polish was preserved. Charlie took photos of the results of the effort. They then looked at swatches of fabric that Charlene had located on the internet, as well as some found at a local fabric shop that Charlie had suggested. Charlene, Charlie and Charlie’s wife Patty decided that they really liked one that was from the local source, so they went to the shop. The owner told them that it was designed by a southern California designer that catered to clients who owned adobes and Spanish colonial houses. The price was so reasonable they decided to buy twice the amount needed in the event damage or wear and tear would require reupholstering in the future.
Charlene had been researching sofas of this vintage for the Castro Adobe, but now focused the search for examples of this particular style to perhaps determine the designer/ manufacturer and the approximate date of its construction. She found photos of four sofas that had similar, character defining features, priced between $3,500 and $10,500. All were attributed to J. and J. W. Meeks, sons of an earlier cabinetmaker, Joseph Meeks. The Meeks, it seems, used paper labels on their furniture, most of which have not survived, making it difficult to confirm attribution. Based in New York City, the Meeks were major producers of American Empire Furniture. This style of sofa was called a sleigh-sofa and was made sometime between 1835 and 1850. Their Empire style line was abandoned in about 1850.
Empire furniture was brought to California during this period aboard merchant ships from Boston and New York, which is why some of the furniture of this style was chosen for the Castro Adobe. The Castro family lived in the adobe until the early 1880s, but the period that they had sufficient wealth to buy furniture were the years prior to 1850 to about 1870. After 1850 and statehood, the family’s prominence and wealth gradually declined.
Juan Jose Castro and his wife, Rita Pinto, moved to Rancho San Andres in 1835, living at the original rancho site until the extant adobe was built circa 1849. It was at this time that they likely sold cattle to the miners in the gold districts. Castro family history information indicates that the family acquired $30,000 during this period, which financed the construction of the adobe. No evidence has been found that Juan Jose or his brothers, who also lived on the ranch, went to the gold fields, but it is possible that that effort was just not recorded. Furnishings chosen for the adobe range from 1835-1870s, with the emphasis on the 1835-1850s period, as later lawsuits and other financial calamities ultimately bankrupted this branch of the castro family.
Charlie Kieffer photographed each phase of the restoration of the sofa. He finished the sofa in late March 2022, but withheld the final photos, saying he wanted to share them when it was finally in place in the adobe. On April 13, 2022, Charlie and three state parks employees moved the sofa to its new home in the adobe. Charlie and his wife Patty have been longtime, devoted volunteers at the Castro Adobe. He said it was a high point of his career as an upholsterer and a volunteer to have had the privilege to restore this very old and beautiful sofa for the adobe.