Planes, Trains, and Automobiles: The Life and Business of Upholsterer Lance Hartley

By BRIAN D’AMBROSIO

Lance Hartley sits down at a table in the garage studio of Lance’s Upholstery.

Surrounded by his tools, fabrics, and neatly compartmentalized tasks, he is the sort of man who has spent an entire life taking matters into his own hands.

Inside Hartley’s Missoula shop, there is no team, no business plan vetted by a handful of industry experts, no collaboration, and no shared success. His stage is solo – a platform he’ll choose any day. He has built a valued brand solely on the intangible equities of a customer base and a reputation.

Upholstery is one durable trade that allows for many arenas of work, including aviation, locomotive, and automobile. With upholstery, the premise is simple, but the results often range from unsuitable to impressive.

“Boats, furniture, plains, trains, I do the whole spiel,” says Hartley, whose cracked fingertips and cut hands reflect years of labor. “A lot of master craftsmen stick to just one area, just furniture, just auto, or just boats or planes. And a lot of guys who do boats, don’t do furniture or can’t put a top on a Mercedes convertible.”

Hartley says that aviation is the most difficult category of upholstery work, with automotive complete interior work a close second.

Lance Hartley redid the upholstery in Dennis Washington's private train car, the Silver Cloud.

Lance Hartley redid the upholstery in Dennis Washington's personal train, The SilverCloud.

The most prestigious notes on Hartley’s résumé are the aviation projects he has carried out for Montana-based industrialist Dennis R. Washington. Washington owns, or co-owns majority interest in, a large consortium of privately held companies collectively known as the Washington Companies.

Boasting an approximate present net value of about $4.2 billion, he is listed by Forbes as the 58th-richest person in America. Hartley’s projects for him include interior refurbishments of Washington’s personal planes and restoration to the mogul’s lawn furniture.

“Dennis will come in and not look at the overall,” says Hartley. “He’ll go right into the minutest corner and not look at the rest of the job. He’ll eye up a fraction of an inch or a small corner. We have a love and hate relationship. Yet, he’s made me better because he is so demanding.”

Another big project Hartley was heavily involved with was the interior renovation of Washington’s The Silver Cloud train. Originally named the “Chicago” by the Rock Island, The Silver Cloud was purchased by Washington in March of 1988, and used as a private business transport. The train is stored at his corporate headquarters in Missoula.

“When you work for the rich and famous,” says Hartley, “you learn they never tip, they never tell you that you did a good job. Rich folks pay the bills. That’s your compliment. Regular people will come by and tell you that you did a beautiful job. The rich and famous won’t do that.”

Hartley is a confident craftsman – he doesn’t mind criticizing his competition or laboring a message – and is quick to point out that upholstery craftsmanship requires years of skill acquire, although the time to learn can be dramatically lowered if a person is apprenticed to a qualified professional who is also a good teacher.

Missoula upholsterer Lance Hartley at work in his shop.

Missoula upholsterer Lance Hartley at work in hisshop.

“I’m not arrogant, I’m good,” says Hartley. “Is that bad to say?”

The truth of the matter is that a good upholsterer has a breadth of experience and someone who has worked in only one shop, or region, may not know all the local or regional styles. Hartley had the privilege of working in shops in Mississippi, Tennessee, Texas, New Jersey, Savannah, Georgia, and Tampa, Florida.

“I improved my techniques in each stop,” says Hartley. “When you apprentice, you basically steal the tricks you’ve learned from other guys, and then learn to add a bit to them.”

When it comes to furniture production, Hartley passionately dislikes the disposable nature of today’s mass-produced pieces. “All the stuff today is junk,” says Hartley. “Conlin’s offers sofas and love seats for $299, and then tosses in another one or matching piece for one dollar.”

Hartley’s edge manifests the attitude and the life experience of a man who spent time in Vietnam, labored for years as an itinerant, and for long stretches been rudderless in the rough vastness of the American landscape.

Details? Let’s just say that he has beaten the odds many times. “I gypsied around, and came to Missoula in 1985 as a transient,” he says.

Some say the past is never really past, or that the future is about as predictable as a roulette wheel spinning; the one thing in our control, however, is the eternal present.

Hartley controls his destiny, if he spends three days in a row stripping and tearing furniture, he can take off the fourth day to do as he pleases. He is a man who self-imposes deadlines and claims to have never missed even one. Hartley credits sharp, thick chalk, a good pair of scissors, a screwdriver, a small selection of tools – such as a butter knife for edging and plastic bone tools – for making the vagaries of his trade simpler.

“All these tools are helpful, but the best tool is the human mind,” he muses.

Indeed, Hartley’s mind has developed a great recipe for business, but he has no reason to turn it into a company. Building a team or bringing in extra help would kill the solo spirit in which he thrives.

“The fewer people on any project, the better,” says Hartley.

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Missoula writer Brian D'Ambrosio, his dog, and a beautiful view.

Brian D’Ambrosio is a Missoula writer, editor, instructor, and media consultant. D’Ambrosio’s recent articles have been published in local, regional, and national publications, including High Country News, USA Today, Wisconsin Trails, Bark Magazine, Montana Magazine, and Backpacker Magazine. His latest book about legendary vigilante screen actor Charles Bronson, Menacing Face Worth Millions, A Life of Charles Bronson, will be released this summer.