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The Lost Art of Furniture Craftsmanship Lives On

By Ryan Jones

When Tony Tussey picks up a piece of wood, he isn’t looking at the same 2×4 slab of antique mahogany, pine, or maple that the average person would see. Instead, he’s watching a fully-fledged New England-style cupboard or a highboy with dovetailed drawers and hand-sculpted Queen Ann legs, take shape.

With just a glance, Tussey is determining the way each piece will be fitted, using not a single nail or screw, into the finished product so that only the finest examples of grain are visible.

dsc_2265For five decades, the Lexington native has honed his craft in the same studio where his father, Billy, would moonlight when he wasn’t working at Bowers Lumber Company in Thomasville. Tussey spent plenty of time helping out around the shop as a teenager, but his very first pieces were built in secret because his father was adamant that he not play around with equipment when no one was around.

“My daddy never did want me to mess with equipment. We would butt heads and get into it every now and then. He was afraid I was going to get hurt, but when he was gone I would build small stuff. My brain was a computer. I stored everything in my head and what I saw him and my uncles do, I just kept it in my head and remembered. Everything just clicked,” said Tussey, who readily admits he has no use for blueprints and can’t read them. “But if you bring me a picture and tell me how wide and deep, I can build it.”

During the heyday of the Davidson County furniture industry, the Tusseys and a crew of helpers – between 10 and 15 family members and friends at any given time – would build up a stock of furniture and travel to neighboring cities and states to sell to antique shops.

Dan's Antique Shop located in Old Salem was a retail location that bought furniture from the Tussey's up until it closed. Photo courtesy of Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection, Winston-Salem, NC
Dan’s Antique Shop located in Old Salem was a retail location that bought furniture from the Tussey’s up until it closed. Photo courtesy of Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection, Winston-Salem, NC

Their reputation for above-average quality spread quickly and they often would leave an entire truckload at one store after presenting only a piece or two for the owner’s consideration. Tussey remembers selling to well-known outfits such as Dan’s Antique Shop in Old Salem, Byerly’s Antiques (which closed in September 2004 after 67 years in business), and Lloyd’s Antiques near Pfeiffer College.

“Used to we stayed busy. My uncles and cousins would help us,” said Tussey, who imagines there are pieces of his furniture – mostly un-signed, unless it was specifically requested by a patron – floating around as far out as California, Hawaii, and even South Africa.

From a certain point on, Tussey was never again interested in anything besides carrying on family tradition and producing fine, mostly Shaker style pieces. He said he tried working for his cousins, the Monk family, at Lexington Barbecue for maybe a year, but it didn’t stick.

“I don’t know. Here, if I want to walk out that door and go home, I do. I can do whatever I want to do. I don’t punch a clock. I come and go when I’m ready to. The furniture I guess was just in my blood. Working for yourself, working with your hands, just sort of comes natural.”

“It’s a good feeling, doing what you love to do. When you build a piece you want to build it to the best of your ability. What I build is heirloom stuff that will be passed down.”

Over the years, as interest in quality, handcrafted furniture began to wane and the industry, especially in Davidson County, began to falter, the business dwindled to just Tussey. Today he carries on his father’s legacy by taking on special restoration projects and producing commissioned works for locals who’ve heard of his talent through the grapevine.

Inside the workshop

“The younger generation, it’s like everything’s changed. The coffee tables and end tables built in certain styles don’t fly nowadays. Dough boxes and old cobbler benches, stuff like that, we haven’t built that stuff in probably 25 years,” said Tussey. “Designs have changed.”

“Used to we could build something up for somebody and if they didn’t want it the store would take it. Now it’s more or less custom stuff. You don’t know what to build because everybody’s got different tastes now.”

The shop where Tussey works his magic, built in the 60s and still located on Old Greensboro Road near the Davidson County Fairgrounds, is overflowing with the antique tools of his father’s that Tussey still favors over anything at all mechanical.

“All my equipment is from the 30s and 40s, but it still works. It still does its job.”

The shop is also full of fine, antique wood reclaimed from various demolition sites over the years.

“They’d tear down buildings and we’d haul lumber home and pull the nails out by hand. I’ve got some pine here that dates back to 1774. From about a half a million feet [of reclaimed lumber] I’ve got about 80 beams left,” Tussey said.

What the shop doesn’t have is any sort of defining signage or indication that one of Davidson County’s most prolific furniture-makers is doing business there.

“People have drove by here for years and never known what it was,” said Tussey, thoroughly satisfied by his under-the-radar approach. “We’ve never advertised and never sold a whole lot local. We’ve just got the brick front building here.”

At one time, Tussey says he tried working from a workshop built into his home. “It’s about half the size of what I’ve got here. But it was never comfortable. Being here at the shop, I’m at home. I’m in my element.”

“He doesn’t know his value as an artist,” said Dr. James Black of Wake Forest Baptist Health – Lexington Medical Center, who has commissioned upwards of seven pieces from Tussey. “He can do incredible things.”

Black said he met Tussey through the Parrott family and quickly realized their shared connection. “We got to talking about stuff and it turned out our fathers knew each other. His dad knew my father as a co-lumber wholesaler and retailer.”

“Having grown up in a wood family myself, I appreciated the woods and grain patterns. I looked at the stuff he was making and then over time we just built an incredible friendship – two people who never would have linked together normally unless at church or something,” said Black, who admits to stopping by Tussey’s shop on cold mornings on his way to the YMCA to stand beside the shop’s old potbelly stove to watch works in progress.

“I grew up watching people build pieces so it wasn’t new to me. It’s just amazing how he picks his woods. He can pick up a raw 2×4 and know where he wants the wood to be exposed in the finished piece. He can look at something in two dimensions and his brain creates it in a third dimension,” said Black.

The most recent project Black commissioned from Tussey was a highboy piece, the quality and craftsmanship of which he is in awe.

“The legs are hand-hewn and it has scalloped, inlaid drawers with hand-chiseled details. It’s made of solid mahogany, no secondary wood,” said Black. “The care he takes, down to the fine sanding. He’s so delicate. It’s almost like watching a surgeon handle tissues very delicately and gently. He’s just so unassuming, which is amazing in the world today. He is just so genuine.”

Black reckons that Tussey’s talents are a lost art that should be catalogued alongside Davidson County greats like Bob Timberlake, Fred Craver, and Henry Link. “When you see a piece of Tony’s it’s like going into museums in Williamsburg and looking at an original Sheraton table and Queen Ann chairs. That’s what you’re looking at when you’re looking at his pieces, although they’re contemporary. You just gotta see the pieces to understand it.”

“I don’t know. I don’t claim to be in their category,” said Tussey of the “greats” mentioned by Black. “They were well-known for their furniture and how it was built. They were true craftsmen. I just do the best I can and I try to do what I can to do it right.”

All Tussey knows is that he has no desire to retire at a beach or a lake. He promises he’ll make furniture, “’Till my eyes shut. As long as I’m able to get here and operate the equipment, I’m going to do it as long as I can.”