Artists Guild tour will visit Jeff Austin in the Town of Grafton shop where he crafts Windsor chairs the old-fashioned way
The way Jeff Austin sees it, consumers buying furniture have two options: spend less at a big-box store for lower quality items, or buy a hand-crafted piece that will cost a little more but last for decades.
Austin has been creating wood furniture, including gorgeous Windsor chairs, since the 1980s when some friends he worked with at Point Beach Nuclear Plant near Kewaunee turned him on to the idea.
“It’s kind of blossomed or exploded from there depending on who you ask,” he said. “I caught the bug and it went from there.”
Austin, who lives in the Town of Grafton, is one of more than 40 artists and artisans on the Cedarburg Artists Guild’s Covered Bridge Studio Tour this weekend.
He makes everything from colonial chairs and custom kitchen tables to cutting boards and bowls.
Some of his smaller pieces, such as boxes, bowls and cutting boards, can be purchased at Blue Heron Artisans Marketplace in Port Washington.
Austin does his woodworking in his 1,300-square-foot shop when he’s not working full-time in construction management.
“It’s a little better than a hobby for me,” said Austin, who will be featured on the studio tour for the first time.
His shop is filled with typical woodworking tools, including table and band saws, a drill press and joiner and a variety of hand tools.
When customers call him, they often have a vision for what kind of furniture they want. Austin will then make suggestions on the type of wood he could use or a style to match their home.
He prefers wood that is native to Wisconsin, like oak, maple, walnut, poplar and cherry, which he gets from friends who own a saw mill and fell trees for a living.
If he needs kiln-dried wood for tables and other furniture, Austin usually buys it from Kettle Moraine Hardwoods in Hartford.
“Cherry wood has become very popular over the last few years,” Austin said. “It cuts well and gives a nice finish if you give it some time to take on its natural color.”
A typical Windsor chair, he said, will take about 30 to 40 hours to make, a long time considering he’s able to dedicate only about 10 to 15 hours a week making furniture.
Less complex pieces like small cabinets take six to eight hours, Austin said.
Austin’s most visible piece is probably the hand-carved sign hanging in front of McCutcheon’s Barber Shop in downtown Cedarburg.
Those touring his shop will see Austin carving the seat of a Windsor chair and doing some spindle work.
Windsor chairs are unique in that those who craft them don’t — or shouldn’t — use power tools.
“You’re supposed to be making them the way they did in the late 1700s,” he said.
“They didn’t have a lot of the glues we have now, so they depended on joinery. It’s a brilliant design.”
The finished products aren’t for the faint of heart, with a Windsor chair typically priced between $800 and $1,000 and a tavern table about $1,900.
Austin hopes that those who buy from him will consider the quality of the product and realize they aren’t going to purchase a house full of his products.
“They’ll typically say ‘Well, I don’t spend that kind of money on a lot of things, so I want it to be special,’” he said. “You typically wouldn’t spend $40 on a cutting board, so you’ll want a really nice one.”
The Cedarburg Artists Guild’s Covered Bridge Studio Tour runs from 4 to 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 9, from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday.
For more information, visit cedarburgartsweekend.com/starttour.html.