Sunday, April 20, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Made to last

Former divorce lawyer/now woodworker Luke Cabanel finds a fine match for his colonial crafting skills: The Betsy Ross House.

Luke Cabanel works on a farm-style dining table for a client in his shop. He´ll also make contemporary pieces: "I´ll make whatever the customer wants," he says.
Luke Cabanel works on a farm-style dining table for a client in his shop. He'll also make contemporary pieces: "I'll make whatever the customer wants," he says. CHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer
Luke Cabanel works on a farm-style dining table for a client in his shop. He´ll also make contemporary pieces: "I´ll make whatever the customer wants," he says. Gallery: Made to last

In his former life as a divorce lawyer, Luke Cabanel spent his days watching things fall apart. Now, as a full-time woodworker, Cabanel spends his time crafting pieces meant to endure.

Cabanel focuses on the classics, such as Shaker-style furniture and Windsor chairs, made using the same techniques and many of the same kinds of tools used in the 18th century. In January, some examples of Cabanel's handiwork went on view at the Betsy Ross House, which commissioned from him a stool, colonial-style shelves, and a comb-back Windsor chair for a new interactive exhibit that features "Betsy" working in her upholstery shop.

"We've just been thrilled with what he's produced," says Michelle Budenz, the Betsy Ross House museum manager who commissioned the furniture for the display.

It's a dream come true for Cabanel, who closed his law office near Broad and Walnut Streets five years ago to turn what had been a lifelong hobby into a full-time pursuit.

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  • "After 18 years, I just was not happy practicing law anymore," said Cabanel, who'd grown weary of the bitter wrangling that divorce law entailed. "For the last two years, I was almost dreading going in to the office."

    Now, he runs Random Woodworks out of the timber-frame workshop he built in his tranquil backyard, which borders Abington Township's 213-acre Lorimer Park.

    "This makes me a whole lot happier and I love the commute," Cabanel said during an interview at the shop, where he often works with his buddy and frequent collaborator Bob Longstreet.

    "We actually counted it and it's only 48 steps to the house," said the affable Longstreet, a Langhorne-based woodworker who helped Cabanel with the Betsy Ross commission.

    The two met in a class at the Windsor Institute, a furniture-making workshop run by Windsor chair guru Mike Dunbar in New Hampshire. They've participated in many such workshops since, and the team also takes regular road trips to shop antique tool auctions. "We come home and our wives say, 'Do you really need another one of those?' " Longstreet says.

    "And the answer is: We do," Cabanel says, laughing.

    Cabanel's compact, shipshape 16-by-24-foot wood shop is literally packed to the roof with tools. Heavy power tools (including a lathe, a router, and a planer) are all on wheels so they can be shifted out of the way when not in use, and hanging from hooks lining the rafters and walls are hand tools of every size and design. Cabanel inherited some from his grandfather, who taught him woodworking as a kid in his native New Hampshire.

    "He was a foreman in a carpenter shop at a big state hospital, and I started as a boy helping him carry his tools," Cabanel says. His two brothers, he says, did not share his fascination. "They hardly know how to use a hammer. I was more of a builder."

    Cabanel estimated that 20 different hand tools are needed to make a Windsor chair, the spoke-back chair design that originated in England in the 17th century. It all starts with the froe, a kind of L-shaped ax that woodworkers use to rive (rhymes with dive) a piece of wood. "Riving means splitting the log with the grain," Cabanel said. "When you follow the grain, you have the full strength of the wood. Riving makes the wood very strong. That's why we still have these Windsor chairs that are 150 and 200 years old."

    Tools key to making a Windsor chair include an adze, which aids in roughing in the curve of the seat; a scorp and a travisher, both of which help to further work the shape, and a spoke shave, which helps in fashioning spokes. "Luke actually carves the seats for his chairs," Longstreet says. "You can see the marks of the carving tools."

    Inside Cabanel's home are more examples of his exacting craft. The kitchen is lined with South American mahogany cabinetry he made and installed with the help of Longstreet and another friend. In the dining room, stowed against a wall and waiting to go to a client, is an intricately grained Shaker-style cherry wood desk. In another corner are some low-back Windsor stools whose legs exhibit a dramatic rake and splay - the terms used to describe the front-to-back and side-to-side angle of a chair's legs.

    In the living room, a tall cabinet displays the turned wooden bowls Cabanel makes from chunks of logs (pear, walnut, maple, cherry) as a woodworking sideline. And in front of a picture window sits a graceful Federal-style tilt-top tea table flanked by two styles of Windsor chairs, both painted in the traditional three layers of milk paint: green, then red, then a top coat of black. "That is so that when the black wears away that patina shines through," Cabanel says.

    Budenz now has Cabanel at work on several other pieces to fill out the museum's re-creation of a colonial-era upholsterer's shop. Among them: slip-seat frames, the wooden forms typically used for dining chairs that upholsterers would cover with horsehair and then fabric, and a cutting table. Says Budenz, "These were big surfaces with measuring marks every foot or so that they would have used to roll out their cloth and cut on."

    While Cabanel tends to concentrate on Windsor chairs and Shaker-inspired furniture (a style he especially loves for its simple elegance born of utility), he'll also make contemporary pieces. "I'll make whatever the customer wants," says Cabanel, whose business has been growing, he says, thanks mainly to word of mouth and his Web site (randomwoodworks.com). A newly formed association with an interior design firm, he hopes, will also bring more commissions.

    Cabanel says he doesn't miss his life as a lawyer one bit. Sure, he's not pulling in the kind of income he did practicing law. "But I also don't have to pay for an office, secretaries, malpractice insurance," he says.

    And you can't beat the commute.

     

    Eils Lotozo For The Inquirer
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