Local Business

Recycle, Recreate, Re-love

Cumberland woman breathes new life into old treasures with her furniture restoration business

“Taking an old worn out piece of furniture and making it beautiful again really makes me happy, <a href=

rx ” says JoAnne McElroy, more with some of her restored pieces. “I like to think that I take old pieces and breathe new life into them.”” src=”https://www.infocusmagazine.ca/wp-content/uploads/2013/02/blackberry-lane-290×434.jpg” width=”290″ height=”434″ /> “Taking an old worn out piece of furniture and making it beautiful again really makes me happy, impotent ” says JoAnne McElroy, with some of her restored pieces. “I like to think that I take old pieces and breathe new life into them.”

Photo by Boomer Jerritt

JoAnne McElroy has always had a fascination with old things.  In fact, when she recalls growing up, some of her fondest memories are of trips she and her father took to the community landfill near Mackenzie, BC.  She and her dad would regularly go to the dump with the sole purpose of rummaging around to see what they could find.  McElroy remembers that mixed among the things that clearly belonged in a garbage pile, there were always items that caught her and her father’s eye— a broken lamp, a picture frame, old windows, a crooked wooden chair, a wood stove.

“Back in the day it was amazing what people threw away—it was a goldmine,” recalls McElroy.

During those excursions, McElroy’s dad taught her how to find the gems concealed within the piles of garbage.  In fact, her dad furnished their entire lake cabin from things found during their trips to the dump.  Most importantly, her father taught her how to see the potential in something someone else threw away.

She uses those skills today as owner of Blackberry Lane – Farmhouse Inspired Furnishings, a furniture restoration business based in Cumberland.  Though McElroy has worked as a tree planter for the past 15 years and is also a certified teacher, for the past 14 months she has been spending most of her time carefully transforming old furniture castoffs into beautiful pieces of furniture that are sought after throughout Vancouver Island.

Like her dad could see the potential in items someone else threw away, McElroy can visualize how beautiful a piece of furniture can be, if only given the chance.  She can see the potential in a dated, scratched, and thrice-painted bureau that has been offloaded to the Sally Ann or is otherwise unwanted, or unappreciated.   “Taking an old worn out piece of furniture and making it beautiful again really makes me happy,” says McElroy.  “I like to think that I take old pieces and breathe new life into them.”

Though McElroy has been restoring furniture for more than 20 years, she credits her father for teaching her the fine art of restoration through his love of fixing up and restoring old cars.  As far back as McElroy can remember, her father would take vintage cars and restore them into gleaming things of beauty.  “My father has always had a passion for old cars and the restoration of them,” she says.  “He began when he was 14 years old—he was given a 1926 Star that he fixed up and drove to school.”

Restoring cars became a hobby and a passion her dad never gave up.  “I guess I am a lot like my father in that I love and see the beauty in old things,” she adds.  “I admit I’m a bit different that way.  For example, where most people see rust as something that needs to be removed, I admire it and want to photograph it.  The color is just so gorgeous and the texture is beautiful.”

Though McElroy’s dad made an old car look brand new again, that’s not what she does with her furniture.  “I like to retain the story of each piece if it’s possible,” she says.  For example, when McElroy refinishes a piece she doesn’t strip away all the paint.  “To me, stripping away the paint feels like stripping away the history.”

Instead she likes to reveal the heritage of the piece by sanding it just enough to show the layers of paint. “The layers of paint tell the story.  It’s what makes the piece unique and interesting.  Anyone can go into a furniture store and buy a piece of furniture that’s been mass produced by the thousands, but my pieces are one-of-a-kind.”

McElroy tells the story of one of her favorite pieces—a bureau that was quite old and painted with a sage green paint.  When she began sanding through the first layer of paint another layer of burgundy paint began to show through.

“It was striking,” she recalls.  “The sanding began to reveal lines of color that swirled and created beautiful patterns that looked like a map—a map showing the history of the piece.  If I just stripped off the paint, I’d never reveal the story.”

Because of McElroy’s unique philosophy, it took her a long time to come up with a name for her business.  Having Blackberry Lane in the name was easy—she’s always loved the lanes in Cumberland with their painted fences and rutted tracks, some taken over with blackberry brambles.

“I originally thought of Blackberry Lane – Up-Cycled Furnishings,” says McElroy, “but then I realized that my pieces are not up-cycled at all—they’re not made into something that functions differently, they’re just made beautiful again.”  McElroy struggled to come up with a name that accurately described what she did with her furniture.   However, she has always loved the idea of farms filled with old pieces of furniture—farmhouse furniture that’s been loved and well-used over the years.  So one day when she was driving through the farmlands of Black Creek the perfect name came to her:  Blackberry Lane—Farmhouse Inspired Furnishings.

Her tag line is Recycle, Recreate, Re-love, because that is just what she hopes to do with each piece.

“Instead of buying new, I feel purchasing restored furniture is a better way to furnish one’s home, using less resources than if one bought new,” McElroy says.  “I recreate furniture, give it a new life, a new look and that piece is then taken into a new home where a person will love that piece all over again.”

Though McElroy used to search through the dump for treasures, that’s not where she looks for them today.  Instead, McElroy keeps her eyes peeled for old furniture treasures at garage sales, estate sales, auctions, and on Craig’s List.  Every now and then she even finds her treasure in the local thrift stores.

Sometimes people are surprised when they learn that some of her beautifully restored pieces were originally found at a thrift store.  She tells the story of a wooden coffee table she found in a local thrift store, which she restored and put it up for sale at The Rusty Rooster in Cumberland.

“A lady walked in and was admiring it.  She obviously liked the piece and was interested in it, but what clinched the sale was when I told her that it originally came from a thrift store,” recalls McElroy.  “It was the piece’s unique story that ultimately sold it.”

McElroy finds all of her pieces on Vancouver Island.  “I don’t need to travel to the mainland to find what I’m looking for, there’s plenty right here on the island,” she says.  “I also have two friends who help me—one in Parksville and another in Victoria—and since they both know what I like, they let me know when they find something I might be interested in.”

Anyone who has ever tried to refinish furniture knows it’s no easy task.  In fact, it’s back-breaking work that takes a discerning eye and loads of patience.   For McElroy, a piece of furniture can take several days to complete.  “It’s a slow process because 98 per cent of the work done on a piece is by hand, and most of that time is spent sanding.”

But it’s the hours of fine work that make McElroy’s pieces stand out from the rest.  You just have to run your hand over one of McElroy’s finished pieces of furniture to know that the workmanship is superb.

McElroy strives to use materials that are kind to the environment.  “I use latex paints, I don’t use harsh solvents, and I even make my own chalk paint,” she says, adding that each piece is finished off with a liberal rubbing of beeswax.

From beginning to end, creating beautifully restored furniture is quite a process and it takes patience and artistic talent.  “I might have an idea of what I’d like to do with a piece when I start, but most times it’s like the piece tells me what to do,” McElroy says.  “Rarely does a piece end up exactly like I envisioned from the start.”

Because she has a keen eye for the potential in every piece of furniture, it’s been hard to hold back when she sees furniture she likes.  “There are so many beautiful pieces out there.  After I started Blackberry Lane, it wasn’t long before I began to stockpile things, and soon my partner and I were tripping over old pieces of furniture waiting to be refinished.  So we converted a room in our house into a studio where I can store furniture and work on pieces too.”

Though she has a studio she doesn’t see the future as one where people come to her house to see her completed pieces.  She sells her work at a few stores on the Island, but what she’d most like to focus on is creating custom work for people.  Clients can bring their old furniture to McElroy to refinish into new pieces that better match their decor and color schemes.  McElroy will even pay a visit to a client’s house so she can give advice on the final color of the piece that’s based on the existing colors in the house.

“I really like the idea of making custom pieces for people,” she says.  “In the beginning the idea of custom work made me nervous, because I knew there was a possibility of creating a piece of furniture the client wasn’t perfectly happy with.  However, I have learned exactly what questions to ask, and now I really enjoy the process.”

Besides furniture, McElroy also enjoys refinishing kitchen cabinets.  “I think there’s a real market for that here in the Valley.  Restoring wood cabinets is less expensive than buying brand new cabinets, and it has a lot more charm.”

Although refinishing is an interesting and unique way to brighten up an old kitchen or bathroom, McElroy even has some clients who have asked her to repaint and distress the kitchen cabinetry in a brand new house.

While McElroy focuses mainly on larger pieces of furniture, however, she refinishes smaller items as well.  “I do mirrors, chalkboards, and cork-boards out of old window frames, and coat racks with hooks out of old cupboard doors,” she says.  “I also make candle holders, shelves, doll cradles, stools and farmhouse chairs.  These types of things sell well because they are a good price point and not everyone is looking for a piece of furniture.”

Though McElroy’s business has taken some time to evolve, she feels she’s found her niche in Cumberland.

“I moved here by choice, and like many residents of Cumberland, I wear a lot of hats.  I could move to the North and get a job teaching, but I want to live here.  I came here for the lifestyle. Refinishing old furniture allows me to be creative, do what I love, and live where I want.”

For more information call JoAnne McElroy at 250-898-7330 or search for Blackberry Lane – Farmhouse Inspired Furnishings on Facebook.

You can find pieces of McElroy’s work at the Rusty Rooster in Cumberland, Be-Solely Canadian Clothing Boutique in Courtenay, Nancy’s Fashions and Furnishings in Ladysmith, and House of Hayday in Cowichan Bay.