How a furniture maker found his niche in creating exterior doors
When Ed Arthur returned from Vietnam, he had solid technical training but no desire to pursue it as a career.
“Over there I was a crew chief for Bird Dogs,” recalled Arthur, 69, a Laguna Beach, California, native. “They were little two-seater Cessna O-1 spotter planes that flew at very low altitude. They'd come back with bullet holes in them, stuff like that. I'd patch them up, do the maintenance, change the spark plugs and make them good enough to take out again.”
But after finishing his tour of duty in 1969, Arthur didn't want to be an aircraft mechanic. “I was good mechanically; I'm kind of a MacGyver. That's why they put me in maintenance after they tested me. But I thought, 'I've got to do something good with my life. Something more satisfying.' “
Before being drafted, Arthur had worked at a furniture store, repairing and touching up pieces to prepare them for delivery to customers. After Vietnam he returned to the job and gradually gained expertise in refinishing techniques.
“It appealed to me. My mom was an interior designer, and her mom was an interior designer, working in downtown L.A. She was Ella Fitzgerald's decorator,” he said.
As a kid, Arthur had helped his mom with her projects, hanging pictures and doing other small jobs. It helped his early career.
“I got an opportunity with a furniture company,” he said. The job was to finish large pieces of furniture. “I learned it all myself,” Arthur recalled. “I didn't have a mentor.”
He worked with the in-vogue suburban furniture of the time—”kind of Mediterranean. Those octagonal end tables with the heavy legs and the doors.”
Arthur brought in some of his own projects to finish in his boss' spray booth. “My mom had friends who were also decorators. They all had things that needed to be refinished.”
Later, Arthur worked on a contract basis for a company that refurbished oak pieces. “In the '70s it was really big to strip oak furniture and refinish it.” Arthur says he learned all his present skills on that job. In those days, he avoided any exterior work, finding it too challenging.
“I had enough work with interior furniture and finishes that I didn't need to get into outside work. It's a whole different universe,” Arthur said. “You have to know about the weather, ultraviolet light, cold, heat, moisture. It was too complicated and too much trouble at that point.”
But after working as an interior contractor for many years, Arthur realized there was a lucrative niche in that part of the industry, especially in exterior doors.
“If you're refinishing a front door, you need to have a lot of knowledge and patience,” he said. “There aren't a lot of people who know how to do that. These projects require knowing how to strip everything completely, how to mask things well, how to keep your mess in a tightly contained area. You need to work with really powerful products, stuff that you have to wash off immediately if you get just a pinprick on your skin.”
And you can't cut corners, Arthur added.
“You have to work in a dust-free environment,” he said. “Refinishing a door doesn't work when the wood is vertical, so you have to remove everything and lay it down.”
Arthur said many of the materials he works with are made for the maritime industry.
“I've found a good product that works really well for exterior doors,” he said. “It's a two-part marine finish. You can't just swing by Home Depot and get it; I go to a marine hardware place in Long Beach. It holds up super well.”
The most important aspect of the job, Arthur said, is knowing how to talk to the client.
“I don't have to tell them their door looks like crap,” he said. “They've already called me. They know that compared to buying a good-quality new door, my services are reasonable.” Arthur gets much of his business through word of mouth and excellent Yelp reviews.
On Arthur's website (doorsbyinvision.com), before-and-after shots display his artistry.
His projects involve more than just rejuvenating a tired old door and making it look new. Arthur pays attention to the prevailing style of the home and his clients' aesthetic tastes, creating a look that's intrinsically right.
“My one stipulation is that the door has to be a good product to begin with,” he said. “I will definitely tell people if their door isn't worth it. If it's a solid door made of oak or alder or walnut or teak, they all have beautiful qualities to them. I'll bring that out. And if they take care of those doors after I'm finished with them, they should last a long, long time.”