A lovingly handcrafted piece of solid wood furniture is joy to observe and touch, and is an increasingly rare find in the midst of so much mass-produced contemporary particleboard laminated furniture. A finely crafted piece of furniture is a treasure and a living link to the past: a physical reminder of the people who interacted with the object on a daily basis.
The South Coast is home to numerous wood artisans working to keep the art of fine woodworking alive and available to the public. Schools such as the Rhode Island School of Design, Bristol Community College and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth make the South Coast rich in artisans. It’s a worth a trip to a studio, gallery, or show of fine crafts to acquire a piece that’s an embodiment of the passion of its creator - a genuine treasure that can be passed on and cherished by new generations.
Woodworker Michael Pietragalla graduated from the historic Swain School of Design (now the UMass Dartmouth College of Visual and Performing Arts) and chose to stay in the area, working at his craft in the Hatch Street Studios in the north end of New Bedford. He dedicates his career to developing innovative new designs one piece at a time, and to keeping traditional wood working alive through antique restoration projects.
Restoring the old
Pietragalla’s current commission is an extensive restoration of a massive donated pharmacy bench, circa 1860, for future display in the lecture hall at the University of Rhode Island College of Pharmacy in Kingston. The University plans to use the bench to educate students about the history of the pharmacy business – druggists used the wooden structure to organize, store and mix raw chemicals into preparations for patients – and compare the past with modern techniques used by hospital and chain pharmacies.
Upon receipt of the massive bench, Pietragalla and assistants carefully dismantled it, removed decorative moldings and cabinet fronts. They assessed which pieces needed the most repair and reconstructed many parts, such as cabinet fronts, from scratch. Such an extensive restoration takes knowledge of historical furniture styles and a good creative imagination.
After individual parts are reconstructed, the entire structure is stripped and refinished. A collaborating architect looks at stain samples and chooses a color that is closest to what the finish would have looked like when the object was new. Stains are hand-rubbed in multiple layers deep into the wood and the final bench is sent out for additional layers of spray lacquer for a durable and glowing finish before going on permanent display in Kingston.
Pietragalla comments, “Much of this process is like trompe-l’oeil painting. We have to examine the intricacies of a wood grain and recreate that in many layers of stain so that it looks old, no different at all from the rest of the piece. Doing this work is kind of like participating in an archeological dig. We visualize how a piece once looked and functioned and try to recreate it in the way is was meant to be used.”
Creating something new
Clients can visit Pietragalla at his Hatch Street studio and select from his Japanese-inspired pieces or order custom designs. If a piece is intended for use in a high-traffic area, such as the kitchen, he may opt to spray the final lacquer finish for high durability. I
n creating his elegant furniture, Pietragalla often applies both stain and final lacquer layers by hand with soft cloths that bring out the rich inner colors and radiance of the wood. A showpiece, such as a tea table or display cabinet may be finished entirely by hand. Hand rubbing is a time-consuming and labor-intensive process.
A labor of love
“I love fine wood furniture,” he says. “I can feel the spirit of the people who used the piece when I’m doing my restoration work, and I want to bring that same kind of spirit to my own creative work, so people will want to hand my furniture down through the generations to their loved ones.”
Several miles from Pietragalla’s New Bedford studio, Brian Weir creates his fine furniture in the Shaker and Danish Modern styles in South Dartmouth. He also creates elegant turned-wood bowls that he sells at South Coast galleries such as Gallery 65 on William Street in New Bedford and, beginning this summer, Woods Hole Handworks in Woods Hole.
Like Pietragalla, Weir is motivated to create his pristinely crafted furniture and bowls by a need to connect with the ideals of the past. Wood turned bowls were made in the earliest civilizations yet Weir also revers modern wood turners emerging during the revival of fine crafts in the 1970’s such as Bob Stocksdale, Rudy Olsonik and David Ellsworth.
To Weir wood bowls are alive and vibrant, “With a few tools and a little knowledge you can take a piece of rough wood and turn it into something both beautiful and functional. There are so many different kinds of wood, each with their own particular feel, grain, and color.”
Inspiration and work
Turning a wooden bowl is a lengthy process. Weir begins with a rough log and uses a chainsaw to create a rough shape called a blank. He then places the blank on a machine called a lathe that rotates it at an extremely high rate of speed while Weir uses a variety of sharp chisels to form and refine the rough wood into a vessel or bowl shape.
Weir generally forms the outside of the shape first and then finishes the inside to a smooth sheen. He frequently uses green, unseasoned wood that morphs and changes as it dries gradually over the course of a month. As it matures, a bowl develops a unique character and glow, exposing the luminous beauty of the grain patterns hidden inside the wood.
Weir has worked with some form of wood for most of his adult life. An avid sailor, he started working with wood in the service of boat carpentry. His growing passion for woodworking eventually led him to the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Maine where he completed an intensive 3-month course and developed his creative style. His greatest satisfaction comes from working in an art form that connects him firmly with the value of antiquity.
Weir states, “The makers hand is evident in fine woodworking, something that is lost in factory produced work. Hand crafted objects improve with age because they are passed down from generation to generation.”
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