Gary T. Armstrong
A master of detail
Becoming a fine craftsman takes initiative, years of practice, and a passion for details. Just ask master furniture maker Gary T. Armstrong, who designs period furniture using intricate inlays and elegant, often exotic veneers. His 12 royal commissions include an organ case for the Sultan of Oman and a writing desk to go aboard the superyacht Leander G, chartered for the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee.
English by birth, Armstrong is now an American citizen. He has lived in New Hampshire for the last 10 years, having moved from Exeter in the county of Devon to Exeter in Rockingham County. He belongs to the League of New Hampshire Craftsmen and New Hampshire Furniture Masters, both of which promote the art of woodworking and stimulate creativity.
Though Armstrong had never anticipated that woodworking would become his love—he originally thought he might become an engineer—he found furniture making at age 16, when a woodwork teacher recommended him for his first apprenticeship. For a year, he solely sanded furniture, so he learned how to properly finish pieces to allow the grain to show sharply. “It’s not just about how you make something and how it ends up,” he says. “You have to know how to finish it. For me, that was the first thing that I had to learn, to finish a piece before you start making something.”
He learned his trade with the help of his mentors during his two apprenticeships and by reading about Thomas Chippendale and William Vile, two influential, eighteenth-century English cabinetmakers. He still keeps a library of books in his shop to inspire him. Now with over 30 years of experience, he is always finding the patterns in everything from throw pillows to food packaging, searching for new details to incorporate into his work. Nor can he help but notice the furniture when he walks into a room. “Wherever I go, I’m looking at the furniture,” he says.
This woodworker sticks to a regimen. It helps him maintain a tidy shop and stay on schedule. “I work very clean and always have done. Your shop speaks of you as a person and extends into what you make, the attention to detail that goes into it,” Armstrong explains. He keeps well-organized cabinets for his tools. The high-end table saw, drill press, jointer, and other machines that he uses to complete his intricate work are each connected to a dust extractor, which whisks debris away so that wood chips hardly touch the floor. He tries to buy strictly the amount of wood he will need for a given project in order to minimize the number of “offcuts” he creates, leaving little excess wood lying around the shop. He even uses a punch clock to track his hours on each piece he crafts.
Preferring to draw his ideas by hand, Armstrong rarely uses computer-aided design. He will first make an outline and full-color sketches of the project to present to the client. Then he will create a working drawing, though he sometimes changes the design as the piece takes shape, adding some unexpected features for the client. He works on several projects during the year; a typical piece takes three months to build but can take up to three years.
Armstrong considers himself a twenty-first-century furniture maker because he evolves along with modern technology, yet he prefers crafting period furniture because he likes the well-proportioned look of it and the appeal of its graceful, detailed lines. Contemporary furniture is too simplistic. “It has its place, but not with me,” he says. His pieces are anything but plain, and he embraces the meticulousness it takes to make historical replicas.
The two forms of inlay, marquetry and parquetry, enhance Armstrong’s desire to do fine, complex work. Marquetry includes picture elements such as flowers, leaves, and faces, while parquetry consists of geometrical patterns. “You can have a lot of fun with it,” he says. “It changes the overall piece. A piece that would look very plain suddenly takes on a new persona.” What would a flamboyant, period-inspired table or clock face be without some flowers intertwined with woods of varying color and grain?
Despite the number of clocks, tables, bookcases, and chairs he has made over the years, Armstrong challenges himself to create something different in each piece he builds. “If you’re doing very small work, such as inlaying, and it’s a repetitive pattern—it has a fantastic effect and draws people in to the furniture. I look for design pieces where I can use that element of repetitious, ornate work so it makes people wonder how you do it,” he says.
In addition to his inlay work, Armstrong’s choice of veneers makes his pieces unique. “I’m in love with veneer,” he says. “I specialize with veneer because I feel that lots of very pretty, exotic woods are kept for it. I let veneers speak for themselves.” He literally infuses a bit of England, into his woodworking by using veneers grown in Britain and Europe and brassware salvaged from antique furniture.
Armstrong has two favorite woods: English walnut burl, a light-colored and long-lasting veneer that gains the kind of patina that only time can produce, and amboyna burl, a rare veneer used during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on the highest-quality furniture. Both emit a lovely aroma as the woodworker manipulates them.
Inspiration comes from several places. Studio photographs of Armstrong’s past pieces hang on the walls of his shop to motivate him as he crafts his new work. He travels frequently to discuss projects with his clients, deliver pieces, and explore period furniture. For instance, he recently toured the mansions of Newport, Rhode Island, and such an experience plants “seeds” for his future work. He also finds ideas in his clients. “I get a lot of inspiration from somebody’s home, how they live, and the environment that the piece is going to go in,” he says.
Armstrong was once asked to construct “something of royal stature” that could house the Sultan of Oman’s electronic organ. He fashioned it from amboyna burl, ebony, and mahogany with gold detailing, and he surprised the sultan with the royal coat of arms inlaid into the form. He also inlaid his name on the piece, as he does on every piece he builds.
The greatest part about woodworking is his clients’ appreciation of the fine points, he says. “The icing on the cake is what the customer has to say.” Upon delivering each project, Armstrong gives his client a silk-lined presentation folder with his hand-drawn design concepts, full-color photographs of the construction process, and a letter of authenticity that can stay with the piece of furniture for decades to come.
Although furniture making can be a challenge when his livelihood depends upon making what is a luxury for many people, Armstrong keeps himself busy. Woodworking allows Armstrong to meet new people and discover how interesting their lives are, providing him with new ideas. “I’m fortunate with my career. It’s an exciting time for me,” he says.