Reproductions and Traditional Craftsmanship Are the Focus at McSwain’s

Three generations of a North Carolina family specialize in fine furniture and antique restorations.

By Hannah Miller

When a piece of furniture in a museum or a friend’s home catches the eye of many Carolinians, they’ll give McSwain’s Handmade Furniture in Charlotte, NC, a call.

“Make me one like it,” they will say, “complete with all the hand carving and historically accurate detail.”

The three generations of woodworkers at family-run McSwain’s are happy to comply. In 35 years, their customers’ inspirations have ranged from a Metropolitan Museum chest to President Truman’s poker table. Their pieces are in homes from Hawaii to New York, and their work has been featured in Southern Living and Better Homes & Gardens magazines.

Started by master carver Eulan McSwain, now 82 and still carving, the company has broadened its scope in recent years to include more modern pieces, like entertainment centers. Eulan’s son Mike, 57, joined the business 28 years ago and, like his father, is a master carver. Mike’s son Eric, 31, joined 11 years ago and is the finishing expert. Three other woodworkers work with them, as do three part-time office employees, including Mike’s wife Sylvia McSwain.

The company name has changed from its original, McSwain’s Reproductions, but 18th-century reproductions remain a specialty. “It’s all traditionally made, like in the 18th century,” Mike says.

 

     
     
   
  This Philadelphia-style mahogany highboy with claw and ball feet features hand carvings, such as the kidney center cartouche. This piece was built by company founder Eulan McSwain.  

Only solid wood is used, including cabinet backs and drawer bottoms. Everything is hand-mortised and tenoned. “Every drawer is hand-dovetailed,” Mike says. “We don’t own a dovetailing machine.”

He says restoration of antiques is a significant part of their business, from 30 to 40 percent, and is a learning tool for his employees. “One of the best ways to learn to make good furniture is to work on restoring really good old furniture,” he says.

His father “is the best yet” at 18th-century reproductions, especially proportions, he adds. “He can tell you if something is right or wrong by looking at it.”

Eulan worked for other shops before going out on his own. He says that in 50 years of carving ball-and-claw Chippendale feet, he has tried to make each of those feet a little different, but not so that you can tell it by a casual glance.

“I don’t want them to look like they came out of a machine,” he says, as he works away with mallet and hand-held chisel. The McSwains buy Buck Bros. and Swiss-made Woodcrafters carving chisels and also make their own.

The McSwains don’t give out sales figures, but Mike says the shop has an eight-to-nine month backlog of work. Prices are in a wide range. The company has made chairs from $750 to $5,000 and beds from $1,500 to $11,000. Probably the most expensive piece was a Goddard block front secretary for $35,000, Mike says.

The poker table inspired by President Truman’s was a seven-sided walnut pedestal table with a set of walnut arm chairs covered in Corinthian leather. “You don’t play stud poker with an even number of people,” Mike explains. “Bad luck.”

The Metropolitan Museum chest-on-chest caught the eye of a physician customer. “They were gracious enough to give him measurements,” Mike says. Their copy is in bird’s-eye maple.

Over the years, McSwain’s has “gone the distance” to give its customers good service as well as a good product. It hired a crane to lift a $100,000 Chippendale breakfront down from a 10th-floor condominium and used a helicopter to get a restored piano into a VIP lounge at a Charlotte theme park, for instance.

In the interest of authenticity, hand-blown glass panes were individually inserted in a corner-cupboard reproduction, and the interior was coated in J.E. Moser milk paint. In a bow to the 21st century, lighting in the cupboard is remote-controlled.

Current work includes a desk and cabinet that will incorporate two 100-year-old leaded-glass doors brought in by a customer. The doors were salvaged from a cabinet in her childhood home. “That was the kind of craftsmanship they used in building homes 100 years ago,” Mike says.

When you consider the resources early craftsmen had to work with, he adds, “It’s absolutely amazing how they did it.”

In their 4,000-square-foot shop behind the showroom, the McSwains use a Delta turning lathe and Rockwell/Porter-Cable sanders, planers, shapers, saws and jointer. They use Graco HVLP sprayers to apply finishes from Constantine. They prefer clear, vegetable-based dye with a clear finish so that the grain of the wood shows through. “Environmentally, it’s very safe. It mixes with water,” Mike says.

 

         
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