A few weeks ago Peter Follansbee participated in a panel discussion titled “Looking Forward, Looking Back: Traditional Crafts and Contemporary Makers” at the Fuller Craft Museum as part of the opening reception for Living Traditions: The Handwork of Plymouth CRAFT. Peter was asked an either/or question: “When you’re making things, is the process of doing that just for you or for the community?”
Feeling put on the spot, he answered: “I’m doing this ’cause that is what I want to do.”
But that’s not completely true.
“Afterwards I was thinking of their use of the word ‘community’ and through all of this woodworking, from back in my early museum days all the way up to today, I’ve met so many people who are just fabulous, and many have become lifelong friends, just great, great folks, both students and other instructors and other woodworkers.”
With community comes commonality.
“I can find commonality with people that otherwise I would walk right past them, and they would walk right past me,” Peter says. “We share nothing in common except for this interest in and this desire in making things out of wood, and that is unlike what I said on the panel discussion. That is important to me. I can’t imagine a different life. So I’ve been lucky to kind of stumble into this one, and it was all through woodworking.”
And in a way Peter did stumble into this life, in a story that involves the death of his father at a young age, splitting logs for firewood, waffling between art painting and woodworking, and an unexpected 25-mile walk to Drew Langsner’s Country Workshops school in North Carolina.
In the end, it was the community he sought, the community that accepted him, and the community he now serves that helped form his life, which reflects a quote by William Coperthwaite on an axe handle Peter recently carved: “I want to live in a society where people are intoxicated with the joy of making things.”
‘Without Love in the Dream it will Never Come True’
The youngest of five, Peter was born in 1957 in Weymouth, Mass., a suburb of Boston. His father worked at A.J. Wilkinson & Co., “back when a hardware store was a hardware store,” Peter says. The day after he graduated high school, Peter’s father walked into Wilkinson’s and applied for a job. He worked there until he died, at the age of 51 in 1975.
A widow, Peter’s mother had to reinvent herself and started working at a law firm in Boston. As an 18-year-old, Peter says he didn’t recognize what a big deal that was for his mother during the mid-1970s. “Later, some perspective really shown a light on it.”
Peter’s father had a basement woodshop filled with Delta and Powermatic tools: a lathe, table saw, jointer, drill press, circular saw. His father built furnishings to outfit the house. “I don’t remember anyone talking about it, and I certainly didn’t think about it,” Peter says. “You just sort of took it for granted that he made stuff. You make stuff.”
Peter was into art. He took art lessons as a child and, moving from crayons and pencils to pastels and paints, he essentially majored in art in high school — by grade 10 he was studying art history and knew art school was in his future.
And it was. He attended the Massachusetts College of Art and Design for a year. And then he dropped out. “It was a lot of scruffy 20-year-olds expressing themselves and doing wild and crazy stuff,” Peter says. “I wanted to learn under-glazing and classic painting, and I had no way to put that into words or to search out how I was going to get that so I just bagged it instead. … It was sort of funny. What I was looking for in painting I ultimately found in woodworking.”
But first there was, as Peter says, a whole lot of floundering. “Keep in mind that this was the mid-70s, so there was this whole dope culture, too. And I was reasonably involved in that. I wasn’t into hard drugs, but I kept pretty high all the time. So that clouded a lot of judgment.”
Upon his father’s death, Peter inherited a basement full of tools. And because he was an artist, he began making picture frames. “I started dabbling in framing my canvases while I was painting, and little by little I started to learn more about woodworking – not in any orderly fashion. So for many years I kind of divided my time between painting and making stuff out of wood.” This included a Shaker rocking chair, with almost no instruction.
“I failed miserably,” he says.
Then, a friend showed him a copy of Fine Woodworking magazine. Peter subscribed.
Peter was living with his mother and their house was close to a power line. To keep trees from tangling the line, the power company came out and cut them, but also left behind what they had cut. The energy crisis had hit, and folks were burning firewood regularly. So Peter taught himself how to split wood. He also wanted to make a chair. The September 1978 issue of Fine Woodworking arrived, and in it was an advertisement for the book “Make a Chair from a Tree” by John (now Jennie) Alexander and an excerpt from Drew Langsner’s book, “Country Woodcraft,” about splitting logs. “It was aimed right at me,” Peter says.
Peter finally convinced himself his years of waffling between painting and woodworking were over – he had to choose, for the sake of focus. “So I stopped painting,” he says. “Which is a good thing.”
In 1980, Peter signed up to take a class at Country Workshops. He didn’t have a driver’s license and he had never flown – in fact, he had never been out of New England. “I got on a plane, and then two buses,” he says. “I was too shy to call Drew and say, ‘How do I get from the bus stop to your place?’ and not having any experience in rural America, I saw that his address was Marshall, N.C. The bus went to Marshall so I thought, I’ll just walk! And it was a 25-mile walk. I made it in time for dinner, and then pitched my tent and fell right asleep. It was really out of character for me, but it was one of those moments where the stars lined up and look at what it did.”
Of course, it wasn’t immediate.
“I was the worst possible student,” Peter says. “Drew will tell you. I was terrible. I was awful. Years later I would learn that Alexander would have 10, 12 students, and would watch for who was going to be the ‘destructor,’ the one you have to watch, the one who was going to ruin everything. And it was me. I was still a pothead, and I was still just a novice.”
But skill, of course, is separate from passion. “Oh man, it changed my life,” Peter says. “I flipped out, I loved it, I was just over the moon. It was great. So then I went home and made more chairs. By 1982 I was done with dope, and shortly after that I went back down to Drew’s, and then I would go twice a year every year. In 1988 I was an intern and stayed there for five months. By then I was getting serious and a little more coherent and semi-skilled.”
Throughout these years Peter continued to live with his mother, so his needs were few. He sold some chairs and, after learning how to make split baskets at Langsner’s, he sold those as part of a craft cooperative. “It sort of validated what I was doing,” Peter says. He realized he could make things. And people would buy them.
‘Once in a While, You get Shown the Light, in the Strangest of Places, if You Look at it Right’
In the late 1980s, Peter and Alexander were spending a week, along with some other folks, on improvements to Langsner’s facility – it was called volunteer week, and it was a way to support the school. One evening Alexander showed a series of slides of a disassembled cupboard door, then at Winterthur, made about 1660 in Braintree, Mass. “It was split out of a log, like the chair parts were, but instead of then going to a shavehorse and a drawknife, you went to a bench with a plane,” Peter says. “And then instead of boring the mortise with a brace and bit, you chopped it with a chisel. So it was similar to what we were doing with chairmaking, but different.” Only Peter shared in Alexander’s enthusiasm.
So the two began a correspondence, roping in furniture historian Robert Trent. Their letters included questions, sketches, diagrams and theories. Throughout the correspondence Alexander told Peter to refer to out-of-print books and visit the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. So, Peter did. At the time Jonathan Leo Fairbanks was curator and Ned Cooke was assistant curator.
“Those guys would let me come in stone cold off the street and study the objects in the collection,” Peter says. “I had no academic affiliation, no credentials, no references, nothing. I just showed up with a question and some curiosity, and they gave me access to stuff. It was fabulous.”
Around that time Trent was lecturing up in Boston. Alexander called Peter and said, “You’ve got to go hear Trent.” Peter called the lecture host and was told that in order to hear Trent, he’d have to buy a ticket to the entire lecture series. Peter hung up, called Alexander and said he wasn’t going to be able to go. Later that day Peter got a phone call from Trent. “He just went on a rant about what idiots they were and he put me on the list so I could go to the lecture. And that’s how I met Bob.”
As Peter’s community grew, so did his knowledge of 17th-century woodworking. In the mid-1990s Peter sneaked into a lecture by Trent at Plimoth Plantation. After the lecture a mutual friend introduced Peter to Joel Pontz, who worked at the museum. “Joel had seen a newspaper article about me,” Peter says. “I had a Delta lathe [his father’s] that I had thrown the motor away and hooked up a spring pole to it so it made for a curious article. Joel had seen that and said, ‘Wow, would you like to work here?’ And I said, ‘Yeah!’ And he said, ‘We don’t have a job for you.’”
But Pontz and Peter became friends, getting together one night a month for “shop night.”
Eventually Pontz left Plimoth, creating a space for Peter. “There was a woman running that program, called the Craft Center,” Peter says. “It was me, potters, textile artists and a few other things. I was hanging around visiting there and they said, ‘Go talk to this woman, we’ve got a part-time job [available].’ And later on she told me she went to her boss and said, ‘Who is this guy? Should we check up on him? Get references?’ And they just said, ‘Oh, Joel said he’s OK. Just hire him.’ And that woman is now my wife. I love to tell that story.”
(Peter and his wife, Maureen, married in 2003 and now have twins – Rose and Daniel.)
Peter worked as a joiner at Plimoth Plantation for 20 years. “And for probably 14 of those years, I’m making up a number but it’s close, it was the greatest job a woodworker could have,” he says. “Absolutely fabulous. Because I had to go to work every day and go in and make stuff with wood I didn’t have to pay for, and all I had to do was talk to people about it. There was almost never a deadline. I didn’t have to worry – is it going to sell? – all I had to do was make it. And talk to people. And I got to do the research behind it.”
Research involved trips to England and around the country, visiting museums and attending symposiums and lectures. “I got to hobnob with all the people who could help me learn my craft and the history of it better and just talk, talk, talk, talk,” he says. “And what woodworker doesn’t want to show you want they’re doing?”
Because the audience would change every 10 to 30 minutes, Peter became a master at capturing their attention. “You instantly find out if this joke or this trick fails and that sort of thing, and I loved to do it.” He was not taught this. But through previous demonstrations at craft fairs and practice, he quickly learned that big crowds mean big movements, but little crowds mean small movements. With families, he says, you focus on the kids.
“It was great,” he says. “It was great fun and people came from all over the world, all kinds of people – you never knew who was going to walk through the door.” One day he was making a brace for a brace and a bit, and a British couple walked up and started talking knowledgeably about tools. Turns out it was Jane Rees and Mark Rees, authors of many important books about early tools and their makers.
There were questions that were asked, repeatedly. “It got old right away and then you had to learn what to do,” Peter says. “Some people learn how to deal with it and some people don’t. And the ones who don’t are bitter, nasty little people who shouldn’t be doing that job. So the question you get the most, no matter what you’re doing is, ‘How long does it take?’ I saw co-workers find all kinds of ways to fight that question and I thought, ‘Well, that’s stupid because that’s what they want to know.’ So you tell them that and then you can move on and tell them what you want to tell them.”
In order to do this, Peter actually timed his various operations so he always knew the answer to that question. “The repetition is annoying for me, but it isn’t repetition for the people asking,” Peter says. “It’s new to them.”
Peter says he misses that part of it, talking to people. He left Plimoth in 2014. In the end, there were some difficult years involving a change of directors and general bureaucracy. In 2008, friends of Peter’s, including his then boss and his wife, were let go.
Peter wanted to leave, but he needed to make money. Now he was the sole earner in his family and he had two children to support. So he stayed, all the while building up a following through his blog, Joiner’s Notes, planning for a future in which he could make it on the outside. “I stayed for many years,” Peter says. “It took a long time.” Christopher Schwarz stepped in, helping him find teaching gigs and, through Lost Art Press, publishing “Make a Joint Stool from a Tree” with Jennie Alexander in 2012.
“Then it was just kind of floundering for a few years, and not having the nerve to pull the trigger,” Peter says. “One day I said to Maureen – our kids were then in school, they were in the second grade, going to public schools and we didn’t like that either – every day three of us go out the door to something you and I don’t believe in,” Peter says. “We should stop doing that. So we home-school our kids, and I quit my job.”
Immediately following a blog post about leaving Plimoth, Megan Fitzpatrick, editor of Popular Woodworking Magazine, offered Peter a column. “It was really a godsend,” Peter says. “I greatly appreciated it.” And then Marc Adams called, asking him to teach. He teamed up with Lie-Nielsen Toolworks (check out his DVDs for sale here) and Roy Underhill. Peter says he booked too many teaching gigs that first year, worried about income.
After years of giving to the woodworking community – and the general public – the woodworking community gave back.
‘Hang it up and See what Tomorrow Brings’
Teaching, Peter says, is totally different from demonstrating. “I don’t get to do as much woodworking when I’m teaching. At the old job, all the attention was on me.” He laughs. “And I like teaching. It’s fun, it’s interesting, you get that group dynamic and some groups are duds and some groups are really great. A lot of students have become friends of mine.”
These days, Peter is still waiting for a “typical” year. He spent the last year building his shop. “I read on the Web one day, ‘He’s not doing much woodworking these days,’ and I thought, ‘I’m building this freaking shop by hand! That’s all woodworking!’ But what they meant was that I wasn’t doing much furniture, and I hadn’t.”
Now that his shop is built, Peter’s hoping for some normalcy. “If I’m not traveling and I’m not teaching, it’s going to be out in the shop building things,” he says. “I have some custom work that I’m way behind on, and I’m starting to get going on that now. So I have some big carved chairs, and a bedstead and a chest of drawers to make. I’m trying to get in a rhythm that I used to use at the museum. In the morning, I’ll split logs and make boards. I’ll do real physical work for a few hours, and then kind of switch gears and maybe do joinery and carving later in the day. I’m just trying to pace myself so I’m not beating myself up. I usually work several projects at a time, and try to leapfrog them to the finish line altogether.”
Peter and his family live in a little town near Plymouth, Mass., on the way to Cape Cod, on a small piece of property, maybe three-quarters of an acre. In the backyard is a river with a marsh behind it.
At the same panel discussion mentioned above, someone asked Peter if he’s more interested in the process or the finished product. Peter said, “Oh no, I can’t stand the finished product because when I finish them I don’t want to see them again.” Tim Manney, a chairmaker and toolmaker in Maine, was in the audience and called his bluff. “You’re lying,” Manney said. “Your house is full of your stuff!”
Peter admits that there may be two or three pieces of furniture in his house that he didn’t make.
When Maureen, Peter’s wife, was pregnant she ended up on bed rest for 11 weeks. While she was upstairs, Peter spent 11 weeks at Plimoth, building and carving new fronts to their kitchen cabinets. “So she came down after 11 weeks and saw that,” he says. “She had never seen it. There are probably seven or eight kitchen cabinets that are all carved.”
Building his shop was a lifelong dream. It’s 12’ x 16’ with 15 windows. “It’s like being outdoors when I’m indoors,” Peter says. “It’s where I want to be.”
A friend helped. He’d come by Peter’s for one or two days a week, lay out some stuff, show Peter how to cut it, and then leave. “I’d cut for a few days and then I’d call him up and say, ‘OK, I’m ready for the next step….’ I don’t want to do it again.”
He lost some woodworking time this winter, due to not having a stove. But a former student gave him a little stove and this summer he plans to hook it up.
In addition to building and teaching, Peter enjoys making spoons. “Spoons are taking over the world you know,” he says. “And why is that? Why are they making all these spoons?” At England’s Spoonfest last year Peter served as the keynote speaker for the opening night. “I told them all, ‘We checked and that’s enough spoons. We don’t need to make anymore.’ And they started to boo and throw things at me.”
Peter began making spoons in the 1980s. In 1988, during his intern year, he took a course taught by Jogge Sundqvist and was hooked. While at Plimoth he carved spoons that “were really ugly,” 17th-century English spoons, “and there’s nothing interesting about them.” Throughout the years Peter would carve spoons on his own and post pictures on his blog. One day somebody asked if he would sell one. “The thought never occurred to me,” Peter says. “I couldn’t imagine someone would buy one of those. I used to make them, and use them at home and give them as gifts.”
So why is everyone making spoons? Peter says he carves them because the ones he likes best form a natural, crooked shape – the curve of the spoon mimics the curve of the tree. “They’re a nice design challenge, and a functional sculpture sort of thing, a real good exercise in knife work and just an all-around interesting item.” But he says he’s also carving them because he wants more handmade stuff in the world.
“I think our culture has moved so far away, other than Lost Art Press readers and readers of these various blogs and things, just in general, our culture is really pretty far removed from that.”
One of Peter’s big influences in woodworking is Daniel O’Hagan, a man he met through Langsner many years ago. “I remember Daniel once writing to me and using the phrase ‘plastic and confused culture.’” O’Hagan lived outside of culture, Peter says. In 1958 he went back to the land and moved to eastern Pennsylvania. He built a log house with no electricity or running water, and he and his wife lived that way until he died in 2000.
“I don’t necessarily want to live that way,” Peter says. “I like running water. I like having a computer that connects me to all around the world and stuff but I like to sort of blend some of these two mindsets. So it’s places like Drew’s and Daniel’s where I first was in a handmade building filled with handmade stuff. And it speaks to me, there’s something about it.”
Peter’s own home is now filled with woodenware and wooden furniture. Maureen is a potter and knitter (you can view, and buy, her fiber arts here), so they have many handmade items in their house. “That’s important to me,” Peter says. “Especially once we had the kids. People would say, ‘Do you want the kids to do what you do?’ and no. I don’t want them to do what I do. I want them to know that you can make things with your hands, that people make things, but I want them to be happy. I want them to do what makes them happy. I’m doing what makes me happy but that doesn’t mean that’s what would make them happy.”
Peter doesn’t subscribe to American culture. He hasn’t owned a TV in years. He enjoys bird watching. He likes to be out in nature. He likes to be home but recognizes the joy in traveling. “There aren’t many other parts of my life,” he says. “I can sit here if I had the time, I could just sit here and just watch the river as the tide comes in and goes out, comes in and goes out, and just keeps changing. I’m fine with that. That could be my entertainment. I don’t really need entertainment, but that could be my amusement. It could hold my attention.”
Peter’s not entirely sure what his future will look like but for now it’s something along the lines of “broke but happy.” “I wake up every morning perfectly happy, but I do need to generate income better than I do,” he says. In order to spur this along, he’s planning on teaching students in his home shop. He can only fit one at a time (if teaching spoon carving classes, two). He already has a few folks on schedule. “And if that works, that will help me because I’m home,” he says. “There isn’t a lot of demand for my carved oak furniture. There’s some, but not enough to pay all the bills. So there has to be teaching. I have a new book under way with Chris and Megan [through Lost Art Press], so those bits and pieces will hopefully add up to something. I want to stay healthy, so I can keep going. That’s as far ahead as I’ve looked.”
A while ago Peter did a piece for Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. They had the bottom half of a two-part cabinet made in about 1680 and they hired Peter to make the conjectural top. Their conservation department guided him in coloring it. Color is intriguing to Peter. On a trip to Sweden he visited the Nordic Museum and spent six hours studying thousands of pieces in the museum’s storehouse. “It was just stunning, beautiful, beautiful stuff all highly decorated, almost always painted, very reminiscent of what we often term, inappropriately, Pennsylvania Dutch furniture.”
And while he doesn’t plan to veer too far from carved oak furniture – he’s invested, now, and he’s good at it – he still wishes for more hours in the day. “There’s a fellow from Hungary who wrote to me from his blog whose building chests out of riven beech with tools that we’ve never seen and making them all by hand the way they were made 500 years ago,” Peter says. “I’d love to go and see his work and see him do it and do it with him.”
‘Inspiration, Move me Brightly’
Now that it’s spring, and the birds’ songs come early, Peter finds himself in his shop quite early. He says he hopes to hit his stride. And although he’s currently figuring things out, he still considers himself extremely lucky. There’s community behind that sentiment.
“I try to remember to always thank my students in [my classes],” he says. “I try to make them understand that I appreciate them dedicating the time and the resources to come and take that class because if they don’t do it, they won’t hire me anymore if I can’t get students. So I always appreciate that. I had classes two years in a row where it was one weekend a month for five months. They laid out a lot of cash to do that, they set out a lot of time, and that’s the thing nobody has any to give up. Everybody is running low on time, so I always appreciate that kind of stuff.”
There’s community behind most of Peter’s sentiments, even if he failed to acknowledge that at the panel discussion a few weeks ago. And for those looking in, the flip side is more than apparent: Both the general public (visitors to Plimoth) and the woodworking community have benefited greatly from Peter, who is incredibly smart yet humble, honest and easy-going, a skilled teacher, demonstrator and entertainer, and a man who has surrounded himself with beautiful things, most of his own making. That society of people who is intoxicated with the joy of making things? We’re closer, because of him.
— Kara Gebhart Uhl