PRESQUE ISLE, Maine — Terry Kelly is a one-of-a-kind craftsman in a mass-production world.
The wood carver from Presque Isle has been turning out handmade wooden furniture for nearly 15 years for appreciative customers across the country.
“I started building cabinets 15 years ago, and it was the old ‘crawl-walk-run’ as I learned a lot along the way,” Kelly said. “But I always wanted to do chairs [because] to a lot of craftsmen, chairs are the pinnacle of furniture making.”
So Kelly signed up for a two-week class offered by one of the country’s top chair makers through the Rockport Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. From the first turn of a wooden spindle, he was hooked.
“Up until that point my furniture making was like a 100 level Introduction to Russian literature class,” he joked. “That class in Rockport was like stepping up to graduate classes [and] really took me to that next level.”
It was there that Kelly began to learn the techniques and skills he uses today in creating quality chairs he said will last hundreds of years.
“There is also the artistic standpoint,” he said. “When a chair is well made, it simply looks good and has that ‘wow’ factor.”
Appreciation of a good chair, Kelly said, is universal.
“In any chair you sit on — at home, at the doctor’s office or anywhere — you are consciously or unconsciously evaluating how comfortable it is,” he said. “That comfort has everything to do with how the chair is made and designed.”
Kelly makes Windsor chairs, an elegant style he said dates back to 16th century.
“Back in the day, you had guys that all they did was go out out into the woods, cut trees and make chair spindles,” Kelly said. “They’d bring these spindles into a town or village where another guy was making seats and other guy making the arms — it was all very specialized.”
The popularity of Windsor chairs dropped in the early and mid-1800s as people began to favor more Eastern- and Asian-inspired designs, Kelly said.
To keep a place in the market, builders of Windsor chairs began carving the legs, arms and backs to resemble sticks of bamboo, a style still used today by furniture makers like Kelly, who favors the understated design.
For Kelly, it all starts in his garage, where surrounded by the tools — and sawdust — of his trade he selects the perfect piece of Eastern white pine, his material of choice.
“It’s easy to carve, I like the smell of it and it’s easy to get,” he said.
Creating a chair – from the legs to the seat to the back — is all about the angles, or as Kelly said angles of angles.
“To get the right shape, I use compound angles,” he said. “I actually use trigonometry tables to compute the angles I need, and I never thought I’d ever use trig when I took it in school.”
Chair legs and spindles are formed — or “turned” — on a mechanical lathe. The pieces are then further shaped by hand.
Sitting on a bench of his own creation, Kelly places one end of the piece of wood in a special cradle and hold the other.
Using a draw knife — a blade with a handle on each end — he patiently carves each individual piece to the desired size and shape.
He next takes a plank of his white pine and cuts two square sections. One of those sections he cuts in half and using wood glue — he reacts in horror to even the hint of using metal nails or screws — he attaches one of those halves to either side of the square he left whole.
“So each chair seat is really three separate pieces of wood,” he said. “But by attaching two on either side of the larger piece, when you look at the final product, it looks like one, solid piece.”
From there it’s a matter of assembling all the individual parts, which are held together by a combination of that wood glue and mortise and tenon joints.
“I pretty much just eyeball everything instead of actually measuring, and I’ll use a pencil to mark the top, bottom and middle of pieces I’m working on,” he said as he rummaged around his workbench looking for a pencil. “When I’m really rich, I’m going to have a pencil surgically implanted on the end of my finger.”
He takes great pains using special tools to make sure the lines and angles of his chairs are clean and exact.
“I learned early on from one of the Windsor experts to make sure my chairs are not crooked or ‘cattywampus,’ as he put it,” Kelly said. “I remember him telling me he was not speaking ‘hillbilly’ because it’s a word from Shakespeare. He was right — I looked it up.”
Kelly said he was also warned against putting too much faith in bright, shiny new tools or gizmos.
“You have to remember that, as the carver, you are the one making that tool work,” he said. “You need to develop the skills to get the quality and end result you want.”
Kelly will spend about three weeks on one chair and is working on an eight-piece set destined for Asheville, North Carolina.
He has shipped his creations all over the country, including Texas and California and has pieces on display at Casco Bay Artisans in Portland.
“Just because you love something does not mean you should make it your vocation,” he said. “I don’t want to get five years down the road and be sick and tired of doing this.”
For now, he’s content to stay in his garage, his black Labrador, Forest, keeping him company, and work on one single chair at a time.
“The muses visit me every so often and spark that creativity,” he said. “Then you just have to go to work on it.”