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In his own world

Alfred Anderson, principal of Alfred Anderson Craftsman in Wood in Colbert, Wash., works out of a 19th century farm and, in many respects, his life and work styles are more reflective of that bygone era than of modern times. Everything he makes is an original. There are no standard products, no inventory. Anderson builds handcrafted basic furniture such as beds, tables and chairs.

A communion table that Anderson built from locust and pine.

“Most woodworkers have products on hand that will fit many people’s needs,” Anderson says. “I don’t. I’m the one who fills the need for the person who can’t find what he wants anywhere else.”

An early vision

Anderson was born in Alabama. “I was very good in arts and crafts as a kid,” Anderson recalls. “When I was six years old I got the idea I would be making things all my life. It’s the same idea I carry around in my 66-year-old self.”

He attended high school in Pennsylvania and Coe College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, graduating with an arts degree in 1967. He started on a master’s degree in painting and drawing at Washington University in St. Louis, but was drafted into the Army. After being discharged from the Army, Anderson worked at what is now the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art from 1971-1974.

He moved around a bit before settling in the Seattle area in 1977. From 1978-1996 he lived on nearby Mercer Island. He married his wife, Cathy, in 1984, with a daughter from a previous marriage, Marina.

Though he lived on Mercer Island, Anderson’s business was in Seattle. He started painting as an artist. “I could support myself as a finished carpenter, for I had enough skills to do high-end and interior carpentry,” Anderson says, “though it was not the absolute best fun.” At about this time he also started to do what he does now, though at a simpler level. “I would make things such as a chest of drawers or framed windows, the kinds of objects that have to be designed and built from scratch.”

This was an important growth period for Anderson as he began to get more and more work in Pioneer Square. The historic district requires restorations to be done in the matching styles of the 19th or early 20th centuries. So even when there was a contemporary insert, such as a TV set, it had to be enclosed in a console reflective of the historical period.

This led to Anderson working on classic boats. The same rules applied. For instance, radar equipment had to be enclosed in a case befitting the boat’s original design. One of Anderson’s most interesting projects was on a yacht named Thea Foss, which belonged to actor Douglas Fairbanks Jr. in the 1930s. The yacht was converted into a mine sweeper in World War II, then changed back into a yacht and then restored by Anderson to its original design.

The big break

But Anderson’s main line of work, developed in Seattle, has been through Kaufer’s Religious Supplies. This work, as Anderson describes it, “is for the interiors of churches, primarily Catholic and Anglican, fancy liturgically sensitive products. The more liturgically sensitive the more likely I am to get the call.”

The church work allowed Anderson to give up his steady job as a licensed contractor and move to Colbert. As a licensed contractor he could tear out a wall to put in a window, but it required insurance and bonding costs much different than simply bringing in a new piece of furniture. “Simply delivering finished objects makes my business much more affordable,” he says.

Anderson mostly builds pieces, such as this lectern, for churches.

The farm Anderson moved to was his wife’s great-grandparents’ homestead and was purchased from her uncle. The 80 acres were once used for timber and agricultural fields for growing grains such as oats and wheat. Now, says Anderson, “it’s all being ecologically restored to native grasslands and forests.”

What was once a 45’ x 30’ commercial chicken house has been gutted and reworked on the inside to a modern woodshop, while the outside still looks like an old farm building.

“All of the heavy work, the big sawing projects, I do with power tools,” Anderson says. “The finishing work and joinery work are all done by hand. As are all of the authentic finishings of varnishes, polishes and lacquers.” Though he uses some exotics, such as wenge and ebony, most of the wood he uses is domestic. These include ash, maple, walnut, oak, larch, Ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.

Anderson has a local following and gets a number of referrals, but does not really advertise. It’s through Kaufer’s Religious Supplies, based in Seattle, with an outlet in Spokane, that Anderson gets about 80 percent of his business. He’s been working with this retailer, but only occasionally will have a small object on display in their showrooms. And, though Kaufer’s relies heavily on its catalogs, Anderson’s one-of-a-kind work is not featured there either. What happens, Anderson explains, is that a customer might see something, but ask for something a bit different, something that requires an original design or customization. The customer will be referred to Anderson.

Anderson builds a variety of unique products for churches. Some are small, such as tabernacles, ornate containers for holy artifacts, and crucifixes. Some are more basic furniture such as period desks, tables and chairs for speakers or other special guests in the sanctuary. Some are large and elaborate.

For instance, Anderson says one of his most interesting projects was for an Anglican church with a very strong high-church influence on its interiors. “The pulpit was not merely a lectern,” says Anderson. “It was a pulpit in an absolute sense, raised high up over the sanctuary, built in an extravagant 19th century architectural style. Ornamental steps led up to it. It was built like the front of a sailing ship and you could almost envision the priest climbing up a rope ladder. This was a really fun project.”

Anderson made a model of the project from plywood, about 6” tall, complete with lighting so the pastor and other decision makers could get a full sense of what the finished work would look like. Anderson then built the project in his shop, which was shipping across the mountains to the church in Redmond in western Washington.

One and done

An added bonus to working on big projects in churches, Anderson says, is that “not only are you working in a variety of different architectural styles and aesthetics, you are also involved with very interesting collaborators from other crafts, such as glass blowers, metal workers and sometimes even ceramic makers.”

But even small projects can offer challenges which Anderson enjoys solving. “There was one 19th century stained glass window in which the client wanted to create the impression of real flowers actually growing or floating out the window,” he says. “So I created a hidden shelf that created this illusion.” He laughs. “Who would want two of these?”

Anderson constructed this coffee table as a miniature and usable workbench.

Anderson says that Kaufer’s Religious Supplies, with whom he’s worked for some 30 years, “has been instrumental in making my business profitable. They are selling the work, while I am here having fun.” Anderson adds that, though his present situation has allowed him to leave behind more onerous tasks such as general carpentry and construction work, he still needs a day job. So he and his wife do a side business of property management.

Though his emphasis is on church work, Anderson still does custom historical furniture for homes. He describes one of his latest clients in the Lake City area of Seattle as wanting a king-sized bed with a headboard of a half-round window reminiscent of English-style houses of the late 19th century. This window was built around the colonial motto of “The sun never sets on the British Empire.”

This walnut headboard was modeled after a “sunrise window” salvaged from an old school in rural area of eastern Washington. Yet, for all of his emphasis upon remaining true to historical styles, Anderson says he still gets a certain amount of demand for his custom work in brand-new homes designed in the most modern contemporary styles.

When asked if, given the supplemental work he’s always had to do to support his one-of-a-kind work, it might not have been better to do a certain amount of standardized work, Anderson replies, “To try to be in both ends of it gets a bit dicey. For then you have an entirely different profile as a production shop. You have to have the capacity to make the same object over and over. For me, that would be like having an ordinary job. My work style is more a rarefied hobby than a job.”

Or, put another way, more of an art than a craft.

This article originally appeared in the December 2012 issue.

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