An interview with studio furniture-maker William Thomas of Rindge

New Hampshire Furniture Master William Thomas creates an array of exquisite pieces in traditional styles.

Ahead of the annual New Hampshire Furniture Masters’ gala  and auction, New Hampshire Home spoke with one of the group’s founders and studio furniture-maker William Thomas of Rindge.  

New Hampshire Home: Your extensive portfolio stands out for the amount of artistry and detail—from intricate inlays to carved decorations to stained glass. It’s amazing to look at!

William Thomas: Thank you. Each of my pieces is hand-built to a client’s specifications. Often, potential clients have a vague idea of what they want, and through meetings, I work with them to refine a design that suits their particular needs and exceeds their expectations.

In the heyday of making furniture by hand, a shop might have one person who did just the turning of legs, and one person who did just carving, and one person who did just inlays. Now, I do it all. That gives me complete control of the functionality and visual interest of a piece.

NHH: That must require a lot of learning on your feet and an extensive network of experts.

WT: Yes, custom work presents new challenges with each piece. For exam-ple, there’s one desk I created where a traditional design called for a type of hinge that is no longer manufactured. After searching for hinges that would work in that situation and not finding any, I had to make them myself.

Then, at one point during the desk’s construction, my client mentioned that he didn’t like brass hardware. So I nickel-plated all of it. This is the sort of work that goes into making a custom piece that matches the client’s desires.

I’ve also done two collaborations with area glass artists. One piece came to me in a dream. So I contacted Tom Meyers in Hancock and told him about it. The result is a cabinet with a vertical inlay of stained glass tiles. Tom’s contribution to the design made it more interesting than I had expected. It was a really fun collaboration. The piece came out so nicely that it inspired another client to commission a related cabinet for her necklace collection.

Photo by Bill Truslow
William Thomas made this desk to house a client’s collection of curiosities. The idea for an inlaid monogram came from a piece Thomas made for an earlier New Hampshire Furniture Masters auction.

NHH: What are some of the techniques you use for your inlays? They are so delicate to hold, but carry so much variation in wood color and tone.

WT: Inlay work is one of my favorite parts of furniture decoration. When I was a student at the North Bennett Street School in Boston in 1978 and 1979, I spent a lot of time working on traditional inlay design. Inlay work was popular during the Federal period from 1790 to around 1820.

One special technique used for making inlays is “sand shading,” which creates shadows and gives a three-dimensional effect. To use this technique, I dip the appropriate edges of the individually cut pieces of veneer in hot sand for a few seconds to scorch the wood.

The results are always pleasing. An inlay can be as simple as a contrasting piece of wood or as elaborate as pictorial representations of drapery or flowers.

Photo by John W. Hession

Furniture Master William Thomas demonstrates how he uses mirrors to come up with veneer patterns that can be used to decorate the surfaces of pieces
such as the desk at right.

NHH: Do you have a favorite style of furniture?

WT: I’ve always loved furniture of the eighteenth century. This was an incredible period of development in terms of decorative style but also, and I feel this is more important, in technical terms. There were tremendous developments in how furniture was constructed, leading to the ability to create the beautiful forms of the period. This was driven by the enormous economic boom that was also happening then.

Personally, I’ve always been drawn to the style usually termed “Queen Anne”—it embodies the curved forms that became popular but occurred before the Rococo influence of [cabinet-making and furniture designer] Thomas Chippendale.

That said, a lot of my work has been in the later Federal style with simpler, subtle forms and rich inlay work. Working with veneer and inlay is something I enjoy very much.

Of course, being a custom furniture maker, what I like is really secondary. What I end up building is at my client’s request, so I never know what direction I’ll be going in next.

NHH: You’ve done so many pieces: tables, chairs, beds, cabinets. Is there any one type of furniture that you enjoy the most?

WT: That’s the challenge of custom work, you are always doing something different, but you don’t get bored. But
I do like making chairs. Case work (such as with tables or cabinets) often uses straight lines; chairs are more sculptural. The challenge is making something that can’t be represented in a two-dimensional drawing.

In particular, I have made a series of wing chair frames (around thirty-six), which are interesting because they have to be the foundation of a shape that will be finished in padding and cloth. Making chairs involves a lot of handwork and takes joinery to another level because of all the special angles. Mortise and tenon joints are the primary way chairs are put together, but they have to be laid out and cut at odd angles. Parts have to be made to create the sculptural shapes of the chair. Often, this means cutting curved shapes from large dimension pieces of wood. Some parts are turned on the lathe.

A tremendous amount of time and work goes into the structure of a chair, and that’s before any decoration gets added. Chairs want to look welcoming and comfortable, yet they have to be able to support the weight of a person while sitting and moving around.

NHH: Reproduction period furniture seems like a targeted niche. How do your clients use your work?

WT: A few of the pieces I’ve done are reproductions or based on existing furniture that’s on display in a museum or other collection. Being able to work in period styles is useful in reproducing a lost or missing piece—for example, from a set of chairs.

Actually, though, my favorite work is making new designs within period styles. Drawing from elements from the design books of the eighteenth century, I have made many pieces that I can call my own design. That is how those books were intended to be used—and there’s no reason why we can’t do that today.

Photo by John W. Hession
All of Furniture Master William Thomas’s work features his custom-made
inlayed signature.

NHH:  It seems that furniture-making combines artistry, geometry, algebra, engineering and carpentry skills.

WT: It does—and that’s not just for furniture-making. I’ve been working with pewterer Jon Gibson in Hillsborough for many years. He spins pewter vessels, such as pitchers, on the lathe. To complete these, he needs special chucks (or molds) to spin the pewter around. In some cases, the neck of the vessel is narrower than the belly. The chuck for this type of form needs to come apart to be removed. It has a core that pulls out and radial pieces that then slip out. This is a very interesting technical wood-turning job that I enjoy doing. I have made several chucks for different pewter pieces over the years.

NHH: When the New Hampshire Furniture Masters was founded, what were your goals? Does this type of organization exist elsewhere?

WT: Studio furniture-makers tend to be shy people who prefer being in their shops, creating and building. Marketing isn’t usually our forte. But the big challenge we all face is finding the next client, the next commission. So the idea was first planted by Tony Hartigan, who realized that there was an abundance of independent New Hampshire furniture makers whose work needed to be publicized. We contemplated opening a gallery, but that presented some other challenges. So the idea evolved into hosting an auction where a piece of work would be for sale and where people could see all of our work. It’s been successful for us (being held annually since 1996), and the last couple of years,
we’ve tweaked the format to be a grand gala.

I don’t know of another group quite like us—it’s a great group of highly talented studio furniture-makers in New Hampshire. Together, we’re working to preserve and celebrate New England’s fine-furniture tradition.  


Categories: Artwork and Design, Notable Homes & Homeowners