Last season we brought Tom by the blog space to talk a bit about his craft, his journey through woodworking and his work on that episode’s project, an Arts & Crafts Rocking Chair.
In that interview, Tom opened up a bit about the man who was his mentor in woodworking, the legendary P.A. “Pug” Moore. We brought Tom back this season to tell us a little more about his mentor.
Tell us how you first met P.A. “Pug” Moore.
I met “Pug”, whom I always addressed as “Mr. Moore” out of respect, during an exploratory visit my wife Kris and I took to Wilson, North Carolina in late December 1989. We were hosted during our visit by the parents of a close friend, Richard Rhodes, whom I got to know while in seminary the years before. Richard’s dad, Dr. Cecil Rhodes had never actually met Pug himself, but knew of his reputation and showed us some of his furniture in homes nearby. So you could say I was first introduced to Pug’s workmanship, and seeing it’s beauty, warmth and attention to detail, I knew he was the real deal.
Dr. Rhodes was not even sure if he was still alive. But a few days later, as I first entered Pug’s timeworn shop located behind his home at 2800 Sunset Ave, in neighboring Rocky Mount, we learned as they say, the rumor of his death had been greatly exaggerated. I can still remember walking into the cinder blocked walled finishing room, and first seeing Pug standing on a stool so he could adjust the tester frame on top of a tall mahogany poster bed. He stepped down and greeted us warmly, especially when he learned we were from the Boston Mass, given his love for history and travel.
He was 73 years old when we met, and had been trying to slow down the output of the shop for some years, letting go the three other full-time cabinet makers, finishing man, and upholsterer. The only other man working with him in the shop that day was Billy Frazier, a deaf mute, whom Pug’s father had hired some forty-five years earlier, and Pug just didn’t have the heart tell him he had to find another job.
Little did I know during that first meeting, my wife Kris and I would soon decide to begin our pioneering adventure and move to North Carolina. And I would be working in that character and dust-filled workshop…at a workbench between Billy Frazier and Mr. Moore. We made for quite the trio. And I will forever treasure the memory of the three unforgettable years I spent working with them.What were your first impressions of the man?
Pug was one of those kinds of men who exuded integrity, humility and kindness. His shop was visited with some regularity by older men from Rocky Mount, whom he had know for years. And it was obvious they held him in high regard, and they were better men from just having spent a bit of time with him in the shop.
For me, he was like a grandfatherly Andy Griffith, dispensing wisdom in measured and simple ways. And never having known either of my own grandfathers, I could not help thinking of him as a very special gift from God to me.
We shared common interests, of course primarily centered around creativity, beautiful wood, and the art of fine furniture making. But he also had a great sense of humor, and an infectious smile. When I told him many people thought he was dead, he started laughing and said “Well I always wanted to keep a low profile.”
He was genuinely humble too. When I shared how great his reputation was, almost legendary, with everyone who knew of him, he sincerely responded, “I’ve got a lot of people fooled Tom.”
But I think the most impressive thing was the way he loved his wife Eva. It was one of those rare relationships you sometimes see in an older couple. She had suffered a stroke a year before we met, almost fully recovered her speech, but could only walk slowly and carefully with a cane.
He so lovingly cared for Eva, often telling me stories of how they met and “courted” before she agreed to marry him. And there we were, more than fifty years later, and at the end of each day in the shop, he would announce “Well, got to go home and see my bride!”
How would you describe his work?
Pug started working with his father in the shop full-time in 1934 when he was just 18 years old. The southeast region around North Carolina was strongly influenced by colonial or eighteenth century traditional decor. So his custom furniture business, actually called “Moore’s Antiques”, was based almost solely on the making of all kinds of eighteenth century reproductions.
“Antiques” was in their name because they also had a small antique shop nestled between Pug’s home and the cabinet shop further back in the yard. Pug reminisced of the many times a large antique dealer from Baltimore would stop at his shop first on his way south, unload his entire truck’s contents on the lawn, and then Pug and his father would cherry pick the best pieces to buy and sell in their antique shop. Those were the days when very nice period pieces were still available for reasonable prices.
And the arrangement was a great benefit to the Reproduction shop as well. Before they were put up for resale, Pug would carefully study, make patterns and record measurements of the best pieces, so they could accurately reproduce them in the cabinet shop.
He had hundreds of patterns for all kinds of Queen Anne, Chippendale, and Federal pieces. The wall of one room, behind the long-bed lathe was covered 6″ deep with clusters of patterns for all kinds of chairs, tables, and lowboy patterns. And the hallway wall outside the finishing room, where I first met Pug, was lined with more than fifty sample pattern posts for tall and low post beds. I proudly display many of these same posts along one wall of my shop today, remembering how stunned I was the day he handed them down to me. I also treasure many other bundles of patterns that once draped the walls of Pug’s shop.
There was something special about the look of a finished Pug Moore piece. They just felt warm to look at and invited touch. He paid close attention to every detail, his furniture felt personal as if you could sense the love and care he put into each piece.What about his process?
We would begin each piece by going to an old spiral bound notebook, kept in the cabinet drawer by his bench, to see which customer’s project was next in line. And then he would walk over to the rotary phone, and dial the number to ask if they still wanted it…because by that time, the orders were usually three years old. Each and every customer would respond enthusiastically “Oh yes Mr. Moore, I still want you to make it!” I remember being impressed and realizing then that people don’t mind waiting for something that’s worth waiting for.
Then we would discuss the details for the project. Sometimes we were making a copy of a piece from a photo that came from one of the many period furniture books or Antiques Magazine. Pug would make a sketch, noting the primary dimensions, and we would often use leg and bracket feet patterns from his library of patterns. Many times we would not make full-size drawings because the pieces were custom versions of examples he had previously made.
Once we got into making the project, the process was very similar to what I have shared with Tommy Mac on several Rough Cut episodes. We would select beautiful materials, use carefully made pattern shapes to bandsaw out key parts, refine quickly with spokeshaves and hand planes, layout and cut joinery, detail parts as needed, pre-fit and dry-run assembly, glue-up, sand and prep for finish.
Finishing was an art to itself. Mahogany pieces were treated with Potassium Dichromate, a chemical reaction stain, that would darken the Mahogany to a beautiful aged look. Most pieces were top-coated and finished with good ol’ orange or blonde shellac. We would build the finish by spraying several thin coats. To this day I can still hear him say, “You never rush a finish Tom”, especially while I am rushing a finish.
Then for the final treatment the piece was rubbed out with 0000 steel wool and wax applied to bring out the full beauty, depth and color. For chest of drawer tops, where a glass might be set down, we would spray an additional protective coat of lacquer.
What were some of the greatest lessons he taught you as a woodworker?
Working with Pug confirmed for me that life is too short to not be doing what your love. His approach to life confirmed the saying, “If you love what you do, you will never work a day in your life.” But that didn’t mean it was easy. He was a strong and solid man who had worked hard, long hours for many years running the shop and making sure the work was of the highest standard.
And yet he was such a contented man and a thankful spirit spilled out of him with regularity. Reflecting on his life’s work he said “I made a living doing work that I really loved. Taking a piece of wood and creating a beautiful piece of furniture has been a joy and a privilege. I am so thankful for being able to live my dream.” It is no wonder, given his talent and passion for the craft, Moore’s Antiques never paid for any kind of advertising and yet had steady work for over fifty years while employing seven men.
One of the most profound lessons I learned from Pug came out of a mistake I had made. One day while working across from him, I had cut a key part of a project too short, and must have been wearing an expression of shock, embarrassment, and anger with myself. Because when I looked over at Pug, he paused, and with the best sort of directness and compassion asked, “Are you going to hit the panic button Tom?”
I don’t remember how I answered him in the moment, but from the longer view looking back, I smile, and realize he was teaching me a very important lesson. Mistakes are a normal and necessary part of the process of becoming, and every mistake can be remedied and forgiven. I should receive them for what they are and what they have to teach. And not be so hard on myself. After all, a “master” is just someone who has made, and learned from, lots and lots of mistakes.
He also taught me, by example, to never stop learning. Most of Pug’s best mentors were the great masters. craftsmen and designers, from the 18th century who were no longer living. He had a wonderful collection of furniture reference books, many of the bindings in tatters from over use. Often we would be sitting having a morning break and the conversation would turn to discussing a particular furniture piece or design. As if by reflex, he would pull down a book from the shelf and begin flipping through, showing me example after example.
He had such a deep and lasting appreciation for the art of fine furniture making. “Oh that’s beautiful!” he would often blurt out when the turn of a page revealed yet another masterpiece from the golden age of furniture making. Day after day, as we engaged the work, he taught me the little things that distinguished great work form the merely good. I did not realize as it was happening, but he was blessing me with the best kind of learning experience. His enthusiasm was contagious, and he was fanning the flames of my own artistic passions which burn on to this day.
So much of my experience with Pug has shaped and influenced my approach to furniture making and working with clients. My early years were heavily in his footsteps making eighteenth century style furniture, often fulfilling orders for children and grandchildren of his customers North Carolina and Virginia.
After moving back to New England and settling in Canterbury, New Hampshire in 1997, I was accepted into the New Hampshire Furniture Masters association, largely based on my portfolio built on my time with Pug.
Since then, I have explored creating contemporary designs, with more dynamic curves, and using materials in dramatic ways. The New Hampshire Furniture Masters is full of so many great craftsman who have had a profound influence on my further development as a furniture designer and craftsman. But the heart of who I am as a craftsman, and the spirit of my work, is grounded in my memories and formative time with Pug in his shop in Rocky Mount, NC.
Now my heart is turning to passing it on. With almost thirty years and hundreds of custom furniture pieces behind me, I want to carry on the legacy of Pug’s influence by opening my shop doors and sharing my experience with others.
I have offered classes here at my shop from time to time over the last ten years, but I am most excited by the recent launch my new brand platform called Epic Woodworking.
At our website epicwoodworking.com, anyone interested can find opportunities to take their love for woodworking to the next level. We will have an ever growing resource for free video content, as well as more detailed step by step project video series. As a kind of virtual apprenticeship, it will be the next best thing to actually being here in the shop.
And if you want to spend some time in the shop with me, we will be offering hands-on classes as well. These guided workshops will most often be project based so in addition to learning some great skills, each student will take home with them the piece they make in the class.
I built my shop in 2002 with this dream of one day passing-it-on. It was designed to be a warm, comfortable place, great natural light, and lots of patterns on the walls, just like Pug’s shop. I know he would have been so happy to see this place, and would have loved to meet others interested in sharing the art of furniture making. My highest hope is that each student, online or in person, will experience through me, some of the feeling and love of my experience with Mr. Moore.
How can our readers learn more about Mr. Moore?
Unfortunately, P. A. Pug Moore (December 19, 1916 – October 4, 2003), lived at a time when information was limited to very few outlets. He was all about producing great work, and the only teaching he did was with those fortunate to work with him in his shop, I being the last so blessed.
He enjoyed looking through Fine Woodworking magazine, and I am grateful to have inherited his set of issues which began with the first in Spring 1976. But he was not interested in writing articles as he had more than enough to do keeping things up in the shop.
Mr. Moore was inducted into the Twin County Hall of Fame (of North Carolina) in 2011, but there is not very much written about him there.
And he was honored on several occasions for making pieces for the collections of several notable North Carolina landmarks, The Governors mansion in Raleigh, NC, Tryon Palace in New Bern, NC, and Historic Hope Plantation in Windsor, NC.
One of my plans for the coming year is to develop a presentation based on the “Pearls of working wisdom” I learned from my time with Pug…so much more than I was able to include here. I feel a certain responsibility and interest in seeing that there is more on the record about him than currently exists…outside of a few thousand beautiful furniture pieces sprinkled throughout the mid-Atlantic region.
Be sure to look for Tom McLaughlin on Episode 2 of this season’s Rough Cut.
Learn more about Tom McLaughlin and his work at Epic Woodworking.