Chester Co. Furniture transforms homes with yesteryear’s wonders

Creating wood floors, cabinetry and home furniture that possess character and heritage has become second nature to J. David Chandler. For nearly a quarter-century, Chandler has transformed what began as a hobby into a full-fledged business as his company, Chester County Primitive Flooring and Furniture, is turning heads and finding its way into homes across the mid-Atlantic. Next weekend, on Saturday, Sept. 12, Chandler will once again bring his hand-crafted furniture to the Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival, sponsored by the Bethany-Fenwick Area Chamber of Commerce.

There’s no telling what will spark his hand-made creations, ranging from dining tables and entertainment centers to deacon benches, coffee and end tables and flower boxes. Chandler searches high and low for old, discarded wood being torn down.

Century-old homes no longer fit to shelter a family or abandoned shops making way to new development; anything can serve as a starting point. Even his kitchen table at his Millsboro log-cabin home was reclaimed out of flooring from the Old Paper Mill in Newark, Del. – a building that stood for nearly 200 years, built from wood nearly another 100 years older.

“It’s the epitome of being green,” said a cheerful Chandler at his home. “This 300-year old flooring still possesses the natural pigments and coloring. It’s well-seasoned and authentic.”

The distressed look is often duplicated in today’s furniture business, but it is difficult to find veritable century-old wood that Chandler is custom to.

“This isn’t something you can just buy at a flooring store,” he said. “Even if someone fakes the aged, distressed look, you’re not getting the original thing.”

Most corporate hardware stores provide a variety of wood floor options, but as Chandler explains, it doesn’t come close to capturing the genuine appearance of his floors.

“When you go to a [corporate store],” he said, “look at what they have. You’re looking at new wood or a laminate. It’s engineered. Compare that to what I do. This is the real deal. It’s reclaimed and recycled from something else. It’s not only a cool floor, but I can give you a history of it – where it’s from, what kind of wood it is. That’s worth so much. You can’t put a price on that.”

Wooden masterpieces have surrounded Chandler’s home, where he lives with wife, Melissa, and their children. Decorative shelves, corner cabinets and fashionable bureaus exhibit his craft throughout the home, all resting atop antique, hardwood flooring made from vintage lumber. Deep, distressed earth-tones can instantly give a living room or kitchen a country-style feel, while the aged, whitewashed look has become popular in many beach homes.

Working on original pieces provides Chandler with the versatility of custom projects.

“A lot of people can find something they like at a furniture store, but they don’t like what it’s made out of or how it fits,” he said. “I can capture exactly what you’re looking for and make it look how you picture it. I’ve done furniture for contemporary homes. You don’t need to live in a log home to appreciate this work. They are period creations and go well anywhere.”

From floorboards to tabletops, the aura of the original structures is still maintained, even down to the wooden nails and grain of the wooden slabs.

“You can look at a building and it will talk to you about how old it is,” he said. “Those are the places I look. There are always people who want to keep an old building as a part of them, whether it was their grandfather’s barn or a house that’s been with the family for generations.”

Projects from Chester County Primitive Flooring and Furniture have worked their way into restaurants throughout Delaware and Pennsylvania, homes in Bear Trap Dunes in Ocean View, individual beach dwellings in Bethany, as well as residences of some big names. Music legend David Lee Roth and U.S. Vice President Joe Biden are among the countless clients Chandler has worked with.

After relocating to Millsboro from Kennett Square, Pa., Chandler said he noticed that much of the same clientele from north Delaware and Pennsylvania came down to the southern Delaware shore during the summertime, so he was able to maintain most of his customers.

“Keeping that business base has really helped me to expand,” he said. “It makes doing the shows a lot easier. You get a lot of good, quality people who come down here to the beach, and you can establish those relationships.”

You can identify his trade from his hands alone. Calloused and worn, they are his primary tools in his workshop, carving and prying at each feature, every smoothed bend and etched angle. Hours go into his projects, each one original and one-of-a-kind.

“You might use some of the same patterns to replicate something,” Chandler said, motioning to a wood carving of swans on the front of an armoire in his home, “but each one is a little different. Nothing you get is manufactured. You won’t find ‘Made in China’ on any one of these products. You can tell that everything is done by hand, and that’s what people like about it.”

He first got into woodworking and carving after helping out at auctions and handling antique furniture. He wasted no time picking up mallets and knives and carving on his own.

“I really enjoyed it,” he said, “all the work and detail that went into it. Then, I started thinking, ‘How can I offer this antique look with something that is affordable?’ I stuck with carving to get the general gist of it. It’s a lot like playing pool – the more you do it, the better you get at it.”

It’s those same tough hands, though, that help him most with the business aspect of his work.

“I’ve worked a lot of shows, and I meet a lot of people,” Chandler noted. “When you’re showing somebody your work, though, you’re doing more than just trying to make a sale. You’re creating a friendship. All of my deals start and end with a handshake. The true businessmen have been doing that for years and years.”

Working with customers on a friendly basis also provides the consumer with advantages.

“The handshake does most of the talking,” said Chandler. “There’s not all the paperwork you’ll find at other places when I work with on a sale. We’re not offering lifetime warranties like the big names, but if I see that a piece of mine has failed, I will offer to repair or replace it, free of charge. It creates goodwill with your customers, and you know you’ve made a friend. You have to realize, I’m in this to make a living, but I’m going to treat customers the way I’d like to be treated.”

Building furniture right behind his own home has really helped Chandler to develop and perfect his craft.

“He works right out back,” said Melissa Chandler. “When you work at your own place, you forego the costly storefront. We don’t have to worry about all that, so we haven’t needed to raise prices in 20 years. Here, people get the real thing for a great price.”

Chandler’s products will be featured next Saturday, Sept. 12, at the Bethany Beach Boardwalk Arts Festival, which will run from 10 a.m. until 5 p.m. in downtown Bethany Beach. Though he stays busy with a number of shows throughout Pennsylvania, Delaware and Maryland each year, it has been several years since he participated in Bethany Beach’s Boardwalk Arts Festival.

“It’s great to get back in it,” he said.

Chandler plans to showcase some floor samples that have become widely popular throughout the area, as well as television stands, farm tables and coffee tables. Chester County Primitive Furniture will also display one of its newest projects, flatscreen television covers, fashioned out of shutters.

“We are always trying something new,” said David Chandler. “We want to make things that people are going to come back for.”

For more information about Chester County Primitive Flooring and Furniture, visit www.ccprimitive.com or call (302) 934-5009. For more information about the arts festival, visit www.bethany-fenwick.org.