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COUNTY AGENT GUY

By Staff | Jun 3, 2011

It was a rainy, gloomy weekend, so my wife and I decided to make our own sunshine, which is why we found ourselves visiting Jefferson.

No, I don’t mean the third President of the United States and fecund founding father. I’m talking about Jefferson, Iowa, birthplace of pollster George Gallup and home to an exceptional guy named Robby Pedersen.

Robby is uncommon because he runs a highly unusual business. Specifically, he operates the only producing historical furniture shop in the world.

“I was always interested in woodworking and took woodworking in high school,” said Robby. “But I never thought it would be anything more than a hobby.”

After earning a degree in elementary education and history at Iowa State University, Robby took a job in the woodworking shop at Living History Farms near Des Moines. During his 10 years there, he researched forgotten furniture pieces and honed his trade.

“About 70 times per day I would hear ‘Boy, you’re sure doing it the hard way!’ I began to wonder just how much slower it was to build furniture using just old-fashioned hand tools. I eventually decided to make a lifestyle of it.”

Some of Robby’s duties at Living History Farm included driving a team of oxen. He became a licensed oxen driver, the only person I’ve ever met who holds such a title.

“I had to read a bovine psychology book and spent 100 hours apprenticing with an expert oxen driver,” said Robby.

About five years ago Robby left his job at Living History Farms and launched a business called RVP 1875. He now builds historical furniture using only the tools and methods that were available in 1875. That date combined with his initials inspired the name for his enterprise.

“I chose to become a purist about it,” he said. “In 1875, Iowa had 2,013 furniture makers. The arrival of the railroad brought cheap, mass-produced furniture, which eventually put all those furniture makers out of business.”

Being a purist means beginning the furniture making process by personally swinging an ax to chop down trees. Robby then saws the trees into boards and lets them air dry for three to five years.

“I acquire about 80 percent of my lumber by chopping it down myself,” said Robby. “But someone will occasionally offer wood for sale. A farmer recently sold me some wood he had cut down in the 1960s and had stored in his barn since then. That wood is very dry and extremely hard!”

Robby utilizes only those species of trees that are indigenous to Iowa.

“This encompasses 17 different species, including walnut, oak, elm, and maple, but also some lesser known varieties like hackberry, honey locust and butternut,” he said. “I make my own dye by boiling walnuts and finish my furniture with a proprietary formula that’s based on linseed oil.”

Robby relies heavily on dovetail and mortise and tenon joinery.

“I don’t use glue, except to hold something together temporarily. We know that glue fails after about 50 years, and I’m building this furniture to last at least a century.”

Robby uses nails only when absolutely necessary. He acquires his square nails from a Massachusetts company that has been making them since 1870.

Robby gets his designs by studying old photos and museum pieces.

“My furniture represents an average derived from a variety of historical sources,” he said.

An unrepentant woodworking tool aficionado, Robby owns more than 350 planes. His shop has dozens of hand saws and a smattering of people-powered woodworking devices, including a treadle lathe and a hand-cranked rip saw.

“I can build just as fast as a guy who’s making a similar piece of furniture with power tools,” said Robby. “I don’t waste time setting things up; I simply grab the right tool and go.”

The fruits of Robby’s manual labors are furniture that may look a bit crude, but is built like a tank. It’s also fully functional – even if the function is mostly lost on modern society, such as a pie safe or an adjustable candle stand.

About three years ago Robby and his business partner, Angie Eberle, decided that their enterprise needed bigger and better digs. Their search soon landed them in the ancient Milligan Bros. Lumber, Grain and Coal Co. building in Jefferson.

“I grew up in Jefferson and it was nice to be able to come home,” said Robby.

Besides custom-building historic furniture, Robby and Angie conduct numerous tours and hold woodworking workshops. They also operate theater company called History Boy Theatre Co. An artist’s colony is currently being constructed in the erstwhile lumberyard warehouse.

“I’ve taught my high school shop teacher in some of my workshops, which was really cool,” said Robby. “It felt like I was closing a circle.”

Nelson is a freelance writer from Volga, S.D. Reach him by e-mail at jjpcnels@itctel.com.

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