After years in the welding trade, lifelong craftsman is a one-of-a-kind upholsterer

By Stu Watson

At the industrial sewing machine in his shop, David Menasco lines up fabric with the foam backing before stitching.
At the industrial sewing machine in his shop, David Menasco lines up fabric with the foam backing before stitching.

Not many people approach the end of their working life with the realization they have become one of a kind.

David Menasco, the first to say that he specializes in very little, says he is the only craftsman in the Hood River Valley who specializes in leather upholstery.

“When I started out, there were seven upholsterers in the valley,” says the owner and sole craftsman at Northwest Upholstery, operated out of his home at 5745 Trout Creek Ridge Road.

“Now there are just two,” he says.

Like David, Delora Portner has a specialty. She restores older furniture with fabric coverings. “She doesn’t do leather or vinyl,” David says. “God, she’s good. She understands it. I asked her to apprentice. She said ‘no.’ But we’re good friends. She mentored me quite a bit.”

David used to upholster furniture. Now he focuses his talents on car and boat interiors, with the occasional leather chair or sofa.

Approaching 60, David smiles when he thinks about how it all played out. Growing up in Missouri, he discovered a love of working with his hands. “I love building,” he says. “I’ve been a builder most of my life.”

He started out restoring cars, then decided he wanted to be a welder, which led him to enlist in the Navy, “because I thought with all those ships, they must need welders,” he says.

Ten years later, he moved to Colorado Springs and started working in a series of steel fabrication shops. His father, an itinerant missionary Baptist preacher and welder, had settled in the Hood River Valley. One day, he called David, who was then living in Denver.

After a quick visit to Hood River, David called his wife. “I told her, ‘This is the place I want to live and raise our family,’” he recalls. For five years, he and his father ran Menasco Trailers in Odell, building utility trailers to customer specs. After his father retired, David decided it was too much for one person to continue. He closed the shop and went back to work for other people.

At Nichols Boatworks—where the Hampton Inn now sits in Hood River— David helped build two of the barges that Shaver Transportation runs up and down the Columbia. David was young and brash. He says his boss at Nichols wasn’t much better, so they went their separate ways. Twenty-five years later, David thinks he has softened some of those rough edges. “But there’s still men in this valley who won’t talk to me because of how I was years ago,” he says.

After he left Nichols, David and his wife, Peggy, were hoping to buy the house where they still live. Thinking he would work just 30 days until a home loan came through, David took a job in Boardman renovating a grain elevator. It lasted five years. “It was one of the best jobs ever,” he says. “Even though I commuted 67 miles every day.”

A succession of welding projects followed, until the day David took his boat to The Dalles in search of someone who could fix the leather top. One quote was too high, and the second quote carried too much grief. “It took him a month to do the job with the wrong fabric,” David says. About the same time, his Gresham employer moved the business to Georgia, and David qualified for federal help with retraining. He asked Eddie Brown, the man who fixed his boat, to take him on as an apprentice. “He was the only one who would take me,” David says. “He taught me what not to do.”

A recent addition to the tools at Northwest Upholstery, this stand supports a roll of fabric so David can pull off the required amount.
A recent addition to the tools at Northwest Upholstery, this stand supports a roll of fabric so David can pull off the required amount.

Six months later, in October 2011, David was in business. “I never set out to be self-employed,” he says. “It just happened.” At first, David focused on upholstering leather booths in restaurants, from Goldendale to Stevenson. That led him to develop a mobile studio so he could do his work on-site.

As demand for car and boat restorations increased, David found himself managing full vehicle restorations. He restored a 1936 Dodge truck for a local business, as well as a 1975 Fiat convertible. “I don’t do paint, and I don’t do mechanical,” he says. “I’ve enjoyed surrounding myself with people who are as good at what they do as I am at what I do.”

Tucked in the weeds out back, a few personal projects await. As an example of the hill ahead, David figures it will cost him $20,000 to bring the 1950 Chevy panel truck back to life.

And as he does with any project, he first turns to what he refers to as the greatest tool in the world: his smartphone. “As I’m taking things apart, I take pictures,” he says, “to show what it should look like after I put all back together.”

For more information, call David Menasco at Northwest Upholstery at (541) 806-3773 or email dpmenasco@hrecn.net.