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Prison upholstery shops & four more handy tips for renovators


Reader Johnny Ringo sent me five tips to consider for the blog:  New ideas on sources to try for getting chrome replated, refrigerators repainted… and then there’s the bit about the prison upholstery shops, which I didn’t quite believe but then I googled it and gosh darn wouldn’t you know. Johnny Ringo writes:.

I  want to offer however 5 quick tips for renovating and restoring:

  1. Small metal parts, such as drawer pulls, vent registers, lamp finials, etc. If you find yourself needing to have these things re-chromed, check out your local gun store. Chances are there is a business card their from a guy who makes some extra cash in his garage or basement by doing nickel and chrome plating on guns. He will cost less than a professional plating shop and is more adept at handling small parts. Even plastics can be plated through the electroless process.
  2. Most cities have a car shop that works on classic cars… your kitchen appliances and especially refrigerators are not that different in terms of fixing dents and painting. On that note, next to that classic car shop is probably a metal shop with a little old man very skilled at polishing the chrome, stainless steel and aluminum trim from those old cars. He can do the same to the metal skirts on your formica table.
  3. Most of us live closer than we realize or care to realize to one of our state’s correctional institutions. Most states have prison work shops, and some states allow the public to get work done there too. Upholstery shops are big prison industries, as are wood and metal shops. Check them out, and if your squeamish about prison labor, don’t be. Chances are the milk, toast, and eggs you ate this morning were all produced with inmate labor either in a prison factory or a private one that rents the inmates from the state. Nearly all U.S. made furniture especially your mattress, is made in prison factories
  4. On a similar note as above, don’t forget high school and junior colleges have various shop classes, and trade schools too, and often will do work for everyday folks on the cheap as classroom projects.
  5. Home Depot and Lowes are nice, but don’t forget your neighborhood mom and pop hardware store. Small Ace, True Value, and Sentry stores, among others, especially if they have been around a while, are better sources to find dead stock and NOS parts as they don’t have any corporate floor plan or stock rotation requirements. The True Value I worked in in the 90’s (in business since 1942) still carried a lot of old plumbing supplies, bakelite electrical parts and knobs, out of production light bulbs, etc.

Thank you, J.R. I’ll show your bathroom pics soon. 🙂 Note, that’s Astro in my living room on a sofa I had reupholstered but not by a prison. Honestly, they probably would have done a better job. I’m not too happy with the way the back is lasting, or not. I got the fabric cheap from the Waverly outlet in Adams that closed a few years ago. I actually love the fabric – the threads are kind of kind of looped like a carpet, and I find that this shade of blue, with a greyish tinge, adds warmth but almost reads like a… neutral. It’s a very malleable color.

  1. Kirsten says:

    Although I do agree our country is doing wrong to its citizens by imprisoning far to many people for far to long, prison workers do a lot more than break rocks by force. I agree with J.R. that it gives skills to people who want them. Both of my parents were prison guards in a minimum security California prison, and these kind of programs were competitive, and the prisoners wanted to get into them. I mean it wasn’t forced labor, and it gave them hope for the future….. and probably helped time pass. They didn’t get paid much, only pennies an hour, but they were getting some money for smokes or whatever, which is better than nothing. The prison my parents worked at did upholstery work only for the prison guards. I am reminded of the time my Mom got the dogs favorite chair recovered…. none of the prisoners would go near it because they saw fleas on it! (This was the days before Advantage and such) Not so tuff anymore huh…

  2. Rita says:

    I would like to hear what the prisoners have to say about this before making a decision. The article makes it seem like the big corporations are taking advantage of cheap labor and stuffing their pockets instead of paying a higher rate to the prisoner or passing along the savings to the consumer.

  3. James says:

    Regarding Tip No. 3, years ago my mother had her chairs re-caned at the local State Hospital for the Criminally Insane in Ohio (since closed). They did a great job. I didn’t know prison labor still did such work. I’ll have to check-out the prisons here in the Chicago area. Good tip!

  4. bepsf says:

    These are great tips – Thanks for posting them!

    I agree 100% about supporting our local hardware stores (Ace, True-Value, etc) as well as name-brand paint stores (ie: Benjamin Moore, Sherwin Williams) Folks who work there really know their stuff and are much friendlier than the folks at the Big-Box stores – if the prices are a little higher, it’s well worth it to me for the time saved, the enjoyable experience, the ease of finding what you’re looking for and the expertise shared by the proprietors/staff members.

  5. Kay says:

    Our local Goodwill recanes furniture. A local retired man runs the shop and teaches the skill to people they serve. I suspect other Goodwills off other unusual services and are worth checking with.

    As to prison labor, do your research, if you are comfortable with their program and how the inmates are treated, use it. Our local prison makes little 750sq foot homes that low income people can buy and have set on their lot. The inmates learn construction skills and a housing need is filled.

  6. Julie Rogers says:

    I work in Joliet, Ill., which is next door to the famed Stateville prison. (And home to the former Joliet Correctional Center you know and love from “Blues Brothers” and “Prison Break.”)

    Back in 1998, our newspaper reported that Stateville inmates were making soap, furniture and clothing and inmates at other Illinois prisons were making brooms and wax, processing meat, refinishing furniture, sewing and knitting.

    At the time, the industrial programs helped offset prison costs by bringing in $46 million in revenue a year. Joliet inmates were doing data entry, making mattresses and sewing.
    This means that you’ve probably been buying prison goods without knowing it already.
    Plus, you’d be shocked how often it’s a prisoner answering the phone when you call to make a catalog purchase. And yet you’re still safe and sound. The threat is minimal.

    Sadly, Stateville has shut down most of its industrial programs to get more control of the prisoners. So I can’t have stuff reupholstered there. But I totally would if they offered it.

  7. Great suggestions, but what’s most fascinating to me about this post is the wealth of information people have shared about the prison system’s practices. I never knew anything about it, and am happy to have my eyes opened.

    I offer a variation on something Pam said in an past post: Keep reading Retro Renovation and you might just end up with a degree in American Studies.

  8. Beth says:

    Here’s a dumb question—how might someone go about getting a refrigerator to an auto body shop? Thanks!

  9. J.R. says:

    First off, talk to the guys at the shop, tell them what you want, they might look at you like they are trying to make eye contact with a unicorn, but right now the economy being what it is, more places will work outside of their normal gigs just to stay afloat. Chances are they will realize a dented Chevy and a dented Maytag are not too far apart and take the job. After that, it’s a matter of a pick-up truck and muscle to get it there.

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