By Elizabeth McGowan
Bill Kinneary’s most cherished mentor was his maternal grandfather. As a child, he stuck to the older gentleman like a shadow when his family spent three months of every year on his grandparents’ farm near a tiny town in northern Italy.
It fascinated the young Kinneary that his grandfather—who shared an ox with his neighbor so he could till his land and collect firewood—never seemed to generate any trash because he saw value in even the most minuscule material good. A foot of string? Save it for a repair job. A stray coat hanger? Build a bird trap out of it. The list goes on. And on.
“He was amazing,” marvels a grown Kinneary about the relative who imbued in him a keen conservation ethic. “He could do just about anything and fix just about everything.”
Today, observers could describe Kinneary with that same language. The 55-year-old self-taught carpenter carries a refreshing can-do spirit into the furniture repair and restoration workshops he offers on select weekends to all comers at Community Forklift.
“It seems that so many people, when something is broken, they throw up their hands and figure they can’t do anything about it,” he says. “People are intimidated. I want them to know they don’t have to be.”
That message resonated with Anna Filan. The Fort Washington, Md., resident was a Forklift rookie when she appeared at Kinneary’s June workshop with her grandmother’s blue chair in hand. The simple wooden piece had served as a substitute high chair for Filan and other children in the family. Filan inherited it when her Swedish grandmother, who immigrated to the United States at age 20 in 1904, died in 1966.
“It was well used and well loved but it was just sitting there unused,” Filan says, adding that two of its eight rungs had snapped. “I don’t know where my grandmother got it but I wanted to do what I could to save it. I’m handy enough but I’m not a woodworker so I wanted to take it to a neighborhood place where I would feel comfortable asking about fixing it. Bill’s workshop was perfect.”
Kinneary figured the chair, which has a maple seat and oak legs, was likely crafted in the 1890s. He offered to take it to his shop in Cheverly, Md., because the rung repair was quite tricky. He completed it in three days.
“I’m just so thrilled with it,” she says, adding that the repaired chair, now painted black, is in her living room. She wants to jazz it up with bright, colorful designs that are a tradition of Swedish artisans. “That chair isn’t anything fancy but it meant a lot to me because of the sentimental value.”
Filan’s success with the workshop has sparked her inner artist. Now a Forklift veteran, one of her new hobbies is rehabbing small pieces of furniture and transforming doorknobs and lamp parts into birdfeeders.
“The Forklift provides a sense of community for people who might be a little bashful,” she says. “The more I get involved, the more confidence I have to do things like this.”
That assurance and self-reliance is exactly what Kinneary is trying to encourage in his low-key, self-deprecating manner. He’s aware that not everybody, especially women, grew up satisfying their innate curiosity as he did by taking apart everything from pianos to oscillating fans.
“My advice to people is if you find something that’s set out with the trash that looks interesting, pick it up,” he says. “You’re not going to ruin it by working on it. It was free, after all. This is a way for people to learn how things are put together.”
He fondly recalls one woman who came to one of his workshops with a set of chairs. Most of the rungs had separated from the legs and she was convinced she would have to hire somebody to make them whole.
“I told her that old wood expands and contracts,” he says, adding that his remedy included Gorilla Glue and clamps. “Once she realized how simple this was, she realized she could take it to a repair shop and spend $150 or she could buy $10 worth of materials. She gained confidence once she realized it wasn’t a big deal and that she could do it.”
Wendy Wu of Bethesda, Md., ferreted out the Forklift several months ago because she needed a lumber supply for her nascent carpentry hobby, where she categorizes herself at a level somewhere between beginner and intermediate.
She attended Kinneary’s July workshop to quiz him about a buffet she had rescued from the roadside. It was too heavy to cart to Edmonston, so she showed him photographs. He concluded that it was oak with brass knobs and was handmade not long after World War II. She’s now refinishing the piece.
“Bill is so great,” says Wu, a podiatrist completing her residency at Georgetown University and Washington Hospital Center. “He’s very approachable. He told me things aren’t as complicated as they seem. And he’s right.”
Kinneary also was able to offer Wu perspective on a single chandelier she had crafted by cannibalizing parts from two chandeliers that she had purchased at the Forklift.
“I had been trying to hook up that chandelier forever,” she says. “At the workshop, he showed me how to take it apart and related it to my profession. It reminded me of doing surgery on patients, the way you take things apart so you can figure out how to put them back together.”
“Once I figured out how to salvage it, I went home and rewired it,” she continues. “It’s now hanging in my dining room and it looks beautiful.”
Despite Wu’s long and demanding hours, the Forklift remains on her “must-do list” as she reinvents the interior of her rental house bit by bit.
Kinneary was born in Libya. He’s called handfuls of countries and states home because of his father’s federal government job. After studying psychology in college and dabbling in multiple careers, he settled on furniture repair several years ago when building stone walls became too physically demanding. He doesn’t advertise his business, BK Restoration, instead relying on word-of-mouth recommendations.
His garage workshop is dominated by a table saw, a tabletop sander, a belt sander, a circular saw, a planer, a drill and a lathe. He prefers older equipment because he says it is sturdier and can be rebuilt if a part wears out.
He laments that manufacturers and certain television programs have brainwashed people into believing they must acquire the latest and greatest tools to even experiment with basic carpentry.
“They think they need all of these tools,” he notes. “Really you need a hammer, a chisel, a screwdriver and away you go. You’ll figure out what other tools you need as you go along.”
Kinneary also wishes amateur and advanced woodworkers wouldn’t dismiss pine and redwood as unacceptable or lesser species.
“People become snobby and think they have to have oak, cherry or Brazilian cherrywood,” he says. “There’s nothing the matter with creating from pine. You have to open your imagination.”
He purchases most all of his lumber from the Forklift because he knows he can find older wood that has been seasoned in the sun. He has eschewed kiln-dried wood ever since he worked at a mill shop in Italy in his 20s and learned how to dry it “properly and naturally,” he says.
One of his goals, whether he is collaborating with Forklift workshop attendees or customers at his shop, is to help them understand and appreciate the exquisite wood craftsmanship that existed before machines started churning out furniture. He becomes quite animated upon showing how a little oil or shellac can highlight the grain and transform a piece from flat to three-dimensional.
“People need to recognize the time and effort that was put into making furniture 100 an 200 years ago,” he says. “Somebody was doing all of that work by hand. You can’t help but say wow.”
“You can see the warmth of the wood and the grain,” he continues. “It doesn’t have that dull, dead feel. It gives it energy and makes it come alive because it highlights the rich hues and tones. You can see it and feel it with your hands.”
Kinneary has been a Forklift shopper and donor for years.
“I was always able to find what I needed at a reasonable price,” he says. “It’s a great organization. I like supporting that place because they like what they are doing, they believe in what they are doing, and it shows when you walk in.”
He had an aha moment about a year ago when he noticed some of the furniture wasn’t selling because it was in disrepair. He figured workshops focused on repair and restoration could help to change that scenario.
“The best way to keep items out of landfills is not to buy junk at big box stores,” he says. “This is a way to get people recycling. Remember, carpenters like trees. We’re not the ones cutting them down. We want to keep them in the ground. You do that by reusing old wood or fixing the furniture you already have.”
He floated the idea for his workshop last year after engaging in a conversation with fellow Forklifters about how liberating it can be to Dumpster-dive and then transform a discard into a delight.
“Something is going on in this country where everybody thinks they have to do everything perfectly the first time,” he says. “Not everything has to be done for money. It’s not a failure when you keep trying. You succeed when you learn something.”