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Good as new


Here in a red metal building off the beaten path in Stedman, with the faint smell of sawdust and varnish lingering in the air, people hand off their family heirlooms and then hope against hope for the improbable.

Scratched, chipped and with missing legs here and there, one treasured memory or another is always on the operating table at Cynthia Saar’s business, Cardinal Restorations LLC.

Saar just about always comes through. The results of her meticulous work – polished, painted, stained – have been known to move her customers to tears.
“I live for that,” Saar said.

Her toughest customer was her first one. Saar was a teenager growing up in Berkley, California, when her mother, Arlene, handed her a piece of antique furniture and instructed her to repair it. “Mom,” she said. “I don’t know anything about this.”

But in her hard-working family of eight siblings, shunning the job wasn’t an option. She headed to the library and “checked out about 100 books.” Then she began the process of stripping, sanding, staining and repairing.

“I started the process and instantly fell in love with it,” she said. “It has been my passion ever since. It’s so therapeutic.”

Furniture, however, was a hobby but not her professional calling, at least not at first. She was a good-time California girl who took her time getting through a variety of colleges, including UC-Berkeley and San Francisco State University back in the 1980s. Nevertheless, her natural smarts and penchant for organization landed her a job as a production manager at DuBose National Energy Services in Clinton. She had grown weary of supervising other people by the time she had an epiphany while working on a piece of furniture in her backyard.

“I was thinking about what I wanted to do with my life, and it struck like a bolt of lightning,” she said. “Why don’t I do this?”

She and partner Ann Faircloth, a native of Salemburg, built a small shop on the property of Faircloth’s brother, who owns a woodworking and cabinetry business. Within a couple years, they had outgrown that operation and moved to a larger place in Clinton. Quickly outgrowing that shop as well, they moved to their current location in 2008.

Like many of the buildings in the small town of Stedman, the structure that houses Cardinal Restorations is owned by Billy Horne, the man who founded Horne Brothers Construction. Horne, a former Cumberland County commissioner, served as a commissioner in Stedman and also as its mayor. He, too, grew up in a hard-working family.

“We had Horne Hardware Store,” he said. “My dad opened the business there when I was 8 or 9, and we lived upstairs. Six of us lived upstairs.”

Something clicked between this native son and Saar when she first came to town, looking to expand and wondering: “Who owns that red building?” Upon meeting for the first time, the two sat and talked for more than an hour.

“He is the most wonderful human being,” Saar said. “He’s been like my fairy godfather.”

These days, Saar oversees a business that features comprehensive service.
“From stripping furniture, repair and fabrication and replacement of damaged parts to veneer and inlay work, staining and finishing,” she said, “we do it all.”

While she can complete most jobs inside the red metal building, for certain components she enlists the help of trusted contractors like upholsterer Trick Holmes, Babette Augustin of Mill End Fabrics, and Jim O’Leary of Transit Damage Inspection Service. “When I first got here,” Saar said, “Jim was one of the few who didn’t talk down to me.”

Despite the necessary messiness involved in the process of sanding, painting and sawing, hers is a neat-as-a-pin operation. Parts and pieces are organized and packed away in tidy bins. Tools are grouped together on pegboard hooks. Even specialized implements that a visitor wouldn’t readily recognize hang on the wall in meticulous fashion.

“If it’s not organized, my brain’s not organized,” Saar said. “I run a pretty tight ship in terms of cleanliness.”

Saar and Faircloth have faced challenges, but not from the heirlooms or the antiques. Like most businesses, they’ve had to cope with the effects of COVID. Besides that, the price of refinishing materials has soared.

And then there are the people who have never seen a woman wield a power tool or operate a table saw.

“It’s men who think they know more than I know,” she said. “The ones who say, ‘Where’s your husband?’ and “Where’s the man that does the work?’
“No husband,” she always answers.

These days, a bright spot is Nick Fauvell, who stopped by about a year ago to apply for a job. Despite having no experience, he wound up having a knack for careful craftsmanship.

“That was my lucky day,” Saar said. “I don’t have any kids, but if I did, it would be him.”

Saar’s mother, the woman who must have sensed something in her daughter when she handed her that piece of broken family furniture, died years ago. But not before having the opportunity to see that long-ago chore blossom into fine craftsmanship and loyal customers.

“I do for you as I would do for my mother,” Saar said. “We work hard every day, and we do our best every day. There’s no other job I’d rather do.”  

Cynthia Saar, Cardinal Restorations