Matthew Pastre is part of an elite few period woodworkers in the world, who share tips and techniques through niche groups and guilds and specialty publications, keeping alive traditions on the brink of extinction. “We’re kind of nerds,” says the Legrangeville craftsman with a laugh. “We’re a different breed, let’s put it that way.”
For Pastre, who has been woodworking for 40 years, it was the Federal style—with its lithe lines and delicate use of veneer—that caught his eye while flipping through the pages of Jeffrey Greene’s American Furniture of the 18th Century: History, Technique, Structure. Before the rise of the Federal period, and with it of veneer work, pieces were constructed of a single species of wood. Furniture was monochrome, large, heavy, imposing. “Then Federal came along, mixing all this color and types of wood,” Pastre says. “The lines were cleaner. And the veneer work—you could use veneer in a way you couldn't use solid wood, to embellish the grain and the features of that particular tree to a degree that was unheard of. A whole different world opened up to me. So I just ran with it and thought I was going to make a million dollars,” he says with a good-natured laugh.
Twenty years later, Pastre still speaks about the style with boyish wonder, though he’s been disabused of his lofty monetary expectations. Before opening his shop The Federal Case, he worked for years as a general contractor on high-end residential projects, doing custom cabinetry whenever the job called for it. “Specialty trim, built-ins, kitchen cabinets—you name it, I did it. Onsite or in a shop,” he says. “It was tough on the body. In my 40s I said, ‘Hey we gotta do something else here,’ and I decided to do the woodworking full-time. I was a little naive thinking I was going to be able to do this for a living just because I did well with houses. This is a different animal altogether.”
The Federal period that Pastre emulates started after the Revolutionary War, the first proprietary style of the young nation. It is characterized by lighter lines and daintier silhouettes than its predecessors. Veneer replaces carving as the medium for embellishment and dimensionality, with the grain of the wood taking on a new aesthetic importance. “What I do is a take on what was going on 240 or so years ago,” he says. “A lot of methods are the same, but I do incorporate some of the more modern technology.”
Machines do some of the work that would historically have been performed by apprentices or, in some cases, slaves, but technology makes up a small part of a process that is highly labor-intensive, any way you cut it. Buying veneer in dry, brittle sheets called flitches, Pastre must soak, steam, and smooth the pieces before they can be laid out for a pattern or cut to shape for an inlay design. It is a demanding and finicky process. “It’s like working with a potato chip,” he says. “They will crack. They will break. It’s very, very intense.” He sweeps often.
Pastre crafts his own pieces and also collaborates with clients on custom commissions, making everything from end tables to dining tables. “I started with that sense of craft and the heirloom thing about being passed down—all that romanticism about cabinet making,” Pastre says. “Well the business is completely different now than it was in the 17-1800s. So I had to get with it and learn how to make a living.” Over time (and in the absence of a wood stove), he learned to turn his scraps into cutting boards, which he sells at local farmers’ markets.
The markets offer a much needed jaunt outside the shop and a good opportunity to network.“It’s a very humbling profession. It definitely tamed me,” Pastre says. “As a young guy, I was going to conquer the world, but it doesn’t work out like that. I’m off selling cutting boards and I do well. It’s something people can touch, they can take it home. And it’s not a couple thousand dollars, it’s a couple hundred. Then some people say ‘Do you do this?’ and I say, ‘Yes, I do.’ And they say, ‘Do you fix furniture?’ and I say, ‘Yes, I do.’”
And so, work flows from work. He has been in his 700-square-foot shop nonstop throughout the pandemic. As soon as he finishes one project another takes its place. “I’ve built a good client base with local people in the area and designers,” Pastre says. “Out of the blue, someone will say, ‘Hey, can you make this?’ and off we go.”