The Privilege of Woodworking

Like many small boys growing up during the 1950s and ’60s, Alfred Sharp enjoyed making wooden models. That early love of woodworking ultimately would become his life’s calling, bringing him national and international recognition and awards. But the long, winding road for this self-described former hippie had a few detours along the way.

After graduating from Vanderbilt’s College of Arts and Science in 1970 with a degree in English, French and philosophy, Sharp set his sights on becoming an attorney. It soon became clear, however, that neither the law, nor a white-collar career, was his cup of tea.

While searching for something to keep body and soul together, Sharp began doing simple cabinetry jobs for pay. He became so successful that he soon found himself the owner of a mechanized furniture factory with 25 employees.

“But I was miserable,” he recalls. “I was hardly ever touching a piece of wood myself. To make matters worse, a few truly significant fine-furniture commissions were being offered to me, if I could somehow find the time.”

So Sharp decided to sell the business and open a small, handmade, custom-furniture workshop next to his home in Woodbury, Tenn., where he lives with his wife, Katherine Purvis Sharp, BA’70. There Alfred Sharp, cabinetmaker, lovingly crafts one-of-a-kind, handmade, 18th-century reproductions and original wood furniture.

The Tennessee State Museum, Rattle and Snap Plantation, and The Hermitage (President Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee home) are just a few of the places where you can admire the exquisite craftsmanship of Alfred Sharp, BA’70. Sharp’s museum-quality pieces can take anywhere from two weeks to more than a year to complete.

Last January the Society of American Period Furniture Makers (SAPFM) gave Sharp its highest honor—the 2008 Cartouche Award—at a ceremony held, appropriately, in Williamsburg, Va. According to SAPFM, “The award is made in recognition of the recipient’s reputation for excellence in craftsmanship and contributions toward the understanding and appreciation of traditional American furniture design and construction.”

Sharp says his Vanderbilt liberal arts education has proven valuable to his chosen career. “I received a fairly deep immersion in art and art history,” he says. “I also studied the cultures of England and France, as well as their languages.”

He wishes, however, that he had taken more engineering electives. “Structural considerations are huge in building furniture,” he says. “You must make all kinds of geometrical calculations to put together the curves and angles of the pieces.”

Instead, the cabinetmaker learned the hard way—by trial and error—and was tutored by a handful of elderly craftsmen who were building furniture by hand. A time-consuming process, it takes Sharp anywhere from two weeks to more than a year to complete his exquisite, museum-quality furniture, which ranges in price from $1,600 to $100,000.

“This is not a career in which to get rich,” he says, “but it is a privilege.”

Sharp’s furniture can be found in historic homes and museums across the nation. They also can be seen online at

Explore Story Topics