Al Breed carves a Newport shell.

For aspiring carvers, a week with Al Breed is about as good as it gets.

By Walt Segl

    I met Al Breed during the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) Mid-Year Conference this past June. During the course of his presentation he mentioned that he was going to be conducting a course on carving in the Newport Style, which immediately piqued my interest. Learning to carve (and doing it well) can be a daunting task. Having little experience and no formal training, I wasn't sure I'd be able to tackle Newport ball-and-claw feet. Al said not to worry, so I signed my father and myself up for a five-day workshop at his studio in Berwick, Maine. When the appointed time for our course finally rolled around, we collected all our carving tools, loaded up the car and headed to the Breed School.

    Monday morning at 8am, we rolled up our sleeves and the chips started flying! Al had recently moved his shop into a converted mill. The classroom was large, well lit (and well equipped!) and comfortable. Class size was limited to six, and we each had our own bench to work at.
    Al had us start by regrinding a few chisels, then he showed us how to lay out and carve a convex Newport shell in mahogany.

    By 6pm that evening, the shells had taken shape and we were well on the way towards completing them. Other than a 45 minute lunch break, we had been on our feet carving for 9 hours. It was hard to believe the day had gone by so quickly! Al had to leave at 6pm but left keys to the shop and told us to go at it as long as we wanted or to come in early the next day. Most mornings we were in by 7:30 raring to go!

    Tuesday we worked to finish up the convex shells. The great thing about the class was that everyone worked at their own pace. Al wandered around observing individual progress and offering advice. It seemed that whenever someone reached a sticking point Al was at their elbow and would immediately offer guidance. He would pick up a chisel and show you how to make the next cut in the sequence, all the time offering encouragement.

    Around 3:30, Al convened the class around a bench and proceded to demonstrate carving a concave shell. His carving is incredibly fluid and within 90 minutes he had almost completed the drawer front shell. Again the day flew by.

Newport-style Ball & Claw foot.

    Wednesday we were ready for the main event: carving a Newport Ball and Claw foot. These feet with a spherical ball, well defined claws and undercut talons are one of the most difficult furniture details one can carve.

Taking dimensions from original casting.
    Al set out a systematic approach for us to follow. After he gave us cast feet to work from, we made templates that captured the major elements of the foot. These templates acted as layout and depth guides as we sequentially began hogging out the key features of the foot.

Carving basswood ball and claw feet.

    Al had us work with basswood, which he called "ego-wood". Basswood carves quite easily and is more forgiving as the grain reverses direction. We appreciated all the help we could get! As the day progressed the feet took shape (some more quickly than others!) and we all began feeling confident that we could carve a respectable foot. Getting to a spherical ball turned out to be an unexpected challenge.
    Thursday morning we worked on the claws and talons. At lunchtime, Ellen, Al's lovely wife, dropped by and lent us a few words of encouragement on our progress. After lunch, Al treated us to a slide show highlighting the construction of the nine-shell Townsend secretary he was commissioned to reproduce. When auctioned, the original fetched $12.1 million at Christie's. Other incredible pieces included a Goddard serpentine tea table, a Townsend Kneehole desk and a Pembroke table. It was easy to see why Al is considered to be one of the very best period furniture makers in the world today.

Al's kids stop by after class.

    By days end, we had completed the feet and been shown how to do the layered knee carvings that generally accompany a ball & claw foot on Newport pieces.
    After school let out, Al's kids stopped by to visit and see our progress. They were enthusiastic about our efforts and really livened up the afternoon.

    Friday morning was devoted to finishing any work in progress or starting on another foot. Al graciously offered to show us how to carve an urn with flame finial, so we concluded Friday afternoon learning how to do this. Five o'clock rolled around quickly and it was hard to believe the week was over already! Everyone had a great time and we were hard at work planning Al's curriculum for the next few courses.
Al Breed and his first class in the new studio. Walt Segl is at left.

    In five days, we had learned the intricacies of carving some of the most difficult furniture decorations, made some wonderful friends and gained a tremendous amount of confidence in our respective carving skills. It was a great experience and I'm already looking forward to visiting the Breed School again next year.

. . . Walt Segl



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