From the Big Dig in Boston to the Big Prize in Providence

At this year’s Providence Fine Furnishings Show, Thomas J. MacDonald captured the Best in Show ribbon for the traditional furniture body of work category. That’s quite an honor, even for a graduate of Boston’s highly regarded North Bennett Street School. What takes it from impressive to astonishing is the fact that Tommy Mac, as he is known to his friends, has only been doing fine woodworking for five years.

“I wasn’t academically inclined,” Tommy recounted when I asked him how he got into furniture making, “so I went to a regional vocational-technical trade school. I come from a big Irish Catholic family with six sisters and two brothers. From my parents, I learned my work ethic, to work hard and be tenacious. Life was hectic, and my father was more concerned with keeping us fed than with our career choices.

“My dad was the king of fixing things with bubble gum and Band-Aids®. I probably learned a lot of bad habits from him along the way, but I was always helping him do things around the house, and always did things with my hands. I split wood, did carpentry, auto body work, engine repair, and whatever else needed to be done. My father suggested I go to trade school. I dropped out before graduation, but went into the carpenter’s union with a GED, a high school equivalency certificate.

“For the next 17 years, I worked as a carpenter and was really good at it. I built homes, bridges and everything else. While swinging a sledgehammer on a gang wall crew working on the famous Big Dig, a project to reconstruct the roads, tunnels and rails through Boston, I hurt my shoulder. At the time, I did not think much of it. I was the sort who normally just worked through the pain, but a couple of weeks later it still hurt, so I went to the doctor and found it was separated.

“I ended up having three operations and lots of rehab. I kept trying to go back to work, but my doctor, Arnold Scheller, kept advising against it. Ultimately, he and my physical therapist did an intervention and insisted that I find something else to do. I was crushed, but he suggested I check out the North Bennett Street School. In desperation, I went to look at the school and was totally blown away. I saw a lot of furniture the likes of which I had never seen. I will be forever grateful to Dr. Scheller for what he did for me.

“It is a testament to the school that I can do what I do,” insists MacDonald. “The difference in the level of skill between someone starting and someone leaving is astonishing. At first, you do mechanical drawings and build a toolbox. After that, you come in with your first proposal. I did a small bombé dressing mirror which looked easy to me, but turned out to be a real bear. After that, I proposed doing a New York card table, but that proposal was rejected because the instructors did not feel I was ready for that. Instead, I did a Chippendale chair. At that point, one of the instructors, Steve Brown, suggested I do a Pembroke table, but I didn’t want to. I wanted to build the things I saw the upper classmen doing. Nevertheless, I built it, and learned a lot from it. I trusted my instructors.

“I have the ability to work hard and stay focused, and I brought a sense of urgency to the work because I had no other career choices and needed to make some money. I approached this not as a hobby or school but as my new job. I did the Pembroke table in five weeks, then did a blanket chest with flat relieved carved panels in five weeks, and then did a drum table with a turned column, tapered reeded legs, solid top and veneered apron. At the time I did not see it, but my instructors were making sure I learned all the skills I would need to make anything.

“The last thing I made during my second year at the school was the Salem secretary. At the school there is a jobs posting board. During the summer between my first and second year, I found a posting on the board from a woman who wanted some chairs to be refinished and a table repaired. She was so thrilled with the work that she wanted me to make a significant piece for her husband for their 25th anniversary.

“She took me to the Winterthur Museum, my first time there, and we made a handshake agreement that I’d build a secretary we saw there. Back at school, my friends and instructors were very supportive and congratulatory, but two weeks into the job, the customer backed out and bought a genuine antique instead. Actually, that turned out to be a good thing, because I had totally underbid the job.

“I was depressed, but my instructors convinced me to build a different secretary, the Salem secretary that I actually built, which was much more difficult and complex than the one the woman had ordered. I thought my instructors were nuts, but I trusted them. They believed in me, and convinced me to try it. I signed up for an extra semester to have enough time to do it while still at school and worked on it from December to July. Working from pictures only, I had to learn how to break it down, draw it, and build it.

“It was very difficult to make, and I hated it. My biggest challenge was just to complete it, but I decided that one way or another, I was going to get it done. If you have a bad day doing something else, like being a carpenter, you can hide it, but have a bad day making furniture [and] you can ruin a piece entirely. With furniture, it has to be 100  percent. Starting it was one thing, but finishing it was another, and getting this one done became personal. Some days I came in and kicked it, I hated it so much.

“Now that it is done, I appreciate it for how good it is, considering I did it as an inexperienced student. I look back and say ‘I can’t believe I built that at school,’ but I think it is more a testament to the school than to me. It was my biggest challenge and, at the time, was way beyond what I thought I could do. I hated that secretary, but I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

What happened next is the stuff of movies; Tommy and his work got featured on television not once, but twice in the same season. “While I was building the secretary, Bob Vila came through doing a story about the school and featured me doing a shell carving on his program Home Again with Bob Vila. At the end of the season they were going to do a walkthrough of a house they were working on, and he invited me to put my furniture in the house for that episode. On the show, he talked about several of my pieces, including the secretary.”

Why traditional pieces? “I like classic furniture styles and appreciate the lines and proportions,” Tommy explained. “How can you go to the Metropolitan Museum and not be influenced and inspired by what you see there? I like to go to museums to see the sort of things that I couldn’t possibly do, and then attempt to do them. As a woodworker, I want to stretch beyond what I think I can do, and to me, making a Chippendale or Sheraton piece is a lot more challenging than doing simple Shaker or modern furniture.”

Though he is now out on his own, Tommy maintains ties to the school. “I still have a close rapport with my instructors,” he explained. “I go there often and get a lot of help from them. Whenever I get stuck, I will go to the school and get more help. I’ve been doing this for five years and feel I am still learning. In another 10 years or so, I will start to get where I want to be, but to get up and do what I do every day is a blessing that has made my life way more complete.”

At the root of that blessing is the work itself, and that is what he clearly finds most rewarding. “Getting into the theory of how to do it does not make any difference to me. I don’t care about the arguments concerning what the end of a chisel should look like. I’m not trying to reinvent the wheel. I just want to make the wheel.”

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