William Alburger

Philadelphia Inquirer Feature

A Berks County man finds old wood "inspiring.''
His work will be featured in Doylestown this weekend.

Crafter sees art in scraps with heart

By Cynthia J. McGroarty

Bill Alburger cannot pass a crumbling barn without his heart going ping.

Wouldn't that weathered pine -- all pitted and furrowed -- be just right for his next bench or cupboard? With any luck, the owner would let him loot the ruins and haul the best planks home.

For two years, Alburger, of Barto, has been building wall cupboards from antique wood, old feed bags and other bits of Americana. He regularly scours the countryside for materials for these rustic pieces, stopping at flea markets, picking through woodpiles at sawmills, and even taking out ads for desired items.

It is a calling that harks back to his boyhood in Bucks County. "I was always a bit of a scavenger," said Alburger, 42. "I was always dragging stuff home."

Lately, he has begun to exhibit his distinctive pieces at galleries and showrooms. His most recent exhibits were at Salon Des Amis Gallery in Malvern and the Skippack Art Festival, where he won an award for best craft. On Saturday and Sunday, his work will be featured in a show at Canaan Cabinetry in Doylestown.

Alburger, a former house painter, said he felt a natural affinity for old wood. "It's inspiring, just the character of it," he said. And "even though it's weathered, it's still stronger than new wood."

Alburger has devoted a sizable portion of the property he shares with his wife, Joanne, to his woodworking. There is a drying shed, a wood shop, a finishing room and a storage room -- all on a shady chunk of ground along a branch of the Perkiomen Creek.

On a recent morning, mutts Schnuppy and Christy at his heels, Alburger walked through his wood shop, pointing out a work being made from 200-year-old pine. Then he opened his storage room to reveal a dozen cupboards in an array of color finishes.

"I just mailed a piece to Texas," he said, explaining that a woman from the Lone Star state had seen his work at the Skippack Art Festival and commissioned him to make something for her.

Each piece takes about a week to make. Alburger said he started by putting an idea on paper, a practice Joanne Alburger, 32, knows well: "In the winter, he gets insomnia, and he sneaks downstairs by the woodstove and starts sketching."

From there, Alburger seeks out the best raw materials for the job: aged pine, oak or mahogany boards; old broom handles; discarded feed bag cloth; metal trimmings.

Sometimes he uses custom materials -- bits of fabric or other items that a customer gives him for incorporation in a piece.

Joanne Alburger said she was shocked one day to find that her husband had commandeered some of the fabric she had bought to recover the sofa and used it in one of his cupboards. She could not be angry, she said, because the finished product "looked so wonderful."

For his cupboard doors, Alburger commissions leaded glass made according to his design by a glass artisan. Some glass is antique and some is reproduction.

Finishing the cupboard is his favorite step. It appeals to his artistic side and can make the difference between a ho-hum cupboard and one that really sings. He leaves some pieces unfinished because "they look good the way they are."

When Alburger is not spending time on his craft, he and his wife, who is a teacher, are active in their church and hold regular campfire sleepovers for a group of disabled friends. These days, he is busy getting ready for his coming show at Canaan Cabinetry, where owner and kitchen designer Scott Seuren said Alburger's work got kudos from customers.

"They're amazed at how he uses the mediums that he does," Seuren said, adding that it was about time that Alburger "do something that he loves."

"He's an artist. He was painting houses for a long time. That was not the best use of his talents."

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