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Winter 2013-2014

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A Great American Woodworker: Al Hudson

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A Great American Woodworker: Al Hudson

An 18th century-style Salem secretary completes one man’s long love affair with wood.

By Tom Caspar


Deep in the heart of Tennessee, just north of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Al Hudson has been quietly building exquisite reproductions of classic American furniture for over 70 years. At age 88, he’s just finished his masterpiece: a double oxbow secretary, based on a number of 18th century beauties from Salem, Massachusetts. Building the secretary took a completely unexpected turn when Al uncovered a secret stockpile of amazing mahogany.

Wood is in Al’s blood. He’s a third generation woodworker–his grandfather was the master cabinetmaker in a large architectural woodwork mill, and his father rose to become superintendent of the same mill. In the hot summer months of the 1930’s, Al worked at the mill during high school and college. “I apprenticed under the watchful eye of my grandfather,” Al said. “I learned to use all manner of hand tools, and dearly loved the work.” Al wasn’t destined to follow in his family’s footsteps, however. “The top pay for a master cabinetmaker in 1937 was 75 cents per hour. There was little future for me at that mill, so I decided to pursue engineering.”

Al’s career prepared the groundwork for faithfully rendering period furniture. After college and service in the Marine Corps during WWII, Al went to work for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) in Knoxville, Tennessee, where he still lives. He became a Head Mechanical Engineer and supervised the drafting of plans for 11 large coal-fired steam electric power plants. After retiring in 1980, Al returned to his first love, woodworking. In 1996, when he saw a photograph of a stunning secretary, Al was awestruck. He made a vow to build it– no matter what– as the highest achievement of his career. Twelve years later, at age 88, Al finally had the time to undertake what would be an enormous effort. Drawing on his masterly drafting skills, Al produced the complete plans, sections, and details of the piece before cutting a single piece of wood (see "Al Hudson’s Plans," below).

Al began building with enthusiasm, but after cutting most of the parts, he really wasn’t satisfied with the mahogany he’d bought. “It just didn’t have any character,” Al said, so he put the work aside.

Several weeks later, he struck gold. “I found the prettiest wood I had ever seen–its grain glistened and danced in the light.” This treasure trove was four huge quartersawn pieces of beeswing and mottled mahogany. They were former backing boards (the pieces left over after veneer is sliced from a log) which had sat unused for over 40 years after a local veneer mill went out of business Each board was a full 1-in. thick, 15 in. wide, and 16 ft. long. “When I bought this unbelievable lumber, I started over.”

Al also found the perfect crotch mahogany veneer for the tombstone doors by contacting Certainly Wood, a company specializing in high-end veneer (see Source, below). “I sent them the original photo of the secretary, and explained that I was looking for veneer that was equally spectacular. They understood exactly what I needed, and the veneer they sent couldn’t have been better!”

Seven hundred hours and nine months later, Al completed the secretary just before Christmas, 2007. But it wasn’t quite finished. “I wanted a French polish to show the wood’s glory,” Al said, “but, never having done this myself, I figured that my secretary was not the project to learn on.” Al applied a mixture of aniline dyes to the mahogany and passed it on to a local professional finisher, David Reeves. The amazing results speak for themselves.


Al Hudson's plans

The plans that Al Hudson drew for his Salem secretary are works of art in their own right. Rendered entirely by hand by a master draftsman, with beautiful script, they meticulously detail every aspect of this timeless masterpiece. The complete set is now available at awbookstore.com in a CD format for $15 plus S&H. The original blueprints are a generous 17" wide by 24" long; you may have them printed this size by your local copy center, or have them reduced to 11" x 17".


Source

Certainly Wood, certainlywood.com, 716-655-0206.


This story originally appeared in American Woodworker October/November 2008, issue #138.

October/November 2008, issue #138

Purchase this back issue.

Click any image to view a larger version.


If beautiful wood and sophisticated design get you excited, just open the doors and lower the writing lid of Al Hudson’s secretary. Most of the piece is built from mottled bee’s wing mahogany from boards that had languished undiscovered for 40 years.


A top like this really commands attention. Three carved flame finials set off a curved broken pediment.



The centerpiece of the gallery is a prospect door made with crotch cherry veneer. The beautifully appointed storage spaces in this secretary contain 13 secret compartments.


More work by Al Hudson

Al Hudson has been building furniture for family and friends from his home in Knoxville, Tennessee, for over 25 years. Here’s a sampling:



Pembroke Table: 26” H x 19” D x 27” L Curly cherry; holly, ebony, and hedge apple (osage-orange) inlay



Tall Case Clock, Newport Style: 23” W x 11” D x 93” H Fiddleback and crotch claro walnut



William and Mary Spice Cabinet: 15” W x 12” D x 18” H Curly claro walnut; holly and padauk line and berry inlay; ebony and lemonwood inlay borders



Lady's Writing Desk: 37” H x 28” D x 48” W Curly cherry, ebony drawer pulls



Hepplewhite Sideboard: 41” H x 24” D x 66” L Sapele, pommele sapele, and crotch mahogany veneer; holly, ebony, lemonwood, padauk and satinwood inlay