“Upholstery CSI”: Preserving antique furniture at Colonial Williamsburg

Colonial Williamsburg is all about dressing up for the 18th century, getting period details just right, down to the chairs. 

Meet Leroy Graves, the remarkable man who, for more than three decades, has kept Colonial Williamsburg’s renowned collection of 18th century furniture splendidly and correctly attired, and along the way has revolutionized how museums preserve and protect upholstered antiques.

Teichner asked, “Can you look at a piece of furniture and say, ‘This is a fake’?”

“Yeah,” he replied.

Fake, as in making it look old and valuable, when it really isn’t.

To be an upholstery conservator, Graves also has to be a detective. An ongoing exhibition of his work is actually called “Upholstery CSI.”

“So, every time somebody new upholsters it, it gets more intrusive, and more damaging?”

“Correct. I said, ‘Well, why don’t we come up with a system that we don’t use nails at all?'”

What came to be known as “The Graves Method” is now being used world-wide.

He used trial and error with different materials, sometimes in combination – copper, plexi, plywood, plastic. He uses anything and everything that works to create a kind of rigid exoskeleton for each chair or sofa, to which he adds removable upholstery. 

What’s the crime?  Grievous bodily harm perpetrated on fragile, historical pieces by nails and tacks. “Sadly, they used all these larger nails,” he said.