Fred: A Joint by Hank Gilpin
Not too long ago, I traveled to Rhode Island to visit furniture maker Hank Gilpin. I was joined by Matt Berger, or Matt 2 as Hank called him that day (I was Matt 1). Matt and I went there to get some video of Hank explaining his take on the design and engineering of outdoor furniture. That will show up in episode 1 of my video workshop, which launched on July 30.
I’d spoken to Hank on the phone many times before making the trip, but meeting him in person was a treat. Hank is, well, Hank is Hank. He is an extremely talented designer and furniture maker, a great story-teller, a good cook (he made us a tasty lunch that day), and an all-around enjoyable person. And he is a bit quirky (he never answers the phone with a simple, “Hi, this is Hank.” More than once when I’ve asked for Hank, he has responded, “Let me check to see if I’m here.” He then waits silently for about 10 seconds and says, “I’m here.”). And don’t ever call him during his nap, as Matt Berger learned the hard way! Needless to say we had a great time at his place that day. I’ll share a few hightlights.
Hank lives in an old church that he has converted to a house with an attached shop. He showed us around his home, which is filled with amazing furniture. There is a large dining table surrounded by some spectacular chairs. There are a few made by Brian Boggs, a few made by Hank, and one by Bill Walker. I’d never been around so much truly brilliant furniture. It was quite a joy.
But that wasn’t the last stop on the furniture tour. At the back of the room there was a lot of furniture covered with moving blankets. We asked Hank about it, and it turns out that he had been making pieces for an upcoming show. There were some truly amazing pieces, and, as if to put to rest any doubt about his abilities, there were two pieces made from poplar (yes, poplar) that were more elegant than most of the custom furniture that I’ve seen in my life. And it wasn’t finished with paint, stain, or anything like that. I think it’s safe to say that if you can make an elegant piece of furniture from poplar that isn’t stained or colored in anyway, then you have arrived as a furniture designer.
Then Hank took us outside. Among the many things we saw was the table we would eat lunch at. It has a clean design, with trestle legs and a unique stretcher running between them. Matt filmed Hank explaining the joint that holds the stretcher to the legs, which you can watch up top. And Hank being Hank, when asked if he had named the joint, he responded, “Fred.”
If you want to learn more about Hank, check out this blog I did a while ago about a tunnel he designed. Or take a look at this profile that Fine Woodworking did a few years ago. Or do a quick search of the site using his name (several of his pieces have been featured in the gallery and on the back cover).
Oh, and don’t forget to watch the video workshop series. I’m building a garden bench.