Bill Robillard in Green Bay, WI

March 17, 2012 article by Warren Gerds of the Green Bay Press-Gazette featuring the business of PRG member Bill Robillard. Link to the Green Bay Press-Gazette article.


When he was an engineer for IBM, William Robillard of Lawrence had visions of classy furniture dancing in his head as grist for his retirement.

He retired five years ago, and his work space in the lower level of his home is set up for making furniture, all right, but with whole new layers beyond that.

He restores antiques and has clients locally and in other parts of the country.

Over the years, Robillard tapped into knowledgeable furniture makers wherever he could find them.

"I learned at IBM to go to the best possible source for education," he said.

Robillard was with IBM for 30 years, including 10 years at Tucson, Ariz., and since 1989 in Green Bay. He engineered sophisticated robotics systems.

After retirement, he and his wife, Brenda Brunette, rented an apartment in Minneapolis as he studied with 12 other students with an instructor who interned at the Smithsonian Institution.

"He still had connections back to the Smithsonian," Robillard said. "During that time, a Smithsonian conservator would come out and work with us.

"I began to realize that my real interest and passion was not just in building or replicating my own copy of antique, meaningful furnishings but rather the restoration of them. If I could get my hands on something that a master had worked on, oh my God, how wonderful. What could be better in life?"

In December 2010, Robillard got a phone call offering two months of getting his hands on restoration projects at the U.S. House of Representatives.

The "wonderful opportunity" and "dream come true" led to him being "absolutely hooked on restoration."

It's safety first in his work space. He's careful to wear ear protection for the noise of sanders, saws and air filtration systems. Safety glasses are another must.

He's got — among other things — a cross-cut saw; joiner; an array of clamps (a big part of jobs); sander; down-draft table of his own design; mortiser; planers; drill press; band saw; shaper; scroll saw; sharpening equipment; chisels; an array of glazes, dyes and stains; sculptural epoxies, a glue pot (makes own type of glue); wood epoxies for specific textures; InstaMorph (a polymer that he can heat and shape to any form); pigments; and a collection of brushes for specific uses.

"As a restorer, you have to be a quarter historian, you have to be a quarter artist, you have to be a quarter chemist and then you have to be a quarter furniture maker," Robillard said. "And you have to somehow bring these very different disciplines together to do this because you need all of them.

"I can't treat a piece from the 1850s the way I treat one from the 1950s. I have to know those differences, which makes it fascinating."

Notable among Robillard's current projects is a handmade, ornate chair made in 1857. It's one of 262 Walter chairs made for the U.S. House of Representatives, and Robillard has an inkling the chair may make its way back to the House some day.

It's the type of chair in which President Abraham Lincoln sat for a photograph with his son, Tad. A copy of that photo is part of Green Bay history. (Robillard discusses the chair in a special soundslide with this feature on the Press-Gazette website).

Being a restorer is not solitary, Robillard has found. He receives 10 to 20 emails a day from restorers around the country who share quandaries and ideas. They're cohesive and cooperative, he said.

To accomplish what he needs to do, Robillard invents objects or systems.

"It's a part of the fabric of the day-to-day work here, inventing things," he said.

Robillard, the person, is re-invented, too.

"There's an artistic component that kept rearing its head, and, while I loved what I was doing and worked for a fabulous company — I can't just say enough about them — there was a certain drive to begin to develop at least this other artistic piece," he said.

In the collaborative of restorers, which meets once a year to "geek out," Robillard sees "a strong artistic component if you're really going to do it properly."

Time was, he made mission-style bunk beds, cabinetry, changing tables, cribs and other furniture for family and friends. A workshop brought him to another level.

"The little tinkling bell in my mind was, 'Just let go of the steering wheel. Just let go. Don't shut off that part of your brain that says, "This is what's best," and just let go and see where it goes.'

"I remember having that conscious thought, and I just did that and it … brought me into this restoration field. So I guess that's where my heart might be."

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