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Furniture makers' show is a finale, too

Fort Point Cabinetmakers don't advertise. They don't post signs. They don't greet guests in a showroom. Tucked away in the back of a warehouse, they're a hidden treasure of Boston.

This weekend they're shutting off the saws, sweeping up the wood shavings, and using the welcome mat. It's their annual open house, Saturday and Sunday, noon to 6 p.m. It's part of the 26th Annual Fort Point Arts Community Open Studios, which features 250 artists, painters, sculptors, jewelers, ceramists, hat makers, book makers, furniture artists, and more.

At the open house, visitors will meet the cabinetmakers, watch them at work, and even learn a little bit about fine furniture making. All seven Fort Point Cabinetmakers will be on hand: Alex Krutsky, Lance Patterson, Ellen Kaspern, Sam Chase, Brian Weldy, Ken Bures, and John Cameron.

They're independent business owners working in a shared space, dividing the costs, and sharing use of heavy-duty machinery. They work in a collaborative.

''It keeps the overhead down so we can do a crafts-related business," says Krutsky, who notes that it's not easy making a living at handcrafting furniture.

''Living close to the bone has enabled me to do this," says Cameron, who was in a band, Bim Skala Bim, for 15 years. ''That prepared me to be a woodworker."

One of the biggest benefits of the collaborative is a machine room that contains a band saw, power saw, sander, and shaper -- big, industrial, 1950s equipment built for furniture factories. They're superior to the small hobbyists' models available today, says Bures. When furniture factories closed and their equipment went up for sale, furniture makers nabbed them.

''Sharing in the cost of the machines is huge. That's probably the biggest incentive [for joining the collaborative]," says Cameron, who estimates the machines are worth $30,000-$40,000.

''What's nice about this place is that there are other artists around," says Bures, the newest member. The artists help one another move furniture. They pass tools back and forth. They inspire and encourage.

The collaborative was named Fort Point Cabinetmakers in 1981, but the origins of the group go back further. Originally, it was part of the Paul Morris Studio, across the street. Patterson and Krutsky (along with former members) moved to the fourth floor of 368 Congress St. in 1983. Large, sunny, and offering a panoramic view of Boston Harbor, the space seemed perfect. In a field next door, they used to run and test out their handmade boomerangs. Today, however, the space is taken over by a parking garage.

Entering the studio is a little like stepping through Alice's looking glass. Wooden legs dangle from the ceiling -- albeit, they're chair legs in Queen Anne, Sheraton, Hepplewhite, Duncan Phyfe, William and Mary, and Chippendale styles. There's a collection of old-fashioned molding planes mounted to the wall. From the rafters hang a wooden horse (a pattern from one of Patterson's rocking horses) and a frame for a lute.

Seeing the artists lined up, working at their benches, brings to mind a workshop of elves. Chase carves an ''endless knot" design, which he'll set into the back of a kiln-dried cherry Arts & Crafts-style rocker. Weldy repairs the top of an antique drop-leaf table. Krutsky cleans a funky turn-of-the-century parts cabinet tossed out by the company in the basement that repairs electric motors. Cameron works on a sculptural 11-drawer walnut dresser and has several handmade, engraved fly rods in the corner.

Patterson, who looks a little like Kris Kringle with his long silver hair and beard, stares into the face of a grandfather clock. It's nearly 8 feet high, with heavy pewter hands, made of cherry, trimmed in burl, decorated with strings of white holly. Even the clock's face is hand-painted.

''In the spectrum of clocks, there are a lot of weird ones, and this one is kind of weird," Patterson says, pointing to its thin waist. He made it for the ongoing North Bennet Street School exhibit at the Federal Reserve Bank.

It's hard to tell if Patterson is serious or not. His eyes dance as he teases Krutsky about making a ''DeSoto bed." Then he chides Chase about his wide rocking chair, designed for a customer who wants to sit cross-legged in it. Everyone laughs and has a good time with this. They recognize they're all called upon to make some unusual pieces.

But that's part of custom making furniture. Customers come in looking for something handmade, special, and tailored to their needs.

For instance, a Belmont couple commissioned Krutsky to make a gigantic bed -- side-by-side queen mattresses. ''I didn't really ask them why," says Krutsky.

Another time, a couple asked him to make a bed with 7-inch-diameter posts, swept-out shapes, a sunburst headboard, and swells inspired by cars of the '50s. Patterson dubbed it the ''DeSoto bed."

One customer wanted a teak bathtub. Cameron talked him out of it. But he's taken on other unusual projects, converting a Victrola into a maitre d' stand, carving wood interior parts for a late-'20s Dodge Brothers truck, and creating rot-resistant grates (out of purple heart wood) for a customer's basement windows. For himself, he made a 16-foot Whitehall skiff.

Beyond the oddities and the regular furniture, the cabinetmakers also do millwork, architectural features, and kitchen cabinets.

In addition, each furniture maker has special interests. Cameron, a fisherman, makes retro bamboo fishing rods. Patterson makes wooden puzzles, music stands, musical instruments, and replacement legs for Steinway pianos. Weldy restores furniture.

Jobs begin when a customer visits the studio, consults with a furniture maker, and talks about the project in mind. From there, the furniture maker gives an estimate and draws a sketch. After numerous consultations with the customer, plans are made and sometimes the furniture maker will even construct a plywood mock-up, just so the customer can see the size. Once that's approved, the furniture maker builds.

''The sharing of ideas has probably benefited me more than anyone else," says Cameron. ''I'm the one who has the different education." He attended the College of the Redwoods Fine Woodworking Program in Fort Bragg, Calif. The others graduated from North Bennet Street School, which specializes in 18th- and 19th-century methods in furniture making.

Cameron's designs are more contemporary and somewhat Scandinavian. For instance, he made a side table out of air-dried walnut. He let the wood dry outside for four years, giving the wood a wider range of tones. Even shades of purple are in the wood. Cameron cut the wood so that the grain pattern swirls around the front drawer. The drawer is lined with sassafras, so when opened it smells sweet and herbal.

''Designing stuff is entering the realm of the unknown. You wonder, is it going to work," says Cameron. ''With modern stuff, the temptation is to be bizarre and striking, but these pieces can walk themselves from the living room to the back room, to the upstairs, and then to the attic. They wear you out. The challenge is to create something with staying power. That's the real challenge to me."

The other challenge is to create beautiful furniture that makes money. Cameron says artists can become so swept away with carving and designing that they forget they're supposed to make a profit.

Working together has suited this group for nearly a quarter of a century, but this will probably be the last open house for the cabinetmakers. The Boston Wharf Co. sold their building. Gentrification has taken over the Fort Point area so they can't afford to stay. They expect to be gone by spring. They're looking for studio space in Somerville and Lowell.

Some cabinetmakers, such as Cameron, however, will probably move on. He plans to join a group closer to his home in Gloucester.

''It's all up in the air," says Bures. ''Ideally we'd like to stick together."

''There probably will be a Fort Point Cabinetmakers. It just won't be in Fort Point Channel."

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