Out of the Woodwork

A master furniture maker in Peace Dale keeps the handicraft alive

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Timothy Philbrick did not aspire to be a furniture maker when he was young. Though he had helped his father build a kayak and had a love for old things (frequently haunting the shops along Route 44 in Seekonk), it wasn’t until he moved to San Francisco when he was 18 that he had an epiphany. “I realized that the items in antique stores there was the same stuff I would see in the junk stores here,” he remembers. So, he and some friends filled a truck with local Rhode Island treasures, drove back to California, and opened an antique store. However, some of the furniture needed repair, and the job fell to Timothy. “I quickly realized that I enjoyed working on the furniture much more than running a store.”

Back in Rhode Island, Timothy became an apprentice to John C. Northup, an old Swamp Yankee from North Kingstown. Together they restored and reproduced pre-1850 period pieces. After four years he enrolled in a new graduate course in artisanry at Boston College, studying the history and design of furniture. In 1978 he graduated with a Certificate in Mastery of Wood Furniture Design. He invested in some early 1900s machinery from a retiring cabinet maker, had his first show at RISD, and never looked back.

Gentle curves are the current that runs through Timothy’s work. His designs have appeared in multiple books and magazines, and some pieces are in museum collections, including RISD Museum, Boston Museum of Fine Arts, and the Smithsonian. He was commissioned by piano maker Steinway & Sons to build two art case pianos, each measuring almost 12 feet long, boasting East Indian rosewood, rare Cuban mahogany, and satinwood interiors. From sideboards to seating, Timothy’s creations are meant to be both used and admired, and are the result of hundreds of hours of painstaking work.

Today, in Timothy’s Peace Dale studio, the early machinery is still in use alongside chisels and other tools handed down from his great grandfather. “No computers or fancy electronics, basically an on/off switch,” Timothy jokes. He maintains and repairs the machines himself, continuing to create unique furniture using the old things he loves.