HARMONY, Minn. — It was a brisk late October afternoon as Mitch Stevenson drove the S & K Custom Furniture van up the gravel lane of a farm in rural Harmony.
When barking dogs greeted him as he jumped out of the driver's seat, Stevenson pulled some dog treats from his pocket.
"I always come prepared when I come out here," he said with a grin as the dogs munched the treats.
Amish woodworker Dennis Swartzentruber helped Stevenson unload the old Birmingham couch from the van and into his barn workshop.
"Dennis can fix anything," declared Stevenson.
The quiet tradesman just smiled. His specialty is building chairs, though he is game to try just about any project.
His shop is full of elaborate woodworking tools that would be at home in any modern shop. The difference is that his drill press and table saw are powered by a wood fire stove, befitting an Amish workshop.
Swartzentruber's work order for the Birmingham sofa included shoring up the oak frame, replacing two of the mahogany legs and re-staining all of the legs to match.
S&K has been working with Swartzentruber for more than two years, after being referred to him to help with a custom project that other carpenters passed on as too difficult.
Once he is available to focus on the couch, the work takes just a few days and costs about $150, the Post-Bulletin reported.
Stevenson eventually rolled back up the driveway to load up the upgraded sofa and hand off another batch of dog biscuits.
A reinforced Birmingham sofa with four legs was carefully carried into the cramped garage in rural Chatfield, where S & K owner Rick Scott and Mitch Stevenson repair and build custom furniture.
This project was a little different, because there originally was no customer waiting for the end result.
However, S&K sometimes repairs a custom piece or renovates an old one with the idea of putting it on sale in Penny Bracken's Kismet Consignment showroom in Rochester. That was the original plan for the Birmingham couch.
Before that could happen, Scott and Stevenson had a lot of work to do.
The old, matted horse hair stuffing inside the 122-year-old sofa was pulled out.
"It's fun to do this kind of project. You've got to be more creative," said Scott, who has built and restored furniture for close to 50 years. "It's nice to bring a piece back to life."
Referring to Swartzentruber, Stevenson and Rochester designer Sue Kelly, he said this type of restoration requires a lot of skills and perspectives.
"It does touch a lot people before it's done," said Scott.
Once the old burlap and horse hair were removed, Stevenson started working with the rusty springs.
Using his Klinch-It fastener tool, he used a traditional eight-way tie method to "spring up" the couch.
While Scott has years of experience with furniture and upholstery, he's often reluctant to make decisions about fabric.
"I don't want to have to pick the fabric, because the customer has to live with it. After two weeks, they might hate it," he said.
But since there was no customer at that point, Scott turned to Rochester designer Sue Kelly.
As the faded flowered tapestry-style fabric was removed, the question of what would replace it became the main focus of the Birmingham couch team.
Kelly, of Susan Kelly Interiors, talked through ideas with Scott and Stevenson, including whether to go with historic, traditional or modern fabrics.
She looked at 20 to 30 cloth samples. After toying with going with a jaunty blue nautical pattern, Kelly decided to go with traditional light green fabric.
"I chose the lighter fabric to contrast with the dark mahogany wood," she said. "And it can work in a lot of different spaces."
The primary green fabric sold for $75 a yard and it took 11 yards to cover the sofa.
Kelly decided to infuse the Birmingham couch with some energy, so she added some pillows covered in bright patterned silk.
The pillows only needed one yard of cloth. However, the silk retailed for $268 per yard.
Despite delays, including the delivery van being totaled in an accident on a snowy, rural road, work on the couch was wrapping up and it looked like it would go on display in March.
Then Steve Downey, who first bought the sofa at the Birmingham auction and had it shipped to the U.S., ran into Stevenson at the grocery store.
The conversation predictably turned to the restoration project. After looking at pictures on Stevenson's phone, Downey, the man who earlier had wanted the couch hauled to the dump, was enamored with it.
"I was amazed," he said.
Mary Mohlke said Downey called her and said the couch would be "perfect" in the sun room.
Mohlke then made her own call to Scott. She was going to buy the couch they had once thrown away.
Seeing the finished work recently before moving into its new spot of honor, Downey complimented the effort and skill that Scott and his team put into restoring the Birmingham couch.
"The transformation was beyond anything I thought possible. It was in just such terrible shape that I figured they would give up and use it for firewood," he said with a grin.
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