Master Furniture Maker Shares His Skills with the Next Generation

Aug 30, 2019

Arts and crafts style furniture⁠—first produced in the early 1900s⁠—is considered by many to be the hallmark of American design and artisanship. Original pieces can go for millions of dollars at auction and furniture made in that style today can be sold for tens of thousands of dollars.

Today WXPR contributor Jim Skibo continues our We Live Up Here series with the story of a man in Antigo who has mastered the style at a unique time in his life.

Local man and award-winning master woodworker, Tom Gallenberg, is one of the best at creating furniture in the Arts and Crafts style. Furniture making usually takes a lifetime to master but Tom did not make anything from wood until he was in his early 40s.  

Tom grew up on a potato farm here in Antigo, and then started a seed corn and soybean company in his 30s. By the time he was in his early 40s he was looking for a new challenge, so in 2002 he bought a couple of tools and built a Stickley Style dining room and chair set.

In the process of trying to learn this new craft, he went to California and visited the late Sam Maloof, one of the most renowned North American woodworkers. Sam was 89 years old at the time but still active in the shop. He gave Tom some advice and a caution about what it will take to make a living in woodworking. He told Tom that it takes most woodworkers 20 years before they know where their next meal is coming from.

According to Tom, it takes two things to be successful furniture maker. You not only have to develop exceptional skills but it also takes time, and sometimes just luck, to build a clientele that can afford handmade furniture.

Tom quickly developed his skill, and was able to defy the odds and become a self-supporting woodworker not long after he started. He stays busy with 20 to 30 commissioned pieces per year. His path to success has been to focus on perhaps the most difficult to make but yet popular designs: the Greene and Greene Arts and Crafts style.

The Greene brothers, according to Tom, created a softer type of Arts and Crafts style that was heavily influenced by Japanese architecture.

To be a successful furniture maker, however, one cannot just copy something that has already been made. Tom notes that one of the biggest challenges is to incorporate Greene and Greene designs into an original piece. This is certainly one of Tom’s gifts.

Most of Tom’s Greene and Greene inspired pieces are made with mahogany, often with ebony insets. One of his most difficult challenges was making a dining room table and chairs that were inspired by a set that a client saw in the Minneapolis Museum of Art. He could not touch or measure the piece in the musem, but he was able to create a work that satisfied the client.  Although Tom found making this piece was a challenge, he really does not have a favorite project.

Each piece is a challenge, and he gets a great deal of joy building it and the challenge of creating one-of-a-kind pieces.

Not only does he support himself with his craft, but his furniture is recognized by his peers. Over the years he has won five Best of Show Awards at New England and Wisconsin handmade furniture exhibitions. Clients all over the United States commission Tom’s work, but if you would like to see some of his work close-up, you need to go no further than the lobby and chapel of the Aspirus Hospital in Antigo. When the hospital was expanded, a large cherry tree had to be removed and Tom turned them into works of art.

He built the altar, the lectern, the priest’s chair, altar boy chairs, fireplace mantel, benches, and the giving tree.

Table made during the first semester of the furniture design class.
Credit Photo courtesy of Jim Skibo

Tom often works alone because the intricate work with expensive materials takes a great deal of concentration. But he does routinely share his talent by teaching at the Northcentral Technical College in a program he helped to create. No 60 years old, he finds a great deal of gratification by teaching two courses at the college.

In the first semester they build a side table, and the second semester they each design and build a Stickley style dining room chair. Some students were so inspired that they built an entire dining room set.

The class exposes them to different aspects of woodworking and tools.  One reason that Tom enjoys teaching the class is that he can provide the type of help that he did not get when he was starting out.

Northcentral Technical College has a state of the art wood technology center where they offer an associate degree in wood science, a technical diploma in wood technology, and Tom’s expertise, a certificate in furniture design and craftsmanship. The goal is to train students in skills that are needed in the wood industry from the point a tree is cut down, milled, and then formed into a product.

If you have the passion for woodworking, according to Tom, this might be the career for you.

Nick Offerman, the television star but also expert woodworker, often encourages people to make things with their hands. He suggests that puzzling out how to make something requires a coordination of both our brain and hands that brings great satisfaction. Not everyone can build a Greene and Greene Arts and Crafts masterpiece, but you can knit a sweater, make a birdhouse, or throw a pot.

But if you want to try your hand at woodworking, you could check out the programs at the Northcentral Technical College: https://www.ntc.edu/

To learn more about Tom Gallenberg’s woodworking you can also visit his website: http://www.gallenbergstudio.com/

This story was written by Jim Skibo and produced for radio by Mackenzie Martin. Music for this story came from Blue Dot Sessions: Balti by Blue Dot Sessions (www.sessions.blue).

Program support for stories like this on WXPR are provided by the Northern Arts Council.