Alf Sharp specializes in commissioned furniture for historical societies and high-end clientele, utilizing masterful relief carving, inlay marquetry and French polishing.

 

Sharp considers this replica of an 18th Century Bostonian hand-rubbed mahogany chest-on chest his ‘magnum opus.’

Alf Sharp quotes the Grateful Dead’s “What a long, strange trip it’s been” when describing his tumultuous, yet ultimately successful career path from Vanderbilt law school student to factory owner, to a highly-regarded custom furniture maker and teacher at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking.

After quitting law school and building up a small cabinet business into a successful company with a 15,000-square.-foot shop, Sharp says he nevertheless found himself unhappy. “I wanted to make furniture,” he says, “and ended up making furniture in a factory setting. It turned out I hated that as much as I hated law school,” he says with a laugh.

Compounding Sharp’s dissatisfaction was that he also was beginning to get commissions for the type of fine furniture he truly wanted to design and build. “It was really frustrating,” he says.“I was having to either turn them down or try to crank it out at night when I was tired.”

Finally, Sharp sold the factory and built a smaller, 1,200-square-foot shop, using his backlog of commissions to help the transition to custom work go smoothly.

Working primarily by himself — “I’m pretty much a control freak,” he admits — Sharp developed a reputation for reproducing museum-quality furniture, primarily in the 18th-century American style. One of his first successes came nearly 25 years ago with furniture built for The Hermitage, the historical home of President Andrew Jackson. “I really went hard after that,” he says.

His accomplishments on this project led to more historical commissions, including extensive work for the Tennessee state capitol, as well as furniture for every governor, including current governor Phil Bredesen, for whom he built a beautiful one-of-a-kind, hand-carved cherry desk.

Besides historical work, Sharp produces furniture for a high-end clientele as well. “Frequently,” he says, “I’ll have a commission to do a direct reproduction from people who have bought a couple of chairs at an auction and want a full set to go around a table.”

For one client, Sharp flew to Boston to measure and photograph a chest-on-chest exhibited in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. The result became a stunning hand-rubbed mahogany chest that Sharp considers his “magnum opus” (Latin for “Great Work”).

An example of Sharp’s contemporary work, this card table features delicate marquetry and extensive curved veneer work.

Although his shop is equipped with a table saw, lathe, vacuum bag veneer press and a 20-inch Powermatic planer (recently retrofitted with a Byrd Shelix head), Sharp primarily uses proven old techniques and tools, eschewing biscuit joiners and dowels for mortise and tenons and hide glue. However, he does utilize a pin nailer to attach mouldings, saying, “I am not adverse to a new technique if it doesn’t compromise the integrity of the piece.”

Sharp also works in 19th- and 20th- century historical styles, as well as contemporary works, often using curved veneer and exotic woods. “While I do think the 18th century in both Europe and America was a pinnacle in furniture design and techniques,” he explains, “I’ve come to believe, within the last 15 years or so, that we’re living in a period that’s just as fertile and outstanding and will be recognized in the future as one of the great periods of fine studio type-furniture.

In this regard, Sharp offers some advice: “Furniture makers tend to be a solitary bunch, myself included,” he admits, “but I have discovered a lot of personal and business benefits from associating with The Furniture Society and the Society of American Period Furniture Makers. Both are very worthwhile.”

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.