Larry Crossan: History Made to Order, One Piece at a Time

Lyndell, Pennsylvania is a village of about a dozen houses situated at a little crossroads on the banks of the Brandywine Creek just 20 miles from King of Prussia. Part of the original William Penn grant, the area is loaded with both history and furniture makers. Amidst that bucolic setting, and fitting in perfectly with his surroundings, you will find Larry Crossan assiduously plying his craft in the same manner as did so many before him.

“I build reproductions of 18th and 19th century furniture,” explains Larry, “using both the design and construction methods of the period. Consequently, I do a lot of hand work. Every surface that leaves here has had its machine marks removed with hand tools, such as a sharp hand plane. I do not own a spray gun. My finish of choice is brushed shellac, a material that is beautiful, repairable, reversible and versatile. I mix my own shellac, usually from orange shellac flakes, and color the wood mostly using chemical stains and dyes, and almost no pigments.

“To me, furniture making and woodworking are wonderful things. They are an expression of art, but I am an artisan, a mimic, not an artist. The artists in this field worked 250 years ago. Some, of course, were good, and some were not. What is important now is to recognize the difference.” Clearly, he does a good job at that, and at producing the sort of quality those long-gone designers would have appreciated.

It’s not as if he was born into it either. Quite the contrary. “My grandfather was a dairy farmer,” Larry told me, “and my father worked for three decades at Longwood Gardens.” Well known in the Philadelphia area, Longwood Gardens bills itself as the world’s premier horticultural display garden encompassing over 1,000 acres of gardens, woodlands and meadows. “I had seventh grade woodshop, which was a complete waste of time. After high school I went to West Chester University and got a BA in Political Science. I went to work for Pepperidge Farm for almost nine years as a packaging supervisor.”

While he was working there, fate stepped in, cleverly disguised as location, to steer him to woodworking. “My wife and I bought a house across the street from an antique dealer, and I started helping my neighbor with furniture, doing very simple repairs. That morphed into a part-time job for the antique dealer, and six months later, in 1980, he offered me a full-time job doing repairs and restoration. Two years later, I went out on my own doing the same thing. I spent the next two years working as an independent subcontractor for a former Winterthur Museum conservator. I built a little bit during the late 80s, but did mostly restoration.”

“In the early 90s, the antique market got soft, but the reproduction market was very good. Consequently, I decided to build instead. If you can restore furniture at a high level, you can build it. In a lot of ways it is a whole lot easier to build. For one thing, if you make a mistake you can burn it, take another piece of wood and start over, which you cannot do with an original. Having seen and worked on great pieces, I had developed an esthetic sense. The majority of really good reproduction furniture makers have something of a background in restoration.”

These days he mostly does antique reproductions, and less than ten percent of his work is in restoration. Making the switch, though, had its challenges. “Even if you have a reputation as a restorer,” Larry pointed out, “until they see furniture you have actually built, they will not buy anything from you. Consequently, I set out in 1993 to create a portfolio. I made a copy of a linen press housed at the Museum of Early Southern Decorative Arts, an antique highboy whose proportions I liked, some tavern tables and a few pencil post beds. I started doing upper-end craft shows, which helped a lot. Craft shows are three-dimensional advertising. I ran into some good promoters, one of whom became a client, and it just grew from there.”

While sanguine about his chosen career, he is quick to point out that for him, the ends surpass the means. “I do this because I can’t help myself,” Larry admits. “I love building furniture more than I love woodworking, if that makes any sense to you. As a result, I don’t see myself as a woodworker, but rather as a furniture maker. In other words, I like the end result even better than the process, but you must go through the process to get the product. There is great joy in looking at the finished piece.

“My favorite piece is always the next one. I don’t handle a lot of repetition well. I like doing things I have not done before. To have someone come in and say ‘I saw this piece in a book or museum and I would like you to build it’ is one of the things that keeps me going. Business-wise, I hate chairs. I love Philadelphia chairs from a personal standpoint but cringe when I have to quote prices on chairs, especially because there is no advantage to me to do multiples. However, it is something you must offer, if for no other reason than that people who are familiar with the furniture field view chairs as very difficult to do. And they are.

“I am not one of those people who get joy from standing at the bench all day marveling at making curls with their hand plane. I was thrilled with the first set of dovetails that went together well, but eventually, you must get faster. If I could find someone to cut dovetails to my standards, I would not feel the need to ever cut another one again. I have a friend who shares a shop with woodworkers from a prestigious woodworking school. When he gets to the shop, he hopes that most of the other folks are not there, because they want to stand around discussing things like the best angle to cut a dovetail, but he wants to get work done. I am kind of the same way. I don’t want to talk to 30 people about what saw is best or what angles work best. That does not bring me satisfaction. I would rather do it.”

Part of doing it requires both the ability to create the work and the ability to sell it. Crossan’s take on both is charmingly old-fashioned. “To do things well you must have self-confidence and a belief that what you are doing is good and worthwhile,” maintains Larry, “but by the same token, you must keep your ego in check. Quiet self-confidence is preferable. I let my work speak for me.”

“I did a show recently and saw a guy I know looking at a very curly maple table I had made. I told him that rather than pitch the table in order to sell it, I would let the table speak for itself. He asked me ‘How DO you pitch a table?’ I told him, ‘You need a good windup.’ He bought the table.”

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