In Period Style

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This article is from Issue 16 of Woodcraft Magazine.

By Sharon Hambrick

Fred Lee Stanley’s home is furnished with reproductions of some of the nation’s best period furniture – all made by his hands over the past 30 years.

Thirty years ago Fred Lee Stanley became a furniture maker out of necessity. Today his Abingdon, Va., home is furnished with pieces he built – reproductions of fine chests, tables, chairs and beds built by craftsmen when the United States was in its infancy. 

During those three decades Fred, a mechanical engineer by profession, literally taught himself not only how to build furniture but also how to craft it in the styles popular in the 1700s and early 1800s. In 2006, the Society of American Period Furniture Makers affirmed his success by giving him the prestigious Cartouche Award in recognition of his lifetime achievement in furniture making. 

Furniture as needed

Fred and Joan Stanley realized not long after their marriage in 1973 that their budget did not match their taste in furniture. For Fred the answer was to begin building the furniture they needed – a solution he learned as a child from his parents, Fitzhugh Lee and Della Meade Stanley.

 “I really didn’t start making period furniture as such,” Fred explained. The gift of a scroll saw when he was 9 or 10 introduced Fred to woodworking, and he learned to make what he said were called “whatnots.” Three years later his father died, and his woodworking was put on hold. “I got out of it (woodworking) until after Joan and I were married and I got into making these pretty crude pieces – tables and cabinets. They were certainly not period pieces.”

The path to period furniture began with a book, “Fine Furniture for the Amateur Cabinetmaker” by A.W. Murray. “I just looked at it, and the pieces looked so really challenging. He did a tremendous job in writing the book. I was able to pick up techniques,” Fred said. “I started with the simplest thing, a little letter opener knife, and worked all the way up to a large tilt-top piecrust table.” 

“The period style just appealed to Joan and me. It has endured 200 years and probably always will,” Fred said. “I appreciate what the old cabinetmakers could do with no power tools, doing it all by hand. That was something special to me.”

Fred spent years studying the works of period furniture makers in the few books and magazines available at the time, all the while pushing himself to learn and perfect the techniques needed to craft the furniture the Stanleys wanted for their home. He and Joan also spent vacations visiting museums in several states, including the DeWitt Decorative Arts Museum in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. These museums offered Fred the opportunity to examine furniture masterpieces firsthand.

Reproductions from “scratch”

Most of Fred’s furniture is based on photos and/or descriptions in books or masterpieces found in museums. 

His favorite piece is a ceiling-high late 1700s Philadelphia-style secretary like the one that sits in the Philadelphia Museum of Arts. He discovered a photo of it in “The New Fine Points of Furniture: Early American, Good, Better, Best, Superior, Masterpiece,” by Albert Sack. Fred did some research and reproduced it, adding $600 worth of brass handles and hardware manufactured in the old-style cast method. “It’s such a beautiful design. I don’t take credit for it. I was trying to reproduce what one of the true masters of the 18th century had done.”

Using a photo and a few available dimensions of a double chest of drawers and secretary that he found in the pages of “Southern Furniture 1680-1830: The Colonial Williamsburg Collection,” Fred built the beautiful Charleston Chest that now sits in the Stanleys’ living room. 

Two other pieces came from the pages of “Master Craftsmen of Newport: The Townsends and Goddards” by Michael A. Moses, a difficult-to-find book that the local public library staff helped Fred borrow. Fred spent many late night hours drawing and scaling plans for two Townsend masterpieces from the book: a block-front kneehole desk and a block-front chest. 

At the outset of these two projects, Fred encountered a double problem. The top for each piece had to be made from a single board to be authentic; however, the only available Honduran mahogany boards of sufficient width were about 1¼" too thick. Fred’s solution: laboriously plane the boards by hand to the proper thickness using wood planes that he made himself.


“That same faithfulness is always carried out in Fred’s work, in even the most obscure and minute details of inner, and hidden, construction,” Robert N. Lominack, Jr., observed. Lominack is the friend who nominated Fred for the Cartouche Award. In his nomination letter, Lominack recounted Fred’s determined efforts to teach himself to build period masterpieces on weekends, evenings and vacations while working full-time as a mechanical engineer for Alpha Natural Resources. 

In the shop

Fred began his woodworking career convinced that he needed a lot of power tools, but over time his approach has changed. “I have learned that if you are not mass-producing, a lot of techniques are as fast and more accurate when done by hand. I went from almost all power tools to about 20 percent power.” Fred said he uses a table saw to rough out the dimensions then moves to hand planes, hand saws, chisels and other tools. 

He does all his carving by hand and admits, “Carving is a challenge. I enjoy doing it but if I did it everyday it would be much easier.” Fred admires the work of the carvers who were subcontracted by cabinetmakers in the 1700s. “Those guys were just unbelievably good.” Fred also does some woodturning but only when a design requires something such as quarter columns.

Over the years Fred has made some of his hand tools including several wooden planes, some infill metal planes, router planes, various scrapers and spokeshaves. He enjoys working with hand planes and has bought several antique wooden ones as well as some new ones. “It is really rewarding when you take a rough board and take it to the right dimension sanding it smooth with a hand tool.”

“My method of starting a project has evolved over the years, and technology has been a real boost,” Fred said. For many years he used a photo and sometimes a few dimensions, scaling them the best he could to develop his own plans. Now, with a computer, Fred said, “If you know one or two dimensions you can actually construct a dimension drawing adequate to use.” 

Fred works primarily with mahogany which he says was used for most of the high style period furniture. He also sometimes uses walnut, especially for pieces that might have been walnut originally like his Norfolk corner china cabinet and a spice box decorated with a compass line and berry motif.

Although neither Fred’s wife nor their daughters, Laura and Heather, ever expressed any interest in woodworking, Fred sometimes enlists the help of his wife, an expert seamstress, to finish a piece. Joan made the canopies for two beds and upholstered Queen Anne and Chippendale chairs and a Chippendale stool. She has also helps with pieces that require gold leaf.

Three Stanleys teamed up for the reproduction of a mantle clock, the original of which currently sits in the White House. Fred built the clock, Joan did the calligraphy, and Laura painted the dial. 

Beyond period furniture 

Not all Fred’s creations are period furniture. He has also crafted a few guitars and found the work to be an altogether different skill set because it involves working with very thin woods. To make a guitar sound right, he explained, it cannot be too stiff, too strong, or too heavy. “You are balancing strength versus sound.”

“I enjoy playing the guitar but I refer to myself as a closet musician,” Fred said, a reference to his older half-brothers, Carter and Ralph Stanley, who made bluegrass music history as the Stanley Brothers. 

To fill a 21st-century need, Fred built what looks like an 18th-century chest but the fake drawers are actually a panel that opens to reveal a printer, scanner and other equipment that once shared space with his computer on a walnut desk he inherited from his father. He also built a cabinet for a CD holder using a French period design. 

Fred Stanley solved two modern storage problems with these period style pieces – a cabinet with fake drawers (left) for computer-related equipment and a cabinet for a CD holder built in a French style. 

In good company

A year after he accepted the Cartouche Award Fred is still in awe of the company he is keeping (Philip C. Lowe, Mack Headley, Gene Landon, Robert Whitley, John McAlister and Harold Ionson). “It was an honor to be accepted but I guess what made it mean even more to me were the people who won the award before. They are the modern icons of furniture making. Being in that group makes it really special to me.” 

He never expected to win the award, and he also never anticipated the public attention it brought with it. Over the past year many woodworking magazines, local newspapers and television stations, and Virginia Public Broadcasting have contacted him for interviews. Brief notices have also appeared in other publications including Southern Living.

What’s next? 

Fred’s next project is to fulfill a promise to Laura that he would build her a desk when she earned her doctorate in engineering which she did in May 2006. He began with a photo of a desk Laura liked and scaled it down a bit. While not a true period piece, Fred said the desk will be in the 18th-century style featuring ogee feet and cockbeaded drawers plus a bookcase in back and glass doors. 

“It will take the better part of a year to build,” Fred said. 

Because he chose years ago not to sell his furniture Fred has had the luxury of finishing pieces as time permits without the pressure of meeting client deadlines. 

Sharon Hambrick

Sharon Hambrick is associate editor of Woodcraft Magazine. She lives with her father in Reno, Ohio, and enjoys reading magazines and mystery novels, listening to music and working crossword puzzles.


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