It was a simple request: find a few of the area’s hidden gems in the world of artisanal residential work. As it turns out, finding these master craftspeople wasn’t hard; Western New York is rich in talented, creative souls. The hard part was choosing from so many of them. Here are the stories of four local craftspeople, whose passions include metal, fire, wood, glass, paint — and a dedication to making signature pieces for homes throughout Western New York.
Mathe Woodworking, Ellicottville
For more than 35 years, Gary Mathe has specialized in timber frame construction and high-end carpentry, especially unique hand-crafted circular staircases.
How did you start in this business?
Gary Mathe: In the early ‘70s, I was studying geology at the University of Wisconsin. A friend and I started a roofing company on the side. At job sites, the carpenters’ work looked more interesting than roofing. I researched and experimented with ways to bend wood and decided that, as a career, I liked working with wood more than I liked studying rocks.
Briefly explain what you mean by timber framing.
GM: I use large, heavy beams or timbers instead of mass-produced “two by” stock (for instance, two-by-fours). Most of the wood is locally sourced, which makes it less expensive and more environmentally friendly; wood sources include larch cleared and milled on my property, as well as timbers from local loggers, custom mills and a local Amish mill.
Instead of using nails to join pieces of wood, I use the time-honored technique of mortise-and-tenon. Mortise-and-tenon joints are among the strongest joints in woodworking. A mortise is a cavity cut into a timber to receive a tenon. Then I use white oak pegs to counterpin the joints.
You also specialize in circular staircases. Why did you choose to focus on these?
GM: Early on as a carpenter, I read about this amazing circular staircase at the Sisters of Lorretto Chapel in Santa Fe, N.M. It’s sometimes called the "Helix to Heaven." It became a goal for me to try to build something like that. I pitched the idea to lots of people, but I was a terrible salesman. But I’m a good craftsman. In the mid ‘80s, I was doing trim work on condos in Rochester and this guy walked in and asked “Where’s the
guy who says he can build circular staircases?” That client was Bob Hoff, a New York State golf champion. He’d bought property across from his favorite green at Oak Hill Golf Course, and was custom building a new home there. I’d never actually built a circular staircase, but he took a chance on me. I ended up building two circular staircases for his house. All of a sudden, I became the “circular staircase guy.” I’ve built more than 50 of them over the last 29 years.
Tell us more about the barn (featured image above).
GM: A neighbor showed me pictures of the kind of barn he wanted. While standing in his driveway, I drew and priced out a design on the back of some scrap paper. We had a contract by the end of the day. I pre-fabbed the timbers at my shop and hauled them up the road to his property. He uses the place for barn dances. A lot of people tell me that it’s nicer than their house.
Briefly explain one of your favorite residential pieces and its journey from conception to finished work.
GM: That’s easy. I was building a frame house for my friend in the town of Hanover. The place had the right dimensions and space for me to build a staircase based on the one at the Sisters of Lorretto Chapel, so I pitched it to my buddy. It took about 850 hours to complete, but 20 years later, it’s still one of the things I’m most proud of.
Where can people see your work?
GM: Most of the staircases I’ve built are in private homes, but I built the main grand staircase at Holiday Valley Inn, and the Bradford Forest Products Office Building in Bradford, Pa., is also my “baby.” I did the timber framing for Rob Ray’s restaurant in Springville.
No website, but will email photos upon request. (716) 353-1102 or email@example.com
Pat & Glen Albig and family
Images in Glass, Inc. Stained Glass Studio, Hamburg
If you’ve been to Our Lady of Victory Basilica in the last 15 years, you’ve seen the artistry of Images in Glass’ historic stained glass restorations. This 36-year old company also specializes in residential stained glass design, fabrication, and installation, as well as fused glass dishware.
What’s the history of Images In Glass?
Glen Albig: Pat and I met in 1968, in the admissions line at Rosary Hill (now Daemen) College. The school had just gone coed; I was the eleventh male enrolled. I earned a BFA in oil painting; Pat earned a BS in printmaking. After we graduated and got married, Pat’s mom gave us a box of stained glass pieces and a how-to book. We started buying glass from a local studio run by a member of the British Society of Master Glass Painters. He hired and trained me and, two years later, left the business to me. I hired and trained Pat, who became the first female stained glass glazier journeyman in New York. In 1979, we opened our studio in Hamburg where we were located until the building collapsed during the recent “Snovember” storm. We’ve since rebuilt. In 2003, our son, Colin, came aboard as our apprentice glazier/painter (now foreman), and last year, our 19-year-old grandson, Alex, started working with us.
One thing that makes your work so unique is the level of detail, shading and painting on the glass. How is that done?
GA: It’s a painstaking process. After the client has approved the initial design, we make an enlarged charcoal drawing, and create duplicate patterns for cutting, plotting lead lines, and reassembly. We completely coat individual pieces of colored glass with a special matte paint. Then, with the glass on the light board, we’ll brush, scratch, peck, or needle the paint away to allow the light to come through and create the illusion of shadows, highlights, and other fine details, before finally firing the glass. When we’re duplicating pieces of glass in older windows, we match the original, brushstroke by brushstroke.
Tell us about a unique residential piece you’ve created.
GA: Right now, we’re working on a stained glass headboard. The customers requested certain elements in the design: a mermaid, starfish and other sea creatures. When it’s finished, we’ll also install a clear protective covering and a light box to showcase the glass.
You also make fused hot glass dishware.
Pat Albig: Yes. About 15 years ago, I started playing around with extra pieces of glass in the studio. I fuse the glass in the kiln at 1500 degrees and, after it cools, I slump it into a mold in the kiln at 1200 degrees. The pieces are non-toxic and dishwasher-safe. Sometimes people come to me with ideas and designs; sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night with ideas.
Where can people see your work?
GA: Restorations include the windows at OLV and many other local churches, and the windows for the Gardener’s Cottage at the Darwin Martin House. Our commissioned pieces are in many homes and several mausoleums at Forest Lawn Cemetery. With prior notice, customers can visit our studio in Hamburg, to see both finished pieces and works in progress.
Imagesinglassinc.com or 648-0333.
Arc Iron Creations, Kaisertown
In his Arc Iron Creations studio in Kaisertown, Chambers has created visually stunning custom hand-forged ironworks, including gates, stair rails, tables, range hoods and sculptures, since 2001.
Is the difference between hand-forged and machine made ironwork really that obvious?
Andy Chambers: Oh certainly! Hand-forged ironwork bears little resemblance to the mass-produced ornamental ironwork you'll find in stores. My pieces are entirely made by hand from start to finish. Each piece begins with raw steel. Then, through a series of intricate steps, it's transformed into a piece of art that has both character and soul. I like my pieces to create a conversation. The designs are original and each piece is unique. I love opening peoples’ eyes to the difference.
You've mentioned the dichotomy of drama and delicacy found in hand-forged ironwork. Give us an example.
AC: I made a dining table that has legs that feature twining iron roses. Another has a bronze tree with branches holding the glass tabletop. Bronze is a tricky metal but when it's hot, it's malleable and you can mold and sculpt and texture it like you would clay.
Most of your pieces are in private homes. However, you do have a rather impressive public commission at the U.S. Capitol Building Visitors Center.
AC: It's a bronze gate featuring a scroll design. The gate shields the catafalque that held Abraham Lincoln's casket. It was quite an honor to be chosen for that project and I'm really proud of
What are you currently working on?
AC: I just took a course on tool making from a blacksmith in California. Some of my work requires very specific tools and it's not like you can run to the hardware store for them, so I make my own.
Arcironcreations.com or 228-2446.
Against The Grain Studio, Chaffee
Rich Federowicz is a self-described "woodist," a term he coined to define an artist who works with wood. Specializing in wood art and furnishings, his artistic voice is contemporary and organic, with the soulful influences of renowned furniture maker Sam Maloof and modernist sculptor Constantin Brancusi. His pieces can be found in homes across WNY.
You went from the corporate world to opening Against the Grain Studio. How did that journey begin?
RF: My passion for design and fine woodworking took a while to develop, but when it hit me, I knew it was my place. I started with some carving classes, got interested in sculpture and then started applying a more organic perspective to what would otherwise be standard pieces. In 2000 I opened my studio full time.
You like clean lines and a contemporary style for your furniture. Is there one element that gives a piece your "signature"?
RF: I lean toward contemporary, but it does not in any way limit the scope of what I have to offer. At the risk of sounding "new-agey," I believe that wood has a spirit and it's important to recognize and honor it. My work has an energy flow and I like my designs to look impossible at some level, like floating tabletops.
How involved is the client in the design of a custom piece of your work?
RF: We visit the site together and discuss the style of the piece wanted. Then I sketch and we discuss the wood best suited to the piece. Clients can be as involved as they like.
You collaborated with blacksmith and friend Andy Chambers to create a stunning mantelpiece. What's the story?
RF: We were working for clients who wanted a mantel for over a large fireplace, a real focal point for the room. For the shelf, I chose a piece of ancient Kauri found under the peat bogs of Northern New Zealand. Carbon dating shows the piece at around 50,000 years old. It's a spectacular piece of wood with a stunning grain. That mantel shelf is held up by Andy's hand-forged ironwork. It's a perfect piece for the room and the clients love it.
Againstthegrainstudio.com or 352-1987.