Out of Steel: Former steelworker on a mission to conserve local heritage

Walter Furlan worked in steel mills for 30 years, and after the recession found his calling as an entrepreneur in the heritage conservation business.
Walter Furlan restores a grate from Hamilton's Central Presbyterian Church in his backyard shed work space. (Julia Chapman/CBC)

What Walter Furlan keeps in his backyard shed he calls "artifacts."

Church doors crafted from rare English White Oak lean against the back wall. A small chest of handmade knobs and hinges wait until they're needed for a special project. Window glass from before 1846, spun so thin it's one-third the thickness of modern glass, is carefully tucked away on a bookshelf.

"They've lasted 200 years," he said, cradling pieces of his pre-Confederation window glass.

Furlan, a heritage conservationist, is one of many former steelworkers who was laid off during the 2009 recession.  But he's one of few, he said, who was retrained and has become an entrepreneur.

Furlan, who lives in Hamilton's downtown east end and currently uses his backyard shed as a workshop, is only a year into his second career, but his work can be seen across Canada.

Specializing in window restoration, Furlan has brought parts of Whitehern Historic House, Dundurn Castle, Auchmar and the Central Presbyterian Church back to life in Hamilton.

He's done jobs as big as working on the House of Commons to fix a "windows falling on MPs problem," or as little as a "dog chews window problem" in a 1920s home. He's passionate about all of them.

"There was a real art, everything was done by hand," he said. "I can take a historical window apart and fix it."

New beginning

Working in Hamilton's steel factories occupied exactly 30 years of Furlan's life. He started working at Union Drawn Steel upon graduating high school in 1979, taking after his Italian-immigrant father who also worked there.

"Many people would go out of high school into high-paying industrial jobs," he said. "The job was there. It was just what you did if you didn't go to college or university."

Operating machinery in the steel mills as a profession made for routine work, day after day; it was not creative enough for Furlan. He was looking for a way out.

Through his wife, Furlan discovered the province's Second Career program at the perfect time. Canadian Drawn Steel, the company he worked for at the time, was going through intermittent lay-offs. Furlan waited for his turn to come.

In spring 2009, he was laid off for two weeks and accepted to the retraining program.

That fall, he started the three-year conservation and restoration arts program at Niagara's Willowbank School of Restoration Arts. He learned blacksmithing, hardware restoration, masonry, plastering and roof systems.

While Furlan took well to his new craft, the path to starting a new business was not easy.

"It's tough to get training," he said. "My union brothers, colleagues in the steel mill, I don't know any who have gone back to work."

They are all on limited pensions after being laid-off.

"Our pensions were stolen, as I put it," he said.

Empty wine and beer bottles from the Furlan residence are left in the recycling bins outside to be collected by neighbours, many of them his former colleagues. That supplements their income now.

Design and restoration

Furlan's tone changes when he goes to talking about his new career, the paints and putties he uses and his ability to restore the city's "artifacts."

Furlan always had an interest in design and restoration.

As a steelworker, he would identify sought-after woods used as skids in the factory and save planks going into the trash so that he could make furniture. Furlan made his deep brown dining room table from walnut and a curvy side table in his living room from cherry. Both items display his impeccable craftsmanship and eye for artful design that he carried into his new career.

Furlan strongly believes in a place as old as Hamilton, skilled restoration workers are necessary. He hopes he is leading the way.

"The work is there," he said. "There is a lot of need for artisans."

Furlan also sees his work as reviving a community — his downtown east end neighbourhood is "the sacrifice zone," where former inmates, laid off workers and families in poverty all live.

He stays local when he needs help with his work, often visiting the area blacksmith. A nearby jeweler with a foundry in his back office made a mould for replica door adornments.

Keeping with his plan, Furlan will move his workshop into a former bakery nearby next month.

"I want to stay here," he said. "Part of my mission is to bring the community back."


Julia Chapman is a radio and television producer for CBC Toronto. With CBC since 2010, she was one of the first reporters to work out of CBC Hamilton. Julia is proud alumni of both Ryerson University and the University of Guelph. When she's not in the newsroom, Julia loves to travel and explore big cities around the globe and try out new recipes in her kitchen. Most of all, she loves exploring her hometown, Toronto, and enjoying what every pocket of the city has to offer.