Riven to Succeed
by Michael Dresdner
It is entirely fair to say that Peter Galbert is a very special sort of woodworker, not only because his work is so impressive, but also because it is especially limited. He is a chairmaker who crafts very traditional seating in the Windsor style, mimicking not only the look and lightness of that esteemed era, but also the woodworking techniques. Though he did not start out making chairs, it did not take him all that long to find his calling.
"I was raised in Georgia," Peter explained, "then went to college in Chicago to study painting and sculpture, an education that has helped me a lot in designing and constructing my chairs. As an art student, I had very little money, so I started building my own frames for canvases, and repairing things in my apartment. I found that I liked woodworking."
A chance comment by a well-liked instructor helped him refocus his aim. "At one point I wanted a traveling easel and paint box," he recalled, "but could not afford it, so I went down into the woodshop and built it. My art teacher looked at it and said I should be a woodworker instead of a painter. I suppose that was a bit of a left-handed compliment, but God bless him for saying it; it worked out beautifully. After two years, I could no longer afford school, so I called every woodworker in Chicago to find a job.
"I found a high-end cabinetmaker who took me on as an apprentice. After eight months, the business went under. I went back to finish my degree, and got a BFA in photography from the University of Illinois. Along with my girlfriend at the time, I moved to New York City. It was the mid-90s, and we felt the opportunities there were mind-blowing. Within one day, we were both offered jobs; in fact, we were offered every job for which we applied. New Yorkers seemed to believe that people from the Midwest were more reliable about showing up to work. I worked in a variety of cabinet shops for about five years, and ended up with my own little shop building display fixtures for the Smithsonian.
"The shop was a small space in New York City's East Village that I shared with a guitarmaker. Watching the guitarmaker encouraged me to do something remarkable with nothing more than a small bench full of hand tools. Chairs seemed to be the one thing I could make in such a small space.
"My first chair, a Windsor birdcage chair, I made in 1999 on my own simply by looking at pictures. My inspiration was Curtis Buchanan, a chair maker in Tennessee. It was really trying because it is a deceptively difficult chair to make, but that got me hooked. I took a one-week course with Dave Sawyer in Vermont. Shortly thereafter, just a few months before 9/11, we moved to a small town on the New York/Pennsylvania border just a few miles from Max Yasgur's farm, the site of the legendary Woodstock festival.
"At this point, I just make chairs. I realized shortly after watching a number of people go out of business that specialization was key: doing one thing and doing it very well. What I had as a goal was to get away from the machinery not out of romanticism, but because the product lent itself to being made by hand. I like to think of my shop as a laboratory for finding elegant solutions to the problems posed by chairmaking. To me, chairmaking is the interaction of the human form with the potential of wood as a material.
"Partially because much of it is done green from riven wood, making Windsors by hand is faster, more efficient and offers you an opportunity to make a stronger, thinner, lighter chair than you could make by machine. It is really quite practical," Peter insists. "The tools I need can fit in a single toolbox. I ask my customers to pay for a well-made and beautiful chair guaranteed for life, and not pay for my romanticism.
"Many people have an image of a Windsor chair based on the clunky, overbuilt offerings from manufacturers. When they see mine, they notice the delicacy and thinness of line, and the handwrought feel because of the tool marks. The surface quality is determined by razor-sharp tools rather than sandpaper. By the time a client picks up the chair, which is very light, and sits in it, finding it very comfortable, I feel I have successfully replaced that image in their minds.
"Currently I make about eight or nine different styles of seating, but am always looking toward innovation. A good example is my rod back chair, about which I am very excited. While this design is also traditional, I feel it has less of the Colonial influence, and lends itself more to the clean lines we associate with modern furniture. It is less decorative and more linear. It is Windsor with a Asian influence."
There is a good historical basis for that. "There was a huge Asian influence in all art around 1800," Peter explained, "and bamboo wood styling started to appear. They found that these chairs were much easier to produce both by hand and in factories, in part because they are easier to turn than the more ornate bulbous turnings typically found on both Windsors and Colonial furniture.
"Now, after about six years, I am focused more on developing my new chairs, and for the past three years have allowed teaching to grow to fill about half my time. Teaching has turned out to be one of the great joys of my chairmaking experience. It is a simple thing to share something that you're passionate about. I teach about 20 students per year, one at a time."
"Currently, I am working in conjunction with Curtis Buchanan on an illustrated guide to making Windsor chairs. The book, which will be self-published, is an expanded version of a pamphlet I made for my students. I also teach tool making at the Penland School, typically in a class of about a dozen students, and at a few other woodworking venues. I am a firm believer in sharing information, so one of my most recent and exciting ventures is my blog. I treat it sort of like a daily diary that allows others to comment."
When he is not teaching or building, Peter is busy designing the tools to make his sort of handwork better. "I designed a travisher, a type of curved spokeshave, that is soon to be offered by Elia Bizzarri, a young up-and-coming toolmaker and chair maker. I got frustrated with my students turning up with tools essentially designed for barrel making. Because it has such a small market, I simply gave the tool design to him. I also have a turning caliper that I am trying to get produced."
For Peter, the way he makes chairs and the tools he uses are at least as important as what he produces. "Woodworking should be a process of fun and discovery," he insists, "and not a competition with machines. You must choose what tools and processes you want to work with. Those choices go a long way toward determining the quality of the product you make and the quality of the time you have making it."