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Wharton: A different kind of stripper

Published February 21, 2013 11:49 am

This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2013, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.

South Salt Lake • Stripping is an art form.

But the kind of stripping brothers Robert and Robert Donio do at The Stripper has nothing to do with poles, bright lights and patrons waving dollar bills at performers on a stage.

Instead, they use a mix of chemicals to strip the finishes and paint off wood or metal. After that, the Donios spend hours restoring family heirlooms and antiques to their original, if not better, condition.

"It's a secret recipe, kind of like Kentucky Fried Chicken, only we ain't millionaires," Robert said about the mix of stripping agents they use.

"There are a lot of companies that want our recipe, but it took us too many years to design it," added Roger.

I recently took my wife's grandmother's hutch to The Stripper. It had been sitting in a garage for years and was not in great condition. Roger took one look at it, determined that it was made of fine wood and said it was worth restoring. About two weeks later, we picked up a beautiful family heirloom that now occupies a place of honor in our living room.

The brothers have been in business for more than 35 years. During that time, they have stripped the paint from items that include a 16-foot 1928 Thompson boat, Jeep bodies, car parts, satellite dishes and historic doors. One student from the University of Utah had been painting her room and came in with white paint splattered up and down her arms she wanted them to remove. That was one project the Donios declined to take.

One customer found a bunch of wooden parts that included carvings, deer heads, snakes, lizards and squirrels in a Park City attic and brought all the pieces to The Stripper. Nobody was certain exactly what all the pieces were supposed to be.

The Donios determined that carvings were part of an old large back bar that, when put together, turned out to be 7 feet tall and about 20 feet long. The whole thing was hand carved. The brothers had to restore many pieces, sometimes carving them themselves.

In addition to working with wood, the brothers often have to go to a machine shop to re-create a hinge, handle or metal part that has been damaged or lost. In many cases, they make missing parts themselves.

"It's fun to restore pieces," said Roger. "You get something that looks like you should throw it away and make it look good again."

It's not unusual for someone who has had a family heirloom restored to break into tears upon seeing it completed.

But the brothers are honest with their customers. If they think a piece is mostly junk or not worth restoring, they will say so. And they often spend way more time on a piece than they are being paid for, largely because they find it interesting.

The Donios are largely self-taught, and the experience of 35 years of restoring things plays a big role in their success.

When stripping paint or old finishes to get down to the original surface, they use a shallow pan made from sheet metal in the heart of their busy shop. The chemical is poured over the top of the item. The pan is on a slope that allows the chemical to return to a corner. They then use a nylon brush to scrub off the paint and then rinse it off with water. The wood is usually then bleached and dried.

The Donios got into the business almost by accident. They were managing a glass company next to a furniture stripper. They noticed people lined up, but the owner was often gone. After about a year of discussion, they bought the business. Word of mouth has brought them business from all over the world, including Europe and Hawaii.

The clever name The Stripper causes some confusion, especially in a part of the Salt Lake Valley that contains more than a couple of "gentlemen's clubs." Robert tells the story of a customer whose wife almost divorced him because she saw a check made out to The Stripper.

"It's a name people don't forget," said Roger.

And, in most cases, customers of The Stripper don't forget the fine work the Donio brothers do.

wharton@sltrib.com

Twitter: @tribtomwharton