Furniture The Old-Fashioned Way

American Artisans, People
on March 18, 2007
Photos by Dan Nierling Pedersen uses authentic methods to make pioneer era furniture.

His leather boots planted firmly in a drift of wood chips, Robby Pedersen chisels the dovetailed joints of a flat-top trunk exactly as he does everything else: by hand. Sure, an electric router would make quick work of the job, but at RVP-1875, the 3-year-old furniture shop and museum he owns in Story City, Iowa (pop. 3,228), Pedersen’s goal isn’t speed, or even perfection. It’s authenticity.

“If they didn’t do it in 1875, I don’t do it here,” he insists.

Instead of the buzz of power tools, RVP-1875 sighs with the scrape and rasp of Pedersen’s vast collection of antique planes, lathes and saws, 98 percent of which were actually in use in 1875. His handcrafted furniture—scalloped oak trestle tables, walnut sideboards, a towering wardrobe made with seven different woods—also is true to the time period, their designs based on hundreds of hours of research.

Pedersen, 35, cuts and mills his own timber, despite the fact that when the tree falls, he’s usually the only one around to hear it. His apprentice, Rob Campos, 42, of Des Moines, recalls once tempting Pedersen that no one would be the wiser if he took a chain saw to a tree or sneaked out an electric sander after closing time. “Robby looked at me,” recalls Campos, “and said, ‘I would know.’”

Pederson’s gritty devotion to re-creating history is what led him to discover woodworking in the first place. In 1990, as a student at Iowa State University in Ames, he interned at Living History Farms, a 550-acre, open-air museum in Urbandale, Iowa (pop. 29,072). “They had a cabinet shop, but no cabinetmaker, and someone said, ‘You’re welcome to try and figure it out.’ You give me a challenge like that, and watch out,” he laughs. “The more I did it, the more I wanted to do it.”

He ultimately spent 14 years as Living History Farms’ resident carpenter, which gave him the trial-and-error time he needed to master a lost art. Because cabinetmaking was a trade traditionally passed from master to apprentice, very few manuals describe how the work was done. So Pedersen taught himself by studying both historical documents and period furniture. “If I can crawl under a table and figure out how it was made,” he says, “that’s as good as a guy standing there telling me how to connect a board to a leg.”

Figuring out how to finish the wood authentically was more daunting. Since period cabinetmakers were super-secretive about their stains and dyes, Pedersen had to develop his own by poring through ledgers at the State Historical Society in Des Moines, collecting lists of typical finish components, then boiling up various combinations until he hit on a few good recipes—made of natural ingredients such as walnuts, raspberries, onions and linseed oil.

Anxious to keep his hard-won body of knowledge alive, Pedersen now provides tours of his tool museum to school groups and takes on apprentices to work in the shop. He teaches six-week woodworking classes in which students—even those who have trouble finding the business end of a hammer—learn how to make their own benches, bookcases or trunks.

Customers get free history lessons, too. Scott Saienga, 54, of Story City, Iowa, purchased a stepstool after wandering into the shop one day, then later commissioned a jelly cupboard and a trestle table. “You learn all about the history of the piece from Robby,” he says. “You get an education besides just a piece of furniture.”

While he’s happy to have loyal customers, Pedersen—whose pieces sell from around $100 to several thousand dollars—seems most anxious to live up to the integrity of his 1870s predecessors. He relishes knowing, for instance, that a 19th-century cabinetmaker would have chosen to work with a softer wood like pine after a long day spent pounding on a hardwood like maple.

“I can relate perfectly to what they would have gone through back then,” Pedersen says. “When I wake up with sore muscles, it tells me what the trade was truly like in 1875.”

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