Chairs of all types are found all around us. Part of what makes them usually anonymous is that they are comfortable, and that usually means they incorporate curves and angles. So, building a comfortable, strong, beautiful chair is extremely difficult. Peter Galbert is a professional woodworker who builds Windsor chairs almost exclusively. Variations of the Windsor have been made for centuries, but the basic features are turned and steam-bent pieces that attach to a carved seat. A picture does not give the Windsor chair its due justice. A truly great chair must be seen in person in order to be fully appreciated.
Galbert got started in woodworking when he was in 7th grade. He enjoyed it immediately, and immensely; he felt as though the world around him dropped away, and he became totally involved and content in the work. He had to wait until he was in college to start woodworking again, and he hasn’t stopped since. Fortunately, he feels the same immersion and contentment today as he did in his middle school days, but only because he has found his passion within woodworking.
Becoming a Chairmaker
Galbert had to teach himself woodworking. Without much name recognition and a limited skill set, he was forced to make boxes and tables to pay the bills, and used machines in order to do so. But these projects were uninspiring, and his passioned waned somewhat. He decided to try making chairs instead and enjoyed it more. But chairs are very difficult to build, so he needed some formal instruction. He spent a week with David Sawyer, who is widely considered one of the masters of Windsor style. Even in that short amount of time, Galbert’s world was changed. The process, the methods of work, and the style were extremely attractive. Galbert described the experience as though he was a man who had been living on canned tomatoes for his whole life and then had the opportunity to taste a fresh one for the first time. Since then he has built chairs almost exclusively, with the occasional break to carve a wooden spoon. I asked him if the focus on Windsor chairs ever gets boring. In answer, it doesn’t, because there are so many modifications that can be made to the style, so many things to try. He can make an old style into something unmistakably his own. The style is not so much limiting as a way of working. And that gives limitless opportunity.
The Galbert Caliper
In addition to being a woodworker, Galbert is also a tool designer and maker. Although his work involves very traditional methods and style, he is by no means a romantic. He has a business to run and needs to do things efficiently. People don’t normally pay extra so that things can be done as they were hundreds of years ago. He developed a caliper for turning chair parts that allows him to make measurements accurately right on the lathe. The tool fills a need that was unmet. Even though it is modern, it makes the process easier but doesn’t go so far as making it a production process. He considers himself to be a tinkerer rather than an engineer, but solving problems brings him joy. In the same way that Galbert isn’t paid enough to work entirely with traditional methods, he can’t be paid enough to use power tools extensively in the making of a chair. This statement from his website sums it up: “I use technology appropriate to making the highest quality of chair that pleases the eye, the hand, and the body.” Working this way makes the most sense, and suits the needs of both the maker and the customer. It’s also the most fun way of doing things because the best process involves lots of handwork and a deep connection with the wood. The chairs need to be comfortable and strong and beautiful, of course, but in Galbert’s mind, the most important thing is that the chair be fun to make, as he has to do it day after day.
I have never painted my work before, so I wanted to know why Galbert is such a fan. He says it helps to unify the form of the chair without giving too much focus to the wood itself. Even though it’s paint it’s only milk paint, so the grain of the wood is still prominent, looking like a heavy stain that enhances the wood. The tool marks and grain are still very tactile, at the same time feeling silky smooth. He believes that it takes a fine designer’s eye to make full use of the natural beauty of wood, and most people are woodworkers first and designers second.
Wrapping it Up
Galbert is currently an artist in residence at SUNY, where he can take a break from the world of commissions and constant chair building to do and explore whatever he wants without consequence. He can use the time to before focused on the artistic elements of woodwork, the carving, bending, painting, sculpture, and form of wood. He will reset, to make sure he continues to be interested and engaged in woodworking, and, hopefully, have inspiration and energy to continue his work as a chairmaker.