We wasted no time this season before diving right into a real meaty project – a rocking chair built in the Arts & Crafts style inspired in no small part by one of Tommy’s favorite creators, Frank Lloyd Wright. As you’ll see in the episode, the crew took a trip out to Illinois to the Art Institute of Chicago, where curator Monica Obniski gave Tommy the rundown on the Arts & Crafts movement and showed off a few of the Institute’s Lloyd Wright pieces, including the “circle-on-square” library table, an oak desk with intricate architectural details and a cube chair with beautiful spindles.
Now since the rocking chair was co-designed by Tommy’s friend and fellow woodworker Tom McLaughlin, we had him on the show to help breakdown the project steps.
For those who don’t know Tom, he’s a New Hampshire-based woodworker who’s been in this fine furniture game for over 25 years. We reached out to Tom to ask him a few questions about his work, the rocking chair project and his own journey as a woodworker.
Tom, how did you first get into woodworking?
I naturally loved it as a kid. My grandfather was a craftsman, and though he died before I was born his old tools were in my basement, including a Stanley #7 hand plane. I loved playing around with them as a kid. I went to vocational school as a teen and for the first four or five months all they taught us were the hand tools. So I was 13, 14 years old learning how to sharpen a hand plane. It was actually pretty clever of the instructors because it kept us away from the power tools for as long as possible, but it also taught us how to pay attention to the fine details of things. There’s nothing like creating a perfectly square block of wood with a hand plane to learn about precision.
But I ended up transferring back into high school, going to college for a math degree and then entering into seminary school. It wasn’t until a little later in life that I turned back to woodworking as a full-time pursuit when I realized you could make a living doing it.Tell us about that first project you completed where you looked at it and said “hey, I think I have a knack for this”:
I’d say there were two moments. The first was in vocational school when I finished all the assigned wood joints before the rest of the guys in the class.
The other was later, when I had taken on an apprenticeship with P.A. “Pug” Moore, one of the legendary fine furniture makers out of North Carolina. I got that feeling right after I finished my first set of chairs for Pug.
Where do you tend to find inspiration for your work?
Good questions. The basis for my understanding of woodworking was 18th century furniture. I made many Chippendale and Queen Anne style furniture in the early days, because that’s what Pug was making. That was the language of furniture making design I grew up on.
But these days I get a lot of inspiration from the other guys in the NH Furniture Masters group, which I’m a part of. Being around them as really pushed me forward towards doing my own thing and experimenting with my own ability to design furniture.You’re known for your veneer work, particularly with a Cuban mahogany veneer. Tell us a little about that.
That also comes from being a part of the NH Furniture Masters. I got exposed to guys using veneer in interesting ways. The Cuban mahogany happened when I came across the opportunity to buy a flitch of it. I couldn’t afford the whole thing, so my good friend and artist lauriette of NH David Lamb came up with the brilliant idea of offering shares to clients. So we purchased the entire 9000 square feet of it and I’ve been using that for a while. It’s so beautiful. I like using ribbon cuts of the Cuban Mahogany. I love how it looks. I try to create an effect almost like paint. I feel I’m arranging the material like I’m painting the surface in an interesting way.
What’s the secret to a great veneer?
Well first of all, I love the fact that veneer companies are photographing their veneers. You can see exactly what you’re buying. If I have in mind some effect I’m trying to achieve, I can go online and find it. Sometimes I’ll find an unusually beautiful or large burl veneer, that will drive an idea for a new project.
Great veneer is in how you use it — the thoughtfulness of how you arrange it, apply it. There are so many original and personal ways you can use it. I like combining solids with veneers. So in some pieces the legs will be solid, but the surfaces will have some kind of curves with laminations with veneer applied.
You and Tommy worked together on this Arts & Crafts rocking chair, which could definitely seem like an intimidating project to a novice. What advice would you give someone tackling this project?
With chairs, one of things Pug told me is “If you can build a chair you can build anything” As time has gone on I realized he had a point. A chair project incorporates a lot of compound angles. Sometimes it can be real sculptural and the joinery can be a mind-bender. And of course it has to be comfortable for someone to actually sit in. So you have a lot of different dynamics working together.
For advice, I’d say don’t get overwhelmed considering the whole thing at once. Break it into three vantages: The profile, the plan view (top view) and the front on view. Anytime I make a chair, I create a full size drawing with each of those three views. Then you’ve broken down the complexity and you can pick off important angles right off the drawing.
In your opinion, what was the most challenging aspect of the rocking chair project?
A lot of Arts and Crafts chairs are very square. Heavy and square. The back is as wide as the front rail. With this chair, to make it more interesting, the back narrows. It’s a little narrower than the front. As it goes back, everything is getting closer. That adds real complexity to figuring out the angle of the crest rail, because that lays back in between two legs that are sweeping back and getting closer together. When you first confront that you’re like, “Whoa, what do I do here.” But that’s where the drawings in two dimensions helps.
I’ve always loved Sam Maloof, a great woodworker who lived out in California.
You can see more of Tom and Tommy in action during the full Arts & Crafts Rocking Chair episode. Find out when it airs in your area by using our Station Finder.
Watch the episode teaser below: