From sharpening knives to better-than-new condition, to restoring rugs you thought were goners, these three master craftsmen can fix just about anything and in the process, make customers swoon. Keep their numbers handy.
Dan Thompson: Atomic Celt Bladeworks
Highland Park resident Dan Thompson has turned his finely honed, multiple-graduate-degree mind to knife sharpening and Pittsburgh’s foodies can rejoice. The North Carolinian, graduate of Duke University, returns your dull tools with a blade you can fear. This is the lethal edge you have dreamed of, the result you never got, dragging your disabled weaponry to sharpening services all over town.
Wait! There’s more: he sharpens your Cuisinart blade. Your scissors. Your pinking shears. Your ax. Your lawn mower.
“I could probably sharpen your helicopter—anything with a blade,” says he.
He sharpened my mother’s mid-last-century sewing scissors, first noting the German maker. “These are built to last, worth sharpening. They would probably cost a few hundred dollars today.” And unlike the botched results of a tuneup by a sharpening service, the shears now cut cleanly through a Turkish towel.
The father of three—his wife works for HUD—decided to launch the business, Atomic Celt Bladeworks, “maker and mender of knives and blades,” this last spring as he seeks the job he wants in public planning. He has part-time teaching gigs, including a summer stint at Princeton.
“I’m a geek, can’t help it. I got interested in knives as an Eagle Scout growing up in Lewisburg, N.C.”
Making them is half the fun. Fashioning maple burl from a neighbor’s storm-felled tree into a handle for a cheese knife that feels like balanced silk in the palm. Or a chef set for a cook you truly love since the three knives cost about $500.
He instructs a few foodies watching his maintenance technique: “If you take care of your knives each time before putting them away—use the steel at a 20-degree angle to smooth the edge that gets roughened every time the knife is used, the leather strop to polish further, and a drop of oil rubbed over the blade to guard against rust (including the stainless knives) before putting them away—once-a-year sharpening is enough.”
They moan as one. “We’re not going to do that.” Oh well, better for business.
Prices range from $5 to $15, depending on size and complication of blade. Dan picks up and delivers within Highland Park, and will do so for a small fee elsewhere, depending on distance.
Savo Djukic, otherwise known as DJ: Craft Furniture Restoration
Martini in hand, my husband is holding forth as a guest in a glam Pittsburgh penthouse. With sudden ripping and rending, he sinks, jack-knifed, through the seat of the hostess’s antique chair.
For a situation like this, you really need Savo Djukic. That’s pronounced joo-kich. But we call him DJ, as all his customers do. The affable Slovenian has a workshop, Craft Furniture Restoration, in Crafton, next to a Dollar Store.
Since emigrating in 1999, this low-key guy has made things right for many a piece of abused furniture. No job is too small but the bigger and more complicated the challenge is, the better he likes it.
The work might include total refinishing, minor touch-ups, re-gluing, restoring carving, matching veneer, caning, upholstering.
He and his Croatian wife Djordja (say Georgia), met when both worked in Germany and have raised a family here. He built restoration skills studying part-time with an elderly craftsman in Germany.
The business needs no advertising. “It’s the same people and their relatives and friends,” notes DJ. Also industry professionals like Rebecca Sohn, owner of Black Lamb Consignments in Carnegie. “I rely on DJ as do a number of my customers,” she says. “He is the kind of Old World master craftsman that you almost can’t find today. He has versatility and appreciation for all periods of furniture. His craft almost comes before his livelihood.”
That craft might be applied to an old desk destined for a law office, to building a dollhouse wired for electricity for a favored customer, to restoring a mantle, a bar for a restaurant or household furniture from some of Pittsburgh’s historic houses.
One morning brings a truck full of antique tables, with a decorator’s phone number and a note: “Refinish these as you think best and deliver them to this address in Evans City.”
Nobody asked him the price, DJ, says but no matter. “I charge same for work, no matter what kind of car you drive.” Tables finished, he sets his GPS and pulls up at “some kind of big farm house.” Turns out they’ll furnish a set for American Pastoral, the new movie based on the Philip Roth book, being made in Evans City.
On another day a container of Asian furniture is shattered in a moving accident: Ornately carved chairs and tables turned into “a 1,000-piece puzzle.” DJ is elated. “I love carving and shaping,” he says, showing cell phone pix of the recreated furbelows. “We saved it all.”
“In the ‘70s everybody was painting everything white,” he says. “Nobody is into preserving and saving. Then they start buying online—the high-gloss, Asian-made pieces “that won’t survive two moves.
“But the kids get older, they want their grandparents’ furniture. Our advice: don’t get stuff dipped—grain jumps up, glue dissolves, drawers, chair legs fall apart.
“We do the stripping by hand with gels. For carvings, I use sawdust and a brush. I don’t use sandpaper. I scrape with a piece of glass,” he adds, showing a palm-sized square of glass, with a raw edge. “It’s smoother and faster.”
The former tennis and soccer player says, “I watch, you know, a lot of sport. If I were younger, I’d be a tennis judge. Sit up on that high chair for a couple hours. It’s my dream job.”
Djordja is more into local teams. It’s part of the business: “Pittsburgh’s mood is very important. If the Steelers miss a chance at the Super Bowl, oh boy—people don’t do projects. It takes weeks to get that together.
“Indirectly we are always involved in it,” he laughs.
The Rug Doctor: Ken Ashtari
This treasured Turkish rug in our living room should have been turned ages ago. We hadn’t gotten to it. Shoving a heavy chair aside, we haul up on the fringe end. What’s this weird powdery stuff? From the back of the rug you see a path eaten right through the buttery pile.
The moths had relished such a hand-knotted tribal rug, handcrafted a few years ago in Turkey. It was made in the age-old way with handspun wool, traditional vegetable dyes and patterns. And with lasting value we thought.
O’Bannon Carpets, our rug guru, instructs: “Call North Side Carpet Cleaning right now. Put it in the car and take it to them. And get rid of the rug pad. It’s infested too.”
North Side owner Ken Ashtari answers the phone. “I was leaving, but I’ll wait for you.”
How’d this happen? “It’s undisturbed under that chair, which moths love. They lay eggs. The larvae eat. The white dust is larvae poop,” he tells us.
It’s tragicomic: “Did you know moths choose one color and stick with it? They start with orange, they eat only orange. Another group at the other end might eat brown.
“We’ll treat it, then wash it. And we can put it back on the loom and fix it so you never know it happened. It won’t be cheap, but you will not be able to pick out the damaged part.” (We can’t.)
When a rug is seriously damaged, options are limited, he says. “You can send them to specialists on either coast and pay a lot more.”
Most rug rescues—red wine, blood, a dog-chewed pen; pet urine rips, dry rot, fringed or bound edges destroyed by wear, water damage, extreme filth—involve a thorough washing.
“To clean rugs properly, you have to really soak them and then dry them fast. If not, colors can run—these are vegetable dyes—and if the entire rug is not completely dry, it will mildew,” he notes.
Ken bought North Side Carpet Cleaning, which serviced the carriage trade early last century and has the space for rugs. “Rugs can be laid flat for washing then hung in a two-story ‘hot room,’ at 140 degrees,” he says.
He won a plum job, against contenders from Chicago and New York, to clean and repair a valuable and huge Iranian Bijar—19-by-37 feet—belonging to the Rolling Rock Country Club. The 1860 rug, a gift from the Mellon family, was very dirty. And it needed a lot of restoration.
The 54-year-old Iranian, son of an architect, grew up in Tehran. At age 24 he emigrated to Dallas, a major Persian rug import-export city and home to relatives. He left, hating the weather, but took with him an abiding attraction for old rugs.
He is one of three appraisers in Western Pennsylvania who passed a three-day accreditation exam given by ORRA, a national Oriental rug association.
Any conversation becomes a teaching moment. We drink tea in glass cups, Iranian-style, with a barley-sugar candy in our mouths to sip through.
“You get 40 rugs. You have to identify age, knot style, dyes, fibers, region, even the villages they come from.”
This expertise informs the work when your damaged rug goes back on the loom.
“This kind of work is a nearly lost art,” he says and it takes time and patience. “I have an Iranian who began weaving when he was 10 years old. He’s been with me for 15 years. Nearly all vegetable-dyed yarn comes from Iran. So I’m happy I can find farmers in Ohio who will make yarn with vegetable dyes. You should see our wall of yarns in hundreds of colors.”
Wear to bindings and fringe can creep up on you before you know it. “Fix it right away, as soon as you see a thread loose . . . before the wear has gone into the pile of the rug,” he cautions. “It’ll cost $30 instead of $300.
“If the rug is old, 70 years or older, you want to do everything by hand. Don’t consider a modern machine-made fringe. Don’t let them machine-serge the edges.” He has a stack of cheap rugs handy to demonstrate the machine work you don’t want. Bad fixes will cut the value of the rug in half.”
Surely a man whose life is rugs has favorites. He won’t admit to any. But he loves those “Wow, where have you been?” moments, when a piece shows up so intriguing that he has to call in cronies. “Want to see a fascinating rug,” he says?
Take a look at the Iranian Christian kilim, vintage 1900, framed over his desk. It’s a primitive of Mary and the infant Jesus with a star overhead, and the Farsi words: “Light coming through the door of heaven.”