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Democrat Photo by Jeanne Sager

PETE GALBERT LOOKS up from his work on a chair he was completing for someone’s birthday. Galbert does all his work by hand at his home near Jeffersonville.

Building to Fit

By Jeanne Sager
JEFFERSONVILLE — June 1, 2004 – Pete Galbert is a short woman’s best friend.
He can make a chair that fits your curves.
He can make a seat that’s big enough for a large derriere and small enough for a skinny mini.
And he’s the guy to go to when you’ve never been able to sit down and still touch the floor with your feet.
Galbert is a chairmaker.
The Jeffersonville resident spends his day in his studio, whittling away at pieces of wood and creating the most comfortable piece of furniture you’ll ever lay eyes – or butt – on.
Galbert started as a painter. He even started college at the Art Institute of Chicago.
But the picture of a chair in a magazine caught his eye and changed his whole life.
“I saw this picture in a magazine of a chair that I thought was really beautiful, and I tried to copy it,” he recalled. “The first chair took about a year; the second chair took about a week.”
Galbert was hooked. He quit school and begged woodworkers to sign him on as an apprentice.
“I called every woodworker in the phone book until someone would hire me,” he revealed with a laugh.
He interned with a cabinetmaker and learned the ins and outs of working with wood. He decided to go back to school to earn an art and sculpture degree from the University of Illinois, but he kept up with making things.
And when he left school, he got back into making chairs. In the mid-90s, Galbert moved to New York and made chairmaker his profession.
Every day is a challenge.
“Chairs are one of the hardest things to build,” Galbert explained. “A table just has to be flat and the right height; a chair has to relate to the human body.”
Customization for a particular person relates mostly to their height, and Galbert said he’s had an overwhelming number of short women come to him to make a chair that finally fits their bodies.
“They’ve never had a chair where their feet touched the floor,” he explained.
But Galbert can customize a chair for anyone.
The basic premise is the same for each person. He uses local woods – pine, maple and oak that come from Matt Hofer’s lumber mill in Hortonville.
And the main design of each chair is based on the Windsor design that dates back more than 300 years.
Many of the elements in modern chairs were developed in America, but Windsor chairs got their start in England, Galbert explained.
Galbert uses green or wet wood to make every piece of the chair, except for the seat. He splits them himself, working with the grain.
That adds to the strength, Galbert explained, because a saw ignores the grain of the wood and can compromise the integrity of the pieces.
Galbert then shaves and planes the wood – all done by hand with simple tools rather than big machines.
Again, he said, this helps with the strength and integrity of the furniture.
Where most furniture has to have “extra mass” to give it strength, Galbert’s chairs are extremely light.
“It’s like a suspension bridge where a bunch of very slender pieces hold it together,” he explained.
Working with his hands means that Galbert’s work is always in flux – measurements are done by eye, and pieces are truly customized. There is no mass production in the Galbert workshop.
“There’s a reason I work this way,” he noted. “It isn’t just romanticism – this is the fastest way I know to make chairs of the best quality.”
In fact, if he’s working on a project, Galbert will work straight through rather than making all of the chairs in a particular set at a time. Each chair gets made one at a time.
“I can focus on quality that way,” he explained. “And no part fits every chair – you don’t build to the idea, you build to the chair.”
Each hole is drilled by eye, each is filled by hand.
The oak spindles on the back of the chair that work to support the back aren’t perfectly rounded or square or flat. They’re a work of art.
But Galbert doesn’t take credit for the art.
“I’m not reinventing the wheel,” he explained. “This is a tradition that has been added to by craftsmen over hundreds of years.
“I’m adding to that tradition.”
That’s why he still paints his chairs – they’ve always been painted, he said. But he uses milk paint (perhaps the oldest paint there is), a mixture of curdled milk, lime and earth pigments.
That’s why he finishes the chairs with oil to make them more water-resistant and durable.
That’s why he uses oak for the arms and other pieces that bend – it’s been found to be the most pliable yet sturdy wood.
He uses pine for the seat and maple for the legs because they take turnings very crisply.
He uses glue, but he doesn’t really have to.
“When the peg goes in the hole, it swells,” Galbert explained.
It’s made to stay that way. But he uses glue because he puts a lifetime warranty on his chairs – he said he’d be a fool not to give the chair every measure to protect it and make it last.
Galbert’s designs do vary. He’s expanded to making rocking chairs and settees. He likes to look through books of old chairs and pick out eye-catching features and try them.
And if you come to him with an idea, it’s a chance for him to flex his creative muscle. It’s a time when his sculpture degree comes into play.
“I get to develop a whole new product,” Galbert explained. “I would hate it if every day I was making the same chair.”
The creation of each chair only takes a few weeks, but Galbert said there’s about a six-month wait for a chair.
He does much of his advertising in the fall at the Fall Garden Harvest Market in Bethel and sits down in the studio to make chairs throughout the winter with his faithful companions, Daisy and Lily, at his side.
Lily has her own “woodworking” corner where the young pup chews on her own pieces of wood while watching her “dad” at work.
And much of his practice pieces dot the home he shares with wife Sue Scott, director of the Western Sullivan Public Library. Even those on their porch serve a purpose – Galbert gets to watch how they stand up to snow and ice and time.
This summer, Galbert will make a few appearances at the Callicoon and Wurtsboro locations of the Sullivan County Area Farmers’ Market.
He welcomes visits to his studio and as a teacher will even open the shop to a student to come in and make a chair with him.
Galbert said he prefers talking with people in person to taking orders over the Internet, although he is considering a Website.
For more information, to arrange a visit to his Jeffersonville studio or to find out more about his chairs, call Pete Galbert at 482-9318.

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