Treharn’s Reproductions More Valued than Originals

YOUNGSTOWN, Ohio – There are instances when reproduction antique furniture is more valuable than the authentic piece.

No one knows this better than Jerry Treharn, founder of J.L. Treharn & Co., Youngstown, a company that uses a blend of automation and skilled craftsmanship to produce some of the most sought- after 17th and 18th century replica chairs, tables, beds, chests and cupboards.

“One of our highboy chest of drawers sold at an auction in Cincinnati in 2008 for $8,225,” more than double what the customer paid for it, he recalls. What surprised Treharn even more than the hammer price was that his copy outsold the very same original late-18th century piece by nearly two-to-one. “It brought in more than the originals,” he says.

Such is the following developed and reputation Treharn has earned in the 30 years since he started his small company on the ground floor of the Ward Bakery Building, 1024 Mahoning Ave. “I started in my garage at home,” Treharn says. “I was a carpenter and I used to make and sell furniture for fun.”

On a whim, he opted to take several of his pieces to Meander Hill LLC, a retailer of Colonial replica furniture in Austintown. The owner, the late Jack Rees, told Treharn that while his work was exceptional, he should concentrate on other furniture of the Colonial era. That took Treharn to Williamsburg, Va., where he experienced the intricate craftsmanship.

He and his daughter, CEO Sherry Treharn, run the company today, have 14 employees and sell to 60 retail stores, most of them on the East Coast. A good part of the work is still done by hand, although the workshop uses modern automated saws and even a CNC machine for some items, Sherry says.

“We’re a combination of handmade and automation,” she says. “There are certain things we will only do by hand that we simply can’t do with automation.” The joining process is all performed by hand to protect the integrity of the piece. “That’s where we don’t take any shortcuts,” she emphasizes. “It’s an important piece of the furniture.”

Evan Rees, now the owner of Meander Hill, says that Treharn’s pieces have sold extremely well over the years. “The craftsmanship is second to none,” Rees says. “You won’t find anything better built and his prices are competitive. We’ve been selling his stuff since Day One and he has a large following.”

Meander Hill receives orders “from all over” inquiring about Treharn’s furniture. “We keep seven or eight tables on the floor, Windsor chairs, chests, some beds – a little bit of everything,” Rees says.

Treharn & Co. purchases its supply of select lumber from a dealer in Michigan who ships specific orders to the shop. “He acquires it from 12 or 15 mills,” Jerry Treharn says. On average, the company uses more than 100,000 feet of lumber annually.

Among the most prized pieces the shop has produced recently is the replica of a late 18th century Chippendale bonnet top secretary, made out of tiger maple wood, Sherry Treharn says. The secretary stands roughly seven feet high, the drawers on the bottom supporting the desktop. A towering cabinet with elaborate doors and an array of small, ornate drawers – some hidden for storing keepsakes – braces the back of the secretary.

“This is a piece that only the best master craftsman would have even attempted in the late 18th century,” she says. Treharn & Co. produces about 10 of these per year. An original Chippendale bonnet top secretary that dates from this period sells for around $150,000 on average, depending on the condition: Treharn sells its for $16,200.

There are certain amenities that customers crave today, and Treharn can adapt even the most ornate period pieces to the modern age. “We just sold one a couple weeks ago, and the customer wanted to put a phone charging station in it,” Jerry Treharn says.

Much of the work still depends on the eyes and skills of the craftsmen, Treharn says. The joining process – not even one metal screw is used in manufacturing a Windsor-back chair, for example – is an old-style method that fuses hardwoods and softwoods, which allows the wood to “move” over time and prevents cracks from developing.

“A good Windsor chair is going to be made out of three woods,” Sherry Treharn says. “The turnings should be made out of maple because of its hardness. The seat should be made out of pine or poplar. And the bendings should be made out of oak or ash. Ours are ash.”

Each leg is turned and produced on a Madison lathe, she notes, one of which dates to 1935. The only work performed on a CNC machine is forming the “scoop” in the seat of the chair, she says. The rest is done with traditional lathes or by hand.

“The legs are fastened by wood and glue,” she says. “What’s wrong with modern chairs is that there’s no room for movement because they’re screwed together,” which increases the likelihood of the wood splitting.

Treharn says most of his orders are for reproduction tables and chairs, so he stores hundreds of patterns in the shop that correspond with his products. And, to accommodate those with more modern tastes, five years ago Treharn & Co. launched a new furniture line, “Treharn Today” that incorporates more contemporary styles into the pieces.

Still, the Treharns feel fortunate to remain in a business that has, for the most part, disappeared from the American manufacturing landscape.

“When we started in 1985, there were probably 30 to 40 companies doing this,” Sherry Treharn says. “Now, there are about three.”

Pictured: J.L. Treharn & Co. owner Jerry Treharn demonstrates how he uses hand craftsmanship to create replica antique furniture at his Youngstown workshop. Here, he works on a replica of an 18th century end table.

Copyright 2024 The Business Journal, Youngstown, Ohio.