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A Great American Woodworker An Artisan's Life Story

Peter H. Wallace

A carpenter turned chairmaker masters a classic American design. By Spike Carlsen

Sculpting Chair Seat With Router
New England writing armchair

PETER WALLACE HAS A LOT in common with the Windsor chairs he crafts:They're solid, yet elegant; they welcome you with a sense of comfort and authenticity.

These enduring qualities didn't come easily. Before carving out a niche as one of the premier Windsor chairmakers in America, Wallace labored 30 years as a carpenter. Realizing, at the tender young age of 55, that he was no longer enamored by the heavy lifting, he decided to shift gears.Though intending to open a millwork shop at his home in rural Pennsylvania, a series of events led him to the shop of a local Windsor chair builder where he spent a week as an apprentice. After building that first chair, he proceeded to build three more at his own shop, and it was then that he discovered he'd been bitten by the Windsor bug."The first year I lost money, the second year I broke even and the third year I actually turned a profit."

A dozen years later Wallace is still plying his craft. If you need evidence of his talents, chat with those at Colonial Williamsburg and the White House who have purchased his chairs. Or talk to the gentleman who commissioned him to craft an exact replica of a Windsor chair he'd fallen in love with at an antique show—but not with the $60,000 price tag.

One thing that sets Wallace apart from many of his colleagues is his meticulous attention to traditional details and design. He's spent entire days at Colonial Williamsburg and the Winterthur Museum—repositories of the finest Windsor chair collections in America—creating exact measured drawings. He's consulted with Nancy Evans, author of the definitive American Windsor Chairs. Of the 60-some pieces in his repertoire, all but one is based on originals.The one exception to his historic faithfulness is his unique "Nanny Rocker" (page 32). Half rocking chair, half cradle, the design is based on a piece of doll furniture made in the 1930s. "The traditional Windsors are so gor-

Nantucket fan-back armchair, about 1780

Nantucket fan-back armchair, about 1780

geous, it's hard to improve upon them," explains Wallace. "Plus I'm better at copying than designing."

And given the hundreds of different antique Windsor chairs from which to copy, how does Wallace differentiate the classic from the clumsy? "The qualities that make a Windsor superior are the crisp elegance of the turnings, the graceful line of the carved volutes and knuckles, the overall lightness and flawless proportions of each part to the whole,"explains Wallace.

While Wallace uses power equipment for cutting parts to size and other mundane aspects of his craft—tasks where master furniture builders of yore would have used an apprentice—he relies on hand tools for the bulk of his work."I've tried various shortcuts and they just don't look right,"explains Wallace."lf you want to build a period piece and do a historic reproduction it has to pretty much be handwork."

The process begins with crafting the seat, a task for which he uses many of the same tools used by wheelwrights (see The Scoop on Windsor Seats, p. 33). Next comes turning the legs on a modern lathe and fitting them into compound-angled holes. He turns the back and arm spindles with the help of a traditional English

Nanny rocker

Nanny rocker

The Scoop on Windsor Seats

After bandsawing the seat blank to shape, Wallace uses a gutter adze to roughly contour the scooped seat. Except for a few guide marks, Wallace performs the entire process by eye.
The smoothing process continues with an inshave.Many of the tools used during the process evolved out of the wlieel-"■■'!.'.- -'ide. v:;:A ■': ■i.'^.'i
^mrn1 j '1

Wallace completes the scooping using a travisher—a wooden convex spokeshave—followed by a random orbital sander.

A Great American Woodworker continued

Wilmington, Delaware side chair, about 1780-1795

tool called a trapping plane, which is part turning tool and part hand plane. After fitting the arm and back spindles, he steam bends and shapes the curved backrest and arm components.

Wallace continues to use the traditional woods. Seats are made of poplar, a wood that's dimensionally stable and readily available in thick, wide planks. He uses maple for legs because of its fine grain, hickory for the spindles because of its strength and ash for the curved parts because of its ease in bending. Since multiple types of wood are used, traditional Windsor chairs are frequently painted. But about 15% of Wallace's Windsors remain natural wood. For these chairs, he selects woods of exemplary quality —the curly cherry or tiger maple he uses for the seat can cost $250 or more alone.

Most of his career, Wallace has built chairs on a commission basis. He averages about one chair per week, and the 6-month backlog in orders attests to his success. But he has new areas he'd like to explore—like building furniture inspired by John Goddard and Job Townsend, of colonial Newport, Rhode Island. And while his pieces won't fetch the record $12.1 million one of their vintage pieces brought at auction several years back, it will allow him to put his newly learned carving skills to work; skills learned

Wilmington, Delaware side chair, about 1780-1795

Three-legged bar stool

in classes taken from a master carver from Russia."I've had the wood for a highboy for 3 years, but just haven't been able to get to it." At 67, Wallace intends to get to it soon.

When asked what advice he'd give aspiring Windsor chair makers, Wallace responds,"If you look at a Windsor with a single eye, it looks complicated. But if you look at the different elements one by one it becomes less daunting. You look at a leg and say'yeah I could probably turn that' and then examine the seat and figure you could somehow do that. When you break it down element by element it becomes a lot more doable."

Wallace offers 1-on-1 and 2-on-1 "mini-apprenticeships," which consist of 40 hours of hands-on experience over a five-day period."Every aspect of building a chair is demonstrated and explained and then the student is guided through the process, hands-on, from sculpting the seat on," explains Wallace."The class emphasizes watching, then doing—with me, right next to the student, giving ongoing guidance." At the end, students walk away with a completed chair that Wallace would normally sell for $950—a superb deal considering tuition is $1,000.

In the end, it's a process that requires skill, patience and persistence."! make some of the best Windsors in the country and I've worked very, very hard at it,"Wallace explains. "Some [woodworkers] complain that they've worked two hours on applying a finish and want to find a shortcut to cut their time. My wife will spend eight or 10 hours getting a finish on a chair. Making one of these is not a simple, weekend job. It takes a lot of effort and a lot of work." But one look at a Wallace chair will tell you it's worth it. ih

More of Peter H. Wallace's work can be seen at www.windsor-chalrs.com. Spike Carlsen is author of A Splintered History of Wood: Belt Sander Races, Blind Woodworkers and Baseball Bats recently published by HarperCollins.

Amos Hagget-style rod-back side chair

18th-century fire screen

Amos Hagget-style rod-back side chair

Tapered-leg table with breadboard ends

Tapered-leg table with breadboard ends

18th-century fire screen

Router Bit Caddy

Separate, sort, and see your collection.

By John English

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