Reprinted “Canton Life” October 2004 Vol 5 Issue 1Neighbors…………A handmade craft as a livelihood…………by Stephanie Riefe
Peter Aleksa never took shop class in high school (he’s not even sure the school offered it). But that hasn’t stopped or even hindered him from becoming a hand-made furniture maker. He works in a converted barn that he rebuilt adjacent to his home.
“I’ve always been doing things with my hands,” said the soft-spoken 32-year-old man. He grew up on a farm in Cheshire and worked with his father on several building projects. It was while building a post and beam style horse barn with his dad when he was 15 that he first picked up a chisel and hammer. That is where he traces his interest in woodworking. Besides horses, the farm had pigs and sheep, but it was not how the family made a living. His father worked for the phone company. Mr. Aleksa didn’t go into furniture making when he got older, but he knew it was something he could fall back on. Instead he pursued environmental science and marine biology, his major and minor at the University of New Hampshire. For a time he worked at a Boston aquarium maintaining the fish tanks. “You were constantly wet,” he said. He also worked for six months on an island off the coast of Maine, a marine lab for Cornell University. He wasn’t that thrilled with the lack of facilities and other issues, including seagulls that sounded like something out of the move “The Birds.”
At about this time, his father had retired and started his own handyman business. Mr. Aleksa helped. He was also spending some time with the husband of his wife’s cousin, who had attended the North Bennett Street School in Boston, a trade school. The experiences jelled and he applied to the craft school. The school, started in 1885, follows the apprenticeship system of learning to develop hand skills and an understanding of procedures used in a trade. It offers several programs, from locksmithing and violin making to piano tuning and jewelry making. Mr. Aleksa attended the two-year program for furniture and cabinet making. “And that’s the basis for everything I have done in this trade,” he said from his brightly lit studio that is organized and neat, but not to the extreme.
He graduated from North Bennett in 1997 and worked for others until he decided it was time to head out on his own, which was always his goal. He focuses on replicating antique furniture. He also repairs furniture, as well as creating custom designs. His work at the other shops included reproducing antique furniture at one and repairing and reproduction at the other. “I don’t know what got me into it,” he said of his specialty. “It was more being self employed.”
Mr. Aleksa is not necessarily a history buff, but he is interested in the history of the furniture he specializes in. In fact, he has gotten to where he can pretty much tell where and when a piece was made by looking at it. During the 1700s and 1800s furniture making was regional, he said, adding furniture was produced everywhere, but the high styles would be made in Boston, Newport, New York and Philadelphia, for example, and it is those pieces he can identify readily. Familiar styles include William and Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale and Federal. “That interests me,” he said, as he pointed to a chair in his studio from Connecticut that dates between 1710-1720.And it is that interest which he brings to his work, which starts with an initial consultation. He said clients bring in pictures, pieces and other references. “Usually people will come in with a photo,” he said. His job is to listen to them and understand what they want. “Essentially the client designs it,” he said. From there, Mr. Aleksa creates a full-scale drawing for review and approval.
He works with people located anywhere — from Canton to Atlanta and New York City. Word of mouth is his best advertising, and he promotes his work with decorators and antique dealers. Dr. Michael Powers of Haddam Neck had Mr. Aleksa make a reproduction of an early 18th century Connecticut cherry table for his office in Glastonbury. Dr. Powers, a pediatric psychologist, said the eight-foot conference table seats 10.
“To say that he’s a talented man is an understatement,” said Dr. Powers. His office is in an early 18th century building and the furniture is in keeping with that time period. “Every piece of furniture that’s gone into the building Peter has done,” he said. Dr. Powers has been working with Mr. Aleksa for about three years. In fact, the two attend auctions together to purchase furniture. Dr. Powers and his wife collect 18th century and early 19th century furniture. “Peter’s the only person who does restoration of our furniture. If something were to be restored, it goes to Peter,” he said. “It’s pretty remarkable stuff. Not many people can carve the way Peter carves.” Along the way the pair have also become friends. “You meet kindred spirits. Peter’s one of those people who appreciates the integrity of something someone did 250 years ago to create something by hand,” said Dr. Powers.
Mr. Aleksa works on a few pieces at a time, and pieces can take anywhere from a day, for small repairs, to three or four months for creating a set of eight chairs. His prices range anywhere from $800 up into the thousands for a chair to $2,500 and up for tables.
“The price depends on the piece,” he said. What make his work different from a chair at Ethan Allen? He said it’s the craftsmanship: hand made versus mass produced. “There’s a huge difference in quality,” said Mr. Aleksa.
Getting even more specific, it’s in the joints. The mortise-and-tenon joint (one piece fits into another — the mortise is the square hole and the tenon is the part that goes in) and the dovetail joint (the wood fits together at right angles — like a triangle with the tip cut off) are two such techniques used in more traditional types of woodwork.
“I could be in here with no power and produce this stuff,” he said, adding it would take a long time, but he could do it.
Mr. Aleksa said it’s hard to get people to understand what he does. When people ask and he says he’s a furniture maker he often gets the comment “oh, like Norm Abram?” (This Old House/New Yankee Workshop host.) No, he explains, Mr. Abram is a carpenter.
To further educate, he tells people the type of work he does is like the furniture on display in any major museum.
He uses mahogany mostly, as the period pieces were often made with mahogany. Other types of wood he uses, in no particular order, are cherry, maple and walnut. He gets the wood in the rough from suppliers both in the state and beyond and he specifies the thickness, but the length and width varies.
The repair work he does can vary from replacing pieces (such as table or chair legs) to refinishing pieces. Some people buy things at auction and then have Mr. Aleksa repair and refurnish them.
In his studio on this day was a tambour writing desk, the 1710-1720 chair, a table he was fixing that had been stained the wrong color (red) and was then painted black to cover the red. A pie crust table (the round table’s edging is wavy, like a pie crust), a bombe style box and a curved mirror frame were also on hand.
“There’s a lot of things in this trade you will not learn in a book,” he said.
Mr. Aleksa credits his work experience with others in the field for giving him the education to complement his schooling. He does not discount his formal education at all, adding when he went to North Bennett, the first two months he worked on full-scale drawings and “didn’t touch a tool.”
But now, there are plenty of tools around to touch. His studio is ringed with chisels, carving tools, hand planes (“this creates flat and square”), sandpaper, clamps, hide glue, Japanese saws and others tools of the trade. “I kind of buy as I go,” he said. A wooden box, about the size of a trunk, contains his grandfather’s tools. His work space also houses a table saw, jointer, planer, band saw, shaper drill press, grinder, lathe and assorted jigs (home-made items that allow you to make cuts or shape the wood in a manner that isn’t typical to the machine) and patterns. A central dust collection system helps with keeping control of the wood shavings. Some of the shavings have additional uses, such as helping stoke the kilns across the way at Canton Clay Works. Some wood shavings are so fine they feel like soot. And of course — professional ear muffs (airport kind, it looked like), complete the space.
Mr. Aleksa said people are welcome to stop in at his studio, 155 Cherry Brook Road. He’s usually there Monday through Friday during the day. If a white van is there, he’s there. Call for an appointment on weekends. “Two of the things that I enjoy about what I do is (one) I can see where all my work and time goes to, there is a tangible object as a result of my labor and (two) that it will be around long after I am dead and gone, ” he said. For more information, call 693-2101 or e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. The web site is www.cherrybrookwoodworks.com.