Renaissance man focusing on furniture art

Chris Bergeron

Leonardo da Vinci designed armored tanks and painted the "Mona Lisa." William Shakespeare wrote tender love sonnets and bloody tragedies.

Brent G. Longtin invents complex software and adopts Siberian tigers. He jumps quarter horses and builds gorgeous furniture.

So who is the real Renaissance man?

A native of Canada who came south to study computer engineering at MIT, the 61-year-old Natick resident has continued a four-generation family tradition by handcrafting customized furniture of uncommon beauty.

After graduating from MIT in 1972, Longtin spent 30 years working in the high-tech industry building advanced system and application software for start-up companies in the Bay State and California. He helped develop the educational software called HyperStudio used by more than 40 million students around the world, he said.

Since 2002, Longtin has focused exclusively on a longtime passion for woodworking, becoming a self-described "furniture artist."

"I'm trying to find my niche making furniture that's a form of art," he said.

Longtin has transformed his 19th century West Central Street house into a one-man workshop where he labors, sometimes after midnight, on museum-quality period reproductions of what he described as Queen Anne, modern contemporary, equestrian and art furniture.

Almost every room of his 170-year-old colonial-style house holds a treasure trove of labor-intensive antique tools he has been collecting for 20 years, as well as some modern equipment.

Opening a cabinet, he takes out a hand-tooled English plane that cost more than $2,000. "When something is so well made as this, you have to consider the tool as an object of art," he said.

A first-floor room contains a special table called a vacuum press that uses a pump to create a vacuum to hold wood sheets firmly together when they're glued. A band saw stands in an adjacent room next to cabinets holding sets of drill bits. A second-floor room contains the stains, varnishes, abrasives and shellacs he uses to give each piece a fine finish.

Making every piece by hand, Longtin custom builds chairs, dropleaf tables, cabinets, bookcases, tack trunks for fellow equestrians and speciality pieces like a sailing ship's wheel for a yachtsman.

He touches the polished surface of a cabriole leg he has sanded smooth as an egg. "It has to be just right," he said. "You've got to create a natural flow when you're carving this."

While customizing pieces customers have seen in museums or magazines, Longtin said each finished order is uniquely designed.

He spends days, sometimes months, hand cutting all his dovetails and mortise and tenon joints and turning each chair or table leg individually on a lathe instead of using mechanical duplicators.

"I have to invent it. It's all art," he said. "I let my work speak for itself."

Without frills or decorative excess, Longtin's pieces display functional designs and clean lines. Their hand-polished surfaces and finished patinas exemplify his utter devotion to high quality.

Largely self-taught, Longtin has spent 30 years studying manuals and mastering his large collection of antique and power tools to give his pieces their distinctive look.

Buying wood from speciality suppliers across New England, he builds with walnut, maple, cherry, mahogany and pine. For detailed parts like knobs, borders and accent panels, he works with exotic woods from around the world, such as ebony and purple heart.

And when he is not reading Jane Austen or Thomas Hardy in his spare time, Longtin creates his own contemporary pieces including a curly cherry wood clothes hamper on wheels and a remarkably complex hand-tooled kaleidoscope.

As if that wasn't enough, four years ago he began taking horsemanship lessons at Apple Knoll Farm in Millis, even learning how to jump quarter horses over rails. "That was one of the most incredible moments," he recalled.

One room contains neat stacks of computer magazines such as Spectrum and Communications next to an unopened box holding "The World's Most Difficult Jigsaw Puzzle." Volumes of leather bound literary classics fill a bookcase that also holds technical manuals and "The Friar's Club Encyclopedia of Jokes."

Throughout the house visitors will find another personal interest - numerous stuffed toy tigers of all sizes.

Longtin admires the big cats for their grace and beauty. For several years he owned two real tigers, named Micro and O'Riley, which were boarded at Carnivore Preservation Trust, a wildlife sanctuary in Pittsboro, N.C. When he couldn't find time to visit them, he built a large sign with the tigers' names in raised letters made of gold-plated red oak.

Longtin believes his divergent interests might stem from an unusual harmony between the "left and right sides" of his brain which control, respectively, logical and intuitive thought.

He attributes his manual and technical skills to growing up in a rural town north of Ontario where he learned to use his father's tools, trained himself to build transistor radios and acquired basic agricultural skills. As a youngster, he taught himself to draw by copying calligraphy from the ancient Irish Book of Kells.

"I think I was hard-wired to use both sides of my brain," he said. "Even as a little kid I'd work in my father's shop in our backyard. I learned mechanics, woodworking and some electrical work."

For several years, Longtin has shown his work at Five Crows Hand Crafted Gifts and Gallery in Natick and through word-of-mouth.

While living off funds earned in high-tech, he hopes to "reach the point where furniture-making is personally profitable."

"I want all the work I can handle, particularly for high-end pieces," he said. "All my customers get bargains."

The single most striking piece in his house is an hand-built parlor kaleidoscope made from maple on a three-legged stand. Longtin estimates he spent 300 hours over two months handcrafting all the moving gears in the mirrored tube including the glass beads that make changing symmetrical patterns.

"You really get into it. It requires absolute concentration," he said running his hand over the smooth surface. "Building something like this has a lot in common with making software. It's pure creation."