A cabinetmaker's devotion to tradition. Allan Breed is a one-man rebellion against mass-produced furniture
York, Maine — Allan Breed is unable to speak at the moment. Here at Cider Hill Woodworks, he is leaning into a whirring lathe, working a steel chisel along a spinning mahogany rail. A blizzard of woodchips flies in his face.
``There, one more leg to go,'' he says, switching off the machine, picking a few renegade chips from his tongue, and shaking more from his sandy-blond hair.
Climbing down from a pile of sawdust the size of an African termite hill, Mr. Breed pulls two handsome William & Mary armchairs from the wall of his shop. Slapping the dust off with a rag, he offers one to me. Not to keep - just to sit on.
Breed is a cabinetmaker by trade and devotion. Not a typical occupation for a young man in this age of computer whiz-kids and would-be astronauts.
His interest in furniture goes way back to when he was knee-high to a high-boy. ``I remember crawling underneath my grandmother's Queen Anne lowboy. I was fascinated by the way it was put together,'' he says.
His parents dismissed this early interest as childhood fancy. ``Allan wants to be an architect,'' his mother would say with maternal pride.
``It's not that I didn't want to be an architect,'' says Breed. ``I just realized my interest was more in the past than the present. Before the Industrial Revolution, everything was done by skilled craftsmen. I decided I wanted to be a skilled craftsman.''
During the summer months and between semesters at college, he worked as an apprentice in the American Decorative Arts Department of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston restoring museum pieces.
His teacher, Vinnie Cerbone, an elderly Italian artisan, soon became Breed's mentor, inspiration, and friend.
His first commission was by accident. But not his.
``I was visiting my future in-laws,'' Breed recalls. ``They were having company when this large man came in and dragged up one of their dainty little chairs. It was like in the movies. He sat down, and the chair just splintered into a thousand pieces. Everyone just howled!''
He suggested making some stronger chairs for their heavy-duty guests - ones that would last. ``I made four. But I made enough parts for three extras in case I goofed.'' He didn't, and his career was set.
After graduating from college, Breed and his wife-to-be bought a 1790 center-chimney Colonial house in nearby South Berwick, Maine. The two of them have been restoring it ever since. With two toddlers underfoot and another child on the way, assorted cats, a goat named Loretta, and a flock of Barred Rock laying hens, restoration has only been sputtering along as of late.
With the exception of two Pilgrim century chairs he made for his children, there is little of his own furniture here. ``I can't take time to make any for myself. I just can't afford it,'' he says with a shrug. A typical Chippendale chair of his costs in the neighborhood of $500.
His reproductions are of American pieces, exclusively. ``Nothing English or European. It's the American furniture that's expensive and rare,'' he says.
Just recently he finished 12 country Chippendale chairs for the William Pitt Tavern at Strawbery Banke, a preserved colonial community in Portsmouth, N.H., and has just returned from Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's estate in Virginia.
``A client had just bought a bust of Thomas Jefferson for $2.8 million and wants a hand-carved wall bracket like one at Monticello, to hold it.''
Breed is particularly proud of an exquisite mahogany copy of a 1770 turreted tea table with ball-and-claw feet. ``These were made in Boston, only. You couldn't buy an original even if you could afford it. They just don't exist outside museums. But I can copy one exactly,'' he says, running his fingers across the table's scalloped sides.
Most public collections of early American furniture have detailed photographs of their most important pieces. But now that Breed is well known, it's easier for him to get permission to examine and measure a particular piece he's been commissioned to copy.
About half of his work is for private individuals; the rest for major historical groups.
Breed pulls a sheet off of a huge piece of furniture sitting in his semi-restored living room. There among the dust stood a Boston block-front chest built in the 1770s. ``This is the original,'' he says, sliding open one of the solid drawers, ``worth over $100,000.''
This particular piece belongs to the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities. He made a copy for the Society for $4,000. ``It took six weeks of actual work, but I spend days just measuring it and looking at it, trying to make it machine perfect. Of course, you can't, and that's what makes it unique and interesting.''
Says Brock Jobe, chief curator for the Society for the Preservation of New England Antiquities, ``Allan is an exceptional craftsman, committed to traditional methods. So often craftsmen will take short cuts. Allan doesn't.''
Breed has just finished a dozen Queen Anne side chairs and two ball-and-claw mahogany drop-leaf tables for the original governor's council chamber in the Wentworth-Coolidge House in Portsmouth, N.H.
What's the difference between his reproductions and those you'll find at furniture chains?
``Store-bought furniture is usually only an `adaptation' of the original,'' he explains. ``They're not done individually. They must be mass-produced for a large market. All my furniture is hand finished and carved.''
Even the tools he uses are antique for the most part. Breed is particularly sentimental about those he bought from from Mr. Cerbone's widow shortly after her husband passed away.
The only concession he makes to the 20th Century is an electric saw he uses to rough out the wood. ``But every surface you see,'' he says, ``is finished by hand.
``I guess my rebellion is against mass-produced furniture,'' he says, ``the stuff that's `untouched by human hands.'''