by Lisa Gabbert

Listen: Tony won't quit

My grandfather, Anton "Tony" Pramberger long ago converted his one-car garage into a workshop. This is his sacred space, and, like other sacred spaces, the workshop has taken on a life of its own over the years. One of my strongest childhood memories of him is the inordinate amount of time he spent there. He would emerge from its dark recesses with a lovely box or other wooden object to give away, but there was always an aura of mystery surrounding his work and workspace.

To the untrained eye, Tony's workshop looks like a chaotic jumble of wood,woodblocks, tools, machines of various kinds, paper, buckets of glue, nails, screws, fishooks, saws, razors, and brushes. A fine layer of sawdust filters through the air. Upon closer examination, however, the shop is perfectly organized and mirrors the meticulousness of his mind and work. The walls are shelved, and lined with thousands of glass jars filled to the brim with screws, nails, hooks of all kinds. Each file, plane, chisel and saw has its particular spot and Tony has at least two sets of everything-sometimes three. In the back corner sits a cast-iron potbelly stove which serves as his heat source in the winter, while a window air conditioning unit sits directly over the workbench to keep him cool during the summer. Tony works comfortably year round despite the extremities of New York weather.

Born in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire as an ethnic German in 1909, Tony appreciated wood at an early age, apprenticed as a cabinet-maker at the age of 13, and eventually attained the title of "master." After he and his wife Elizabeth emigrated to New York in 1950, Tony worked as the Steinway Company's chief pattern-maker until he retired in 1976.

For Tony, one of the most frustrating things regarding his craft is the constant confusion between cabinet-making and carpentry. "I am not a carpenter," he insists, "I am a cabinet-maker." A carpenter, he patiently explained to me for the tenth time, builds houses, lays floors, and builds decks. A cabinet-maker, on the other hand, makes furniture. And for Tony, trained in the old-school European style, that means fashioning furniture with dovetail joints, horsehide glue, and occasionally, tiny screws.

Tony always has at least six or seven projects going at once. Although he enjoyed his Steinway job, the position did not fully utilize his cabinet-making skills and so instead he brought his craft home. Throughout the years he has made small pieces of furniture, kitchen stools, a bar, chess tables, pictures, hope chests, and many jewelry boxes which he has given away to family members on special occasions. His crowning talent is his knowledge of marquetry, the practice of inlaying bits of wood, metal, ivory and other materials onto furniture, floors, and objects to create pictures or geometric designs. Generally, a basewood is covered with a thin veneer of rare and costly wood in order to give the object are more luxuriant finish. Although Tony is retired, his old Steinway buddies still bring him scraps of tropical hardwoods left over after the instruments are made. He carefully stores these treasures for future use and, if asked, can produce a piece of cherry, mahogany, teak, palisander, curly walnut, or rosewood at a moment's notice.

He constantly searches for design models for his wood patterns, and once confessed to me that the intricate floral design which adorned the chess table I admired was copied from a Scott paper towel.

For Tony, one of the primary purposes in making these objects lies in the pleasure of itís creation: "You be proud when you make a design and you like it, you be proud when you cut it out, and put it together and polish it and it be finished."

"He is a woodworm," my grandmother Elizabeth says, "a holtzwurm."


9/21/97

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