A visit to Hugh Belton’s home and workshop in Woodstock is typical in some ways, and extraordinary in others. We were greeted at arrival by the furniture maker and his wife, Jennifer. Ushered through the front door of their home, jaws dropped (ours, of course!) While Hugh hasn’t a single piece of work on the Guild site (a point for which he was appropriately chided) he certainly has a showcase there on Meoki Way.
The first piece we encountered was a dining table of California walnut; sleek, smooth and enormous. From a grafted tree, Hugh told us, about seven feet in diameter. It was set with chairs like the one above. And in the kitchen, a free standing piece with a (slightly finished) live edge which functions as a kitchen island and focal point.
Hugh showed us his Captain’s Chair, pointing out the stacked and sandwiched lamination techniques, and how the seat was suspended from the legs to achieve the look, and a certain comfort factor.
“The hard part with these chairs is that the first half is easy. The second half,” he paused, “is making it perfect.” And then sort of sheepishly gesturing to the coffee table, he explained that it was one of the first pieces he’d ever made. Not looking that rudimentary to us, but okay.
“I made this forty years ago, before I was a full-time woodworker. Found it recently in my brother-in-law’s living room, it needed a little TLC. I guess it’s a little bit crude but I kind of have an affinity for it,” and he swirled the lazy susan top with a smile.
Of course, we asked what the craftsman did before furniture. As usual, surprised by the answer! “I was trained as an economist,” Hugh said, “And I spent several years working in Washington.” And here’s where the extraordinary comes in…
“I walked into the Renwick gallery when it opened in Washington. That was 1972. No one in my family made furniture. But for some reason, it was love at first sight with inanimate objects. The show featured work from makers like Arthur Espenet Carpenter, George Nakashima, Wendell Castle. And Sam Maloof and Wharton Esherick. Esherick had died, but the rest were living. When I walked out of there I said to myself, I’d love to do something like this in my life.”
“Seven years later I went out to Carpenter’s shop in Bolinas and spent four or five months apprenticing with him. (Carpenter was an entirely self-taught craftsman who gets credit for the sculptural style of West Coast furniture design) “Then I quit this well-paying job to become downwardly mobile as a furniture maker. And I’ve been downwardly mobile ever since.” Hugh laughed good-naturedly. He received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to return to Carpenter’s studio for another six months and the rest, as they say, is history…
We’d seen the sleigh bed above on Hugh’s website but were not prepared for it in person. What a feat! It’s gigantic. “Most sleigh beds just have that little flair at the end. I decided to go over the top.” The compound curves are bent plywood with a formed madrone veneer alongside multiple layers of compressed cherry and finished with ebonized walnut runners. The craftsman picked up the coverlet to show us the smooth dip in the side for ease of entry and exit. Tucked between the frame and mattress, a library copy of “My Family and Other Animals“ by Gerald Durrell. “This is one my favorite books. I read it to Jennifer at night. It’s an old book, but it’s hysterical.” We’re always happy to take such recommendations…
And the cradle. “All of our children were raised in this,” the craftsman told us. It was very sweet, in hand-sewn leather, New Guinea nara and walnut. “There once was a pile of this nara on a wharf in Oakland, and I foolishly didn’t buy it all. Just enough to make a few things. Isn’t it gorgeous?” It was. And after thirty years, the piece is warm and handsome, and waiting for grandchildren.
A favorite project? Belton said he loved them all but that his biggest honor was inclusion in a Smithsonian Craft Show. “It’s hard as the dickens to get in,” he laughed. “I tried several times, got in once. But wow!” His eyes sparkled as he tucked back into the memory of it for a second.
In the shop, ogling the vacuum press, a wonderful apparatus that applies 1800+ pounds of pressure per square foot, and Hugh’s router collection, six or seven at that; the pieces he uses most often.
Hugh’s friend and shop assistant Ken was at work on a set of chairs for his family and a set for a customer. A lively discussion ensued. Hugh described his technique, which includes the custom crafted guide above. Ken showed us a piece in process, sanded from 80 to 1000 grit, and applied a swipe of the shop standard finish, a tung oil based varnish dilute with mineral spirits.
“This is our third year here,” the furniture maker told us. “We’d come through Vermont a number of times visiting friends and really liked Woodstock. Plus I love the cold weather, and so does Boomer.” Hugh smiled and tossed out a tennis ball for his pup.
So he studied with a master. He founded the Washington Woodworkers Guild of the National Capitol Area. He exhibited with the Smithsonian. And now he’s come to Vermont and taken up with us – and the Guild is thrilled for it!
You can meet more members of the Guild of Vermont Furniture Makers on the blog. Get to know us, learn about our work!