The Old Ways in Rappahannock
It is often difficult to find goods made in the United States, much less made locally by hand. But in Rappahannock County, there are people who preserve old techniques that were developed generations before industrialization. These individuals are not just protecting the environment and helping the local economy; they are also preserving American art forms. This is the first in a series of articles about Rappahannock residents who are proud to carry on the work of artisans of bygone days by doing things “the old way.”
For many people, a fallen tree might be an eyesore, but for Flint Hill resident Peter Kramer it is an opportunity to renew old life. “People call me when they spot a tree downed by a storm or if a tree has to be removed for safety,” Kramer said. “I take the tree and turn it into a table, chair or other piece of furniture.”
Kramer, 73, has been making things out of wood for most of his life. It all started when he was a young boy, when his dad gave him the responsibility of refurbishing old nails.
“Back then in New Jersey, new nails were difficult to come by, so we reused old ones,” Kramer said. “My job was to straighten them with a hammer. I loved that job. I enjoyed the feel of any tool in my hand.” Luckily there was always scrap wood available to play with.
Kramer made his first piece of functional furniture at age 9, when he and two friends went into business making footstools.
“We spent ninety-seven cents each for raw materials, but actually made a profit by selling them to our moms,” he chuckled. “My friends eventually lost interest, but I kept going.”
Teaching himself the craft of making furniture was challenging, but proved to be beneficial as he honed his skills.
“I made a lot of mistakes initially, like not ‘listening’ to the grain of the wood, but I learned from the mistakes, and sometimes great pieces came out of those mistakes,” he said. “I found another advantage of learning on my own was that I developed my own style, not someone else’s.”
Kramer made furniture as a hobby through high school, a stint in the Army, and while studying marketing at Rutgers University in the 1960s. After graduating he worked in New Jersey and New York City, where he was the personnel manager of Radio Free Europe, but he still found time to make and sell furniture in his spare time. By the time he reached age 30 he had landed a large contract with Bloomingdales and had acquired enough customers to work full time as a furniture maker.
“When I made the career switch my wife, kids and I decided we eventually wanted to move to the country,” he said. “In our travels we found Rappahannock County and fell in love with the landscape. We knew right away we wanted to live here.” Shortly after moving here, Kramer opened a shop in Washington.
“It was a sleeping village in 1970 when I opened my shop,” he said. “Even though it’s a tourist area now, it’s still quiet and I like that. I really enjoy living and working in Rappahannock County. I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”
Kramer said he gains a lot of inspiration for designs from the people and places in the county.
“I am influenced by the funniest things sometimes,” he said. “I’ve been inspired by a bird sitting on a wire, the flow of a woman’s hair, a moving deer, a sunset, so many things.”
He also gets suggestions from the wood itself.
“I love the many ideas that come from the grain,” Kramer said. “Often, when I’m working to create something like a table leg the wood seems to say ‘you shouldn’t have that line on me. You should work with my natural lines.’ And the wood is always right. It’s simply an exciting process to take a fallen tree, work with its natural grain to make something beautiful and give the wood new life.”
In Kramer’s workshop lay furniture pieces from a variety of local trees. Also in his workshop are modern electronic tools, but Kramer usually utilizes old tools of bygone days to create and detail the furniture.
“There are looks that can only be achieved by using the old hand tools,” he said as he ran his fingers over textured grain of a cabinet. “No electric tool is going to give you the same effect as this. Plus, I simply like working the wood by hand.”
Although he’s gained much national attention for his exquisitely detailed, hand-crafted furniture, Kramer is still amazed at how much he’s influenced other American craftsman who utilize both old and new methods of furniture making.
“Sometimes I’m at a show and someone I don’t even know will say to me, ‘Your work is what got me started in this’ or ‘Your work has been a huge influence on mine.’ ” Kramer said. “And when I view their furniture I see my influence and am very flattered. I’m glad to have a small part in preserving the craft.”
Kramer’s work can be seen online at peterkramer.com, and at his shop at 3 Gay St., Washington. For more information, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or call 540-675-3625.