It was all hand tools, all the time in Episode 04 of this season’s Rough Cut. Tommy spent the day at the shop of Peter Galbert, chairmaker, toiling away at a Windsor Chair project. The piece used green wood, which is an increasingly popular material choice for today’s woodworkers.
The project is not for the feint of heart, nor for the easily frustrated. It’s a complex piece — as most chairs are — that requires patience and, in this case, a whole bunch of unfamiliar tools. Not to mention a hefty dose of turning.
To learn a little more about the project and working with green wood, we reached out to Galbert, who hones his craft out of his shop in Sterling, MA.
Tell us how you got into woodworking?
I started out doing stuff like this as a kid. I was always interested in woodworking in school, starting in 7th grade shop. Later I was in art school building my own stretchers for painting. I thought it would be a good way to pay the bills, so I started making cabinets in Chicago. But I never had any formal training. Everything was on the job.
Eventually I left the cabinet stuff behind and moved into a small shop. There was only enough room for hand tools, so I had to figure out what I could do with that limitation.Why Windsor Chairs?
I knew I wanted to make chairs. They’re such a challenge, so I thought that would be a good way to go. Also, I had read John Alexander’s book “Make a Chair from a Tree.” But the Appalachian chairs didn’t fit as well with what I had seen and knew I wanted to try, which was the Windsor style. So I found a guy upstate (New York) who sold green wood, ordered some pine, and used a picture in a magazine as a sort of guide to figure out how to make it.
How has the design changed since they were first made 250 years ago?
Well they’re actually much older than that. They’ve been around a long time. In my mind, the basics of the Windsor Chair is not stylistic. They’re structural. The seat is the determinant for the top and the bottom, and no part goes past their function to be something else. But it’s a very traditional piece of furniture. It did become sort of an everyman piece when it began being produced in a factory, and more material went into making it. It lost a little of its appeal. But then in the 60s, 70s and 80s it had a big resurgence when woodworkers rediscovered the design and the different way it required you to work the wood.
Are there any contemporary spins you work into your Windsor Chairs?
Yes. I don’t do ornate turnings, because I think those better relate to a colonial type chair. My turnings tend to be simplified. I also sometimes use an Asian influenced turning, which happens to be more than 200 years old but gets associated with a Modern design. And then I’ll play with things here and there, mixing styles. Sometimes I’ll make the spindles flat, or borrow a crest from an Appalachian style.
The two things folks need to understand when it comes to working with green wood is why bother and what is the benefit? First of all, when you work with green wood all of a sudden your hand tools become incredibly effective, because the wood is not hard and dry. You’re also able to split the wood along the fibers to gain strength. This allows your parts to be thinner and lighter and flexible.
Of course on the downside to you do have to dry it, but in small parts so it dries fine. Most people think drying is this grand mystery, but it’s really not a big deal. Yes the wood is more raw, but that just opens up options. I tell people it’s like the difference between cooking with raw vegetables as opposed to canned. You just have more options with the raw version.
How about advice on this Windsor Chair project?
You have to be patient. The process is very different, like the difference between playing drums and playing the violin. Yes, they’re both musical instruments but the skill set is very different. With that said, the skills generally get acquired rapidly. I see people become proficient very quickly. I advise people to consider this project an exploration of the process and I advise an openness to learning. If I teach you how to saw a straight line, you’ve just learned a skill that you can use to build thousands of things. But building a Windsor Chair with hand tools and green wood is different. Just because I’ve taught you how to split the wood doesn’t mean you know a thing about turning. It’s really more a decathlon than a single event.
Finally, you have a tool named after you. Tell us about the Galbert Caliper.
That was actually the first of a few tools that I took to market. It was an idea I had to help my own turning along. I got frustrated with the old way, which was you set a measurement to a tool and then used that tool. But this you’d have to set multiple tools and remember the right locations to use them. The caliper eliminated all that. It’s definitely been appreciated by the folks who need it.