A few decades ago, Gerald "Jerry"Curry was working as a carpenter, doing framework on new houses and
renovations on old ones. Seeing the quality of work on the older
ones, he said, made him gravitate to older things as better made.
So, when he decided to make some
furniture, it wasn't too surprising that he went looking for
something "old style." In his case, that first piece of
furniture was a Philadelphia style Chippendale lowboy, modeled after
the type of furniture found in displays at the Boston Museum of Fine
"It wasn't a style I really
loved," Jerry said, but he wanted to challenge himself -- and to
show potential customers that, if he could make something
particularly complicated, then surely he could make something simple
as well. Also, "It was the mid-1970s, so there was the
Bicentennial hoopla. People were a little more interested in old
Jerry put together a small catalog of
about 10 pieces he could make and started advertising in the back of
Antiques magazine. "Slowly but surely, I got enough work
to keep me going," he said, and by about 1985, he had a backlog
of about two years' worth of work.
He taught himself the skills to do that
work, including a copy of a Queen Anne style 18th century highboy
that included "a lot of carving, gilding, veneering, French
polishing, inlay -- it challenged me in a whole bunch of ways. I just
did it. I just winged it." Prior to taking his business in the
furniture building direction, Jerry had built a few items of
furniture for himself, but "they looked like a carpenter made
them: just terrible," he said. "I have since cut them up
and put them in my woodstove."
With his focus on furniture inspired by
18th and 19th century style furniture, Jerry said, "I do have an
interest in history, especially American history, as it dovetails
with furniture -- but all I do is read a bunch of David McCullough's
books every now and then."
His business, however, has moved from
making new furniture, albeit in old styles, to mostly fixing actual
antique furniture. "For me, new furniture's pretty much dead,"
Jerry said. "It used to be 90 percent new furniture and 10
percent repairs; now it's switched around. Since about three to five
years ago, I now mostly do repairs for antique dealers."
Partly, Jerry said, there are more
people making furniture now, so it's an issue of supply and demand.
There are other factors he cites, too: "Everyone's internal
price computer has been reset by Walmart. If you say, 'I'll make you
a coffee table for $800, people aren't willing to pay that.'"
Also, he thinks that the current furniture world is more
design-driven than it was in the past. "Even antique dealers
like modern furniture. They don't want reproductions, because they
think of it as 'not culturally true.' It was made 'out of period,' so
it's not reflecting the culture of the maker."
Still, since he made "pretty
accurate reproductions" of furniture in the styles of the 18th
and early 19th centuries for so long, it's helpful in doing the
repairs on antiques. "There are often parts missing, and you
have to know what it should look like," Jerry said. While he has
seen the hinges broken off more than one card table with a top
designed to open up, for the most part, there are no "common"
repairs, Jerry said. "It's often not just wood, but fabricating
some metal parts as well. Sometimes there's inlay involved. There's
almost never something I do when I fix something that I do it again.
There almost always seems to be something new."
In doing those repairs, Jerry does a
little bit of finishing, mostly matching colors if, for example,
there's a chunk of wood missing from the top that he needs to
replace. "The darker the wood, the easier it is to match,
because you can add more color. Lighter colored woods are harder to
match," Jerry says. "Thankfully, most old finishes are
often thick and muddy."
As for woods, when he's actually
building furniture, Jerry said he used to use a lot of mahogany, but
now he finds himself mostly working with cherry, walnut and maple,
particularly curly maple. Part of it is due to availability, part to
his finding today's mahogany softer than it used to be, and part due
to customer demand. "Mahogany by its nature seems formal, high
style," Jerry said. "Most customers want something a little
"American woods have always
interested me," Jerry said, and these days, when he has a slow
time in his shop, he has been making sets of wood samples that he
sells through Lie-Nielsen Toolworks. The sample sets include 1/2-inch
thick, 3-inch wide, 6-inch long samples of 46 different kinds of
American woods, labeled with the species' common and scientific
names, as well as their density and both longitudinal and radial
shrinkage. The box containing them includes directions for
calculating the shrinkage and expansion of different species.
As for his repair work, while he enjoys
the challenges of frequently facing new problems, other than
occasional pieces, he doesn't find the things he works on
particularly memorable. One exception was an ivory sewing box made in
India. "It's sort of like scrimshaw: they scratched the ivory
and put ink in. That was a piece that stood out, because I don't do
Otherwise, Jerry said, "Sometimes
I'll talk to antique dealers and they'll say, 'Remember that card
table you fixed for me three or four months ago?' and I don't
remember it. Once they leave my shop, they're gone."