It’s hard to believe you’re only minutes off the interstate as you wind up Route 5 toward Richard Bissell’s Fine Woodworking Shop. Signal Pine Farm, located in Putney’s southeast corner, was a working turn-of-the-century farmstead with typical barns and various outbuildings: a sugar shack, a corn crib, an ice house. Bissell’s parents had rented a house at the Putney School in 1960 and purchased the property at Signal Pine in 1963 and Richard talks of the place fondly.
Vice President of the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers, Bissell encapsulates the romantic notion of handcraft in a pretty real way. He walks to and from ‘work’ by way of country road or path and his rescued barn turned workshop is powered by grid-tied solar panels. He has a pretty tight lock on his footprint. How did he get to furniture making? As a Middlebury undergrad, he had a chance encounter with a woodworking catalog and someone mentioned that the nearby Shelburne Craft School offered a woodworking class. So to Shelburne he went, then back to Putney with plans to become a master furniture maker.
Bissell renovated the smaller of the two Signal Pine barns. He works here with one full time assistant and an additional helper on occasion. At times, he’s had as many as three woodworkers in the shop with him. It works, he says, but he prefers to keep it small. He likes making furniture. When we visited, he had a couple of projects going including a set of cherry vanities for a repeat client from Seattle. One is pictured below…with beautifully figured birdseye/curly maple door panels, graceful lines and precise walnut details.
Philosophy & Style
Since 1982 Bissell has been designing and making furniture one piece at a time. In addition to custom and commissioned work he’s developed a ‘standard’ line of Shaker furniture and Windsor chairs. His maker’s philosophy looks to combine the principles of intelligent and functional design with balanced proportions, clean and crisp details and traditional joinery. He tells us that the Shaker and Mission styles are particularly attractive to him because they can achieve beauty and satisfaction of function while still being affordable. The clean lines and minimal ornamentation allow the furniture maker to give great value with a hand-crafted piece. “Often”, he remarked, “a little forethought in the design stage can produce considerable savings in production.”
We love Richard’s exactness and attention to detail. He sands and finishes every surface by hand until the wood absolutely gleams. Pictured above is his ‘Pencil Post Bed’ in cherry, finished with a proprietary mix of linseed oil and polyurethane followed by paste wax. “While not a Shaker design, the clean lines of this bed are very reminiscent of the Shaker style. It’s a very popular bed and I’ve been making it for many years so I’ve been able to perfect the production process so that it’s priced very competitively.“
Since early 2007, Bissell has been sourcing lumber from forests that he can be confident are responsibly managed. He works with Exclusively Vermont Wood Products of Bristol, VT and other Vermont lumber companies that harvest and mill native wood. In Vermont, ag and forest landowners can enroll their land in a program that gives them property tax credits if they keep the land undeveloped and manage it following accepted forestry or agricultural practices. “Responsible forest management ensures that the forests thrive and will be around for future generation while at the same time providing lumber and other forest products. I think local lumber is the most responsible source that I can have for the wood I use in my furniture.” Bissell also harvests wood from his own Putney property. And when he receives lumber at the shop, each piece is source-marked and that information is recorded when the lumber is used so that customers can know the percentage of lumber used in their piece that was harvested responsibly. Are people asking at the outset for sustainable wood in their furniture? Sometimes.
But with a rising awareness of the climate change crisis, this furniture maker is supporting the changes he believes are necessary whether or not his customers are asking for them. He makes it his mission to produce handmade furniture made from responsibly harvested solid hardwoods, with solar power. For environmentally concerned homeowners in search of fine furniture, Bissell’s catalog will be a lucky match for you. For those who simply love the Shaker lines and want something made by hand that will last for generations, you’ll get the added bonus of the good energy.
The Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers‘ website houses a collection of Richard’s work. And don’t forget to Discover Putney! Accessible from I-91 (exit 4) and just a short distance from Route 30, the eclectic eco-conscious downtown features one of a kind galleries, shops and restaurants. Richard is generally in the shop weekdays 9-5 but it’s best to contact him ahead of time and arrange for a visit.