When Terry Kelly graduated from the University of Maine in Orono with a degree in English in 1995, he dreamed of writing fiction and poetry, and still does. But his focus changed after he began working at his father’s mill, Kelly Lumber, when he returned to Ashland, where he grew up.
“I fell in love with furniture,” he recalled recently. “It was love at first sight.”
At first he was attracted to the simple, functional design of Shaker furniture. He made a trestle table to test his skill. That led to 10 to 12 years of building Shaker furniture.
“I really like Shaker,” he said. “It’s elegant — utilitarian, but beautiful.”
And making Shaker cabinets, clocks, chests and chairs enabled him to perfect the craft of furniture making.
“With Shaker it’s all about proportion. There’s no place to hide a mistake.”
But as his commitment to furniture-making strengthened, he set his sights on another goal.
“I had always wanted to do Windsor chairs,” he said.
Originally built in England, Windsor chairs are roughly defined as having all parts anchored to a seat, with delicate turnings and handworked details that belie their strength.
Kelly took a class at the Windsor Institute in southern New Hampshire that just whetted his appetite. Back in Maine, he spent two weeks at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport studying with Curtis Buchanan and Pete Galber.
“It was like a graduate course,” he said, describing the detailed instruction he received. He learned the art of turning and how to bend pieces that would become the back and arms of a chair. He has been making Windsor chairs ever since.
As I walk in, the wide entry into Kelly’s home in Mapleton is a like a gallery showroom for both Shaker and Windsor furniture. In a brief conversation with him, I learn to identify Windsor chairs: rod-back, sack-back, comb-back or hoop-back.
He pulls one chair after another into the sunlight pouring through the window of the entry, beginning with a contemporary rod-back arm chair he designed himself.
“I am most proud of this one,” he says, inviting me to sit in it.
The gentle curve of the spindles cradles my back.
“The design should be your own, but still have function,” he says, confirming the blend of beauty and comfort I am experiencing.
Then we stroll down the hall lined with Shaker pieces: a stately tall clock of curly maple, a blanket chest assembled completely with dovetailed joints and a china cabinet he calls a Shaker Linen Press with reproduction glass panes in the doors.
“There’s quite a bit of Zen involved,” he says of the precision required to cut pieces for Shaker furniture. “You have to believe it’s going to be right.”
As proud as Kelly is of his finished pieces, his enthusiasm electrifies when he introduces me to his workshop. The cellar of his home is filled with the tools of his craft, some of which he has made himself. The workshop illustrates the meaning of “handmade” — artistic creativity akin to painting and sculpture.
The walls and countertops are lined with vises, saws, chisels, straight edges, planes — a place for everything and everything in its place. “You have to be organized. You can’t waste time looking for things.”
Kelly sits down on the shave horse he made and demonstrates the method of hewing square-cut sticks into round spindles. He kicks aside a pile of wood shavings and opens a wooden box full of hand tools. One by one he unwraps a half-dozen drawknives, protected by nail aprons wound around the razor-sharp blades. Some of the tools are brass-fitted works of art in themselves.
He connects a wallpaper steamer to the steam box he made to show how he steams pieces of ash so they can be bent. I follow him to the mold he uses to bend the wood into a chair back. He must work swiftly before it dries, he explains.
A partially finished chair enables him to show how he aligns his drill to assure that the spindle holes in the chair back line up with those in the seat. He explains that he uses pine for chair seats, maple for turned pieces and oak or ash for the back and spindles. All chair seats are hand-carved. The final step entails applying three layers of milk paint — one each in Lexington green, barn red and black — hand-rubbed and top-coated with a wiping varnish.
“It’s definitely a labor of love,” he said. An average chair might take 50 hours to make and sell for $500. He determines prices based on what gallery owners suggest. A rocker could sell for $1,800 and a bench for $3,250. He is currently trying to complete one of each style of chair for the Gallery at Somes Sound on Mount Desert Island before the summer season.
Kelly’s work also has been displayed at the Maine Home and Design Show in Camden and the Maine Homes, Boats and Harbors Show in Rockland, both in 2011. Last year, a rod-back armchair he designed was selected as one of only 30 pieces for a juried show in Hartford, Conn., presented by the Society of American Period Furniture Makers. Of the 30, only two pieces were Windsor chairs.
Completely self-taught from books, magazines and trial and error (“a lot of error”), Kelly has become a creator of furniture to be purchased as an investment that will appreciate over time.
Not bad for a person who confesses as we conclude our conversation, “I failed shop class in high school.”
For more information, visit www.tKellyfurniture.com.
Kathryn Olmstead is a former University of Maine associate dean and associate professor of journalism living in Aroostook County, where she publishes the quarterly magazine Echoes. Her column appears in this space every other Friday. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or P.O. Box 626, Caribou, ME 04736.