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J.L. TREHARN & amp; CO. Furniture maker builds reputation on craftsmanship and eye for detail

By Don Shilling

Wednesday, January 28, 2004

ERRY TREHARN IS MORE comfortable with sawdust than accounting tables. He prefers a flannel shirt and good handshake to a three-piece suit and a slick sales presentation.
"I'm not a businessperson, and I'm not a good salesperson," the 57-year-old carpenter said. "But I can build anything out of wood."
And build it well.
His small shop at the foot of the Mahoning Avenue bridge in Youngstown has become one of the better-known makers of 18th-century reproduction furniture in the eastern United States. The signature piece of J.L. Treharn & amp; Co. is a bonnet-top secretary that sells for up to $25,000 at East Coast specialty furniture stores.
"Treharn is one of the top people in his field," said Duane Collie, owner of The Keeping Place, a retailer in Alexandria, Va.
Collie carries furniture from a dozen suppliers, but Treharn is among his favorites.
Quality, attitude
First, Treharn is obsessed with quality and has an eye for the fine detail that's critical to buyers of high-end furniture, Collie said. Second, the store owner just enjoys dealing with the Treharn family.
"They're just good old-fashioned Midwesterners. You have none of the issues with attitude that you have with New England cabinetmakers," he said.
Treharn has a simple desire -- to make great furniture. Prices and profit margins don't interest him too much.
"That's why 'they' don't let me quote prices anymore," he said with a smile.
"They" are his children, who manage various parts of the company.
Treharn credits his daughter, Sherry Kovacich, with pushing the company into national prominence.
In 1988, she had graduated from Youngstown State University with psychology and criminal justice degrees and was preparing to go to law school. She agreed to take a year off school to work for the tiny business started two years earlier by her father and uncle, Joe Treharn.
Turning point
During that year, she persuaded her father to do something that changed the business's fortunes -- take his furniture to a trade show in Virginia Beach, Va.
He returned with orders from a dozen retailers, and the business was ready to take off. Kovacich never left for law school, instead becoming general manager of the business.
"I never dreamed the business would get this big, and it never would have if it weren't for Sherry," Treharn said.
J.L. Treharn & amp; Co. has 16 employees, including family members. Treharn's son, Michael, is in charge of the chair shop, and his daughter Tracy Maxim runs finishing operations. His wife, Carolee, works in the office.
The shop sends its dining room tables, end tables and cabinets to 68 specialty stores from New England to Wisconsin. Its only local retailer is Meander Hill Antiques and Gifts in Austintown, though Treharn furniture also can be seen at the library branches in Poland and Austintown.
Expanded operations
Success has led Treharn to expand.
Recently, he decided he no longer wanted to rely on Amish subcontractors to put together his chairs, so he set about learning how to make them. After more than a year of study, he bought some equipment and set up a chair shop. The most expensive piece, a Windsor chair, retails for $1,200.
Two people are employed making chairs, but Treharn expects that to increase to five or six.
Treharn started his business the same way he got into chairs -- setting a goal and teaching himself how to get there.
In 1985, he was laid off from his job as a carpenter at the nuclear power plant in Perry, Ohio. He had made furniture as a hobby for years, so he expanded that business, making shelves, tables and coat racks for a local furniture store.
Soon, he had wood-crafting equipment in his basement, garage and under tarps in his driveway. He moved the business to the former Ward Bakery building at 1024 Mahoning Ave. in 1986.
His main interest remained making furniture, so he looked into making reproductions of antiques.
Collie, the Virginia store owner, said Treharn entered the business at the right time. Collecting antique furniture had just become fashionable, sending prices so high that only wealthy buyers could afford them. Those unable to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a piece of furniture turned to reproductions.
Treharn credits Jack Reese, owner of Meander Hill, with helping him see that his craftsmanship was good but his understanding of reproductions was lacking.
Reese took him to antique shows to see the original furniture and helped him see the finishes, carvings and other fine details.
Treharn took the information to heart and returned to his shop intent on improving his work.
One example is his self-education on finishing, which Treharn calls the most important aspect of reproductions. Early on, he learned he had to give up on off-the-shelf stains and start mixing his own.
"For three weeks, for as long as I could stand up, I went through colors -- thousands of colors -- to try to develop two different colors I liked," he said.
He often put in more than 100 hours a week the first few years at the young company.
Keys to success
Collie said that getting the details right is critical to success in reproduction furniture but so is building quality at a quick pace. A business can't afford to dawdle over the making of each piece, he said.
That requires having the right power tools, saws and other equipment, which often confuses people who want handmade furniture, Collie said. Reproduction furniture is still considered handmade because it's made on a work bench, not on an assembly line by production workers.
"This furniture is handmade by craftsmen using power tools," Collie said.
Treharn's pride is a 1935 lathe that cuts legs into a variety of intricate shapes. A computer-controlled router cuts table tops.
Workers sand and carve some parts by hand, however, to smooth out the designs made by the power tools. Also, each piece is planed by hand to give it the same feel as the furniture made in the 1700s.
Every part of the furniture, even the drawer bottoms, is made from hardwood, usually tiger maple and sometimes cherry.
Legs are joined to the table using a mortise and tenon joint, which fits together in tongue-and-groove fashion, and wooden pegs.
Considering retail store
Despite the success that his building techniques have achieved, Treharn admits that "we're better known in Philadelphia than we are here." His company has no signs on the outside of its building and isn't set up to handle retail sales.
That could change soon, however. The family is considering opening a retail store in the former Ward building, which it bought in 1997.