A Family Tradition
Father and son team John and Jay Leake reproduce the styles of antique furniture that was sold by two generations of Leakes before them.
By Hannah Miller
Surrounded by reminders of their own pasts, John Howard Leake III and his son, Jay (John IV), go into their woodworking shop every day and re-create bits of the 17th and 18th century South for their customers.
The two, who use as their showroom a York, SC, building constructed by John's grandfather and originally used as an antiques store, are experts in reproducing styles popular in an earlier America. They include William and Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale, Hepplewhite and Sheraton. Most have a simplicity typical of the South in those days, says John Leake. Except for cosmopolitan Charleston, SC, he says, the South was rural and life was simpler, tastes were more conservative and "things were less formal" than in urban areas.
Southern styles, like those of the North, were patterned on English furniture, Leake says, but they came to the South more slowly. "Nobody was e-mailing anybody," he jokes. An English style might have taken 10 years to become popular in the North, and another three to four years to reach the South, he says.
Several of the pieces that he and Jay make are distinctly Southern, such as a cellarette, a hunt board and a sugar chest. A cellarette is a wooden box that can be taken off its base and carried to the cellar for a refill of liquor. A hunt board is a small sideboard with four legs instead of a larger sideboard's six. A sugar chest, which resembles a blanket chest, was a way to keep sugar under lock and key. "It was a precious commodity," Leake says.
Walnut was the principal wood used because good walnut was plentiful in the South. It is still a primary material for the Leakes, who buy it in a variety of thicknesses from Good Hope Hardwoods in Landenberg, PA. They use a boiled linseed oil finish to bring out walnut's natural color. They also work with cherry, maple and mahogany, coloring the wood with J.E. Moser aniline dyes.
The mahogany is used for Charleston reproductions. Because mahogany could be imported easily to that city, Leake says, "There was some real fancy furniture made in Charleston."
The Leakes use only solid woods and do some "fancy furniture" themselves. For a reproduction of a Charleston bed, John Leake turned each of the 7-foot-tall posts from single blocks of 4-inch-thick mahogany, using the shop's 8-foot Vega lathe.
John Leake, who studied woodworking and graphic arts at Appalachian State University and keeps an extensive design library, says he admires studio furniture in which woodworkers explore new forms. But for himself, "If it doesn't have some overhang, a little moulding on it, we don't want to mess with it," he says.
He also thinks simple forms of traditional design fit his talents better than more elaborate pieces. "I love Philadelphia furniture," he says, "but I can't make it. I can't carve like it."
Nevertheless, he carves seashells and other traditional designs when he needs to, and he adds the Leakes' signature "pinwheel" to many of their pieces. It is an inlaid circle in which sections of dark wood, usually walnut, alternate with sections of light wood, either holly or maple.
Leake does other inlays as well, often a palmetto tree, which is the South Carolina state symbol, within a thin circle. That tree design, his own invention, is an example of his philosophy, he says. He tries to stick to the main principles of historic design, but he is not a total purist.
"We give customers what they want," he says, but only up to a point. "We are not going to put inlay on a Queen Anne piece. I just tell them to trust me, it's not appropriate."
Following in Dad's Footsteps
Jay Leake joined his father in January 2004 after graduating in industrial technology, with an emphasis on furniture making, from his father's alma mater, Appalachian State. He grew up helping in the shop, "mostly sanding and sweeping and watching," he says.
Recognizing that his son was a talented baseball player, John Leake says he kept him away from sharp objects in the shop. "I didn't want to ruin his chance for a baseball scholarship," he says. "I knew those fingers were going to be worth some money someday."
In an ironic twist of fate, however, Jay got the scholarship - to High Point University - but fractured his foot, ending his baseball career. He transferred to Appalachian and started learning the fine points of woodworking, a process that accelerated when he graduated and joined his father.
"I have not been doing this very long. I need all the help and information I can get by watching him," Jay says.
The two work together in their 1,500-square-foot shop, sometimes sharing it with several of their five dogs. Three other buildings include a finishing area, warehouse space and the combination showroom/living quarters for John and his wife Susan.
The Leakes are decidedly old-fashioned in some ways, even Jay. "I don't like change,"he says. They use no computers, they still use a rotary phone, and the descriptions of each piece which they provide to their customers are written by hand. "We want three generations into the future to know it is solid walnut with secondary poplar. We like to make it as personal as possible," John Leake says.
Their shop equipment includes Powermatic table saws, jointer, shaper, bandsaw and mortiser, and an imported planer and widebelt sander. All structural joinery is mortise-and-tenon and Elmer's glue. Some screws are used to attach moulding. But all dovetailing is done by hand with a Japanese hand saw. "It cuts on a pull stroke rather than a push stroke," says John, and is thus more ergonomically sound than the typical English saw, he adds.
Father and son share finishing chores. "Misery loves company. Nobody likes to finish," John Leake says.
The business is still called "Leake's Antiques" in homage to John's antiques-selling father and grandfather, John Howard Leake Jr. and Sr. After John Jr., who lived across the road, took the business over from his father in the mid-1960s, John III got his start by helping repair and refinish the antiques. When he took over in 1984 after his father's death, he gradually switched the business entirely to reproductions. "I'm the first real woodworker," he says.
Fully fifty percent of the Leakes' clientele is from York County, Leake says, and the other fifty percent is spread across the two Carolinas, but has some local connection. Some customers are from families that have bought furniture from all four generations of Leakes.
In past years, the shop has averaged $65,000 to $70,000 in annual business, but has never hit the $100,000 mark, says John Leake. "But we are getting closer than ever. Now that Jay is working with me, we are doing more and more."
John and Jay turn out about 15 pieces a year - beds, tables, chairs and chests - at an average price of about $3,500. Prices range from $600 for a side table to $18,000 for a secretary.
They have few deadlines, except when making wedding gifts. John Leake, who says "I like sharing," finds time to lead seminars for other Carolinas woodworkers. The family, including Jay's brother Phillip, who works for the local electrical co-op, often sit down for a meal at the showroom's Sheraton-style, double-pedestal, walnut table.
At Christmastime, the showroom takes on a new dimension, as the Leakes top the gleaming furniture with fresh-cut greenery and fresh-picked fruit, the favored decorations of centuries past. Some 300 to 400 neighbors and customers annually flock to a three-day open house for refreshments and furniture-gazing.
"It's kind of a party," John Leake explains. "and it is not bad for business, either."
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