Tom Stockton: Squaring Up Wood in a Round Shop

“My first shop” Tom Stockton told me, “was a chicken coop.” I tried to assure him that lots of us feel that way about our shops, especially when things get cramped, but it turns out he meant it quite literally.

“Sonoma County [California] used to be the chicken raising capital of the country,” he explained, “and there are a lot of abandoned redwood chicken coops around. They are typically single wall construction with redwood siding on a frame and Douglas fir floors. Some have high ceilings, and a whole lot of them have been turned into shops.”

He’s no longer there, but these days he occupies an equally unusual building, at least as far as its origin is concerned. Sitting on 42 acres of land in the hinterlands of Shasta County, his current shop started out life as a surplus water tank. “I trucked it onto the property and used it as the outer walls of a shop. It’s a 42-foot round shop on the ground floor, and my home is above it. When I moved in, it was a shell with a doorway, a stairway and a second floor. My wife and I did all the wiring, framing, plumbing and cutting in windows. It’s now very comfortable and livable, but it will be a work in progress for the rest of my life. There’s always something more to do.”

Apparently, round shops come with their own psychological challenges. “I was always walking around the perimeter inside,” Tom confessed, “and it took me a few months before I realized I could walk straight through it. Because there are no corners for reference, looking out a window would sometimes disorient me. I’d forget I had changed direction, and look out on some scenery I didn’t expect to see.”

No matter what the shape, Stockton certainly uses it well, turning out elegantly beautiful furniture reflecting several styles. As a nod to his primary design influences, his web site portfolio is divided into Oriental, Arts and Crafts and Traditional Furniture segments. Almost all his pieces are custom designed commissions that come via word-of-mouth, either from a client or a gallery. “We talk about what they want, I do simple drawings, and then we settle on a design.”

Talking to him, it sounds as if he likes the process even more than the result. “The fun thing about clients,” Tom said, “is that they can drag you into some pretty interesting directions that you may not want to go, but end up being very rewarding. Through clients, I’ve done things I’d have never thought to do on my own. They challenge you, and it is a good way to be challenged.”

One of his most memorable challenges was a buffet that he recalls quite distinctly, and for good reason. “I remember that I got the deposit check for it on the day my son was born, and delivered it Thanksgiving morning. It was the first almost totally veneered piece I did, and its curved doors were another new hurdle.”

As it is with many woodworkers, discomfort with academics first introduced Tom to wood. His family moved frequently, including a two-year stay in Korea, and he ended up in high school in New Jersey. “Moving around may have contributed to the problem,” Tom admits, “but I was a horrible student. Academics didn’t do it for me. I was bored in school, but high school wood shop at the age of 16 was one of the few things I enjoyed and felt I was competent doing.

“We had one girl in our shop class,” he recalled, “and the teacher told her ‘I don’t like girls in class.’ For me, that was really awkward, but she stayed in the class and did better than most of the boys.” Ironically, he ended up marrying a woodworker that he met on the job.

“A year before I graduated, I came to visit friends of my parents who ran Reed Bros., a company making high-end redwood furniture. I worked for Reed Bros. over the summer, and when I graduated, I moved down to Sonoma County in California to work for them more or less full-time.” It was there that he met his wife, a woodcarver also working at Reed Bros. Unlike Tom, who stayed in the field, she went back to school and became a school teacher.

For years, Reed Bros. was his base of operations while he gradually branched out on his own. “I worked off and on for them for four years,” he recounted. “They were a great safety net, but I occasionally took off for other things. I went to Europe for six weeks, took a course at College of the Redwoods and started my own business subcontracting for them. It was that last experience that convinced me I needed to go back to school for woodworking.”

“I went to a now defunct school in Missoula, Montana, called the Primrose Center. It was great. The school had only about 18 students, about a dozen of whom were first-year students. We spent the first six weeks with just hand tools, a band saw and a drill press. The first project you had to make was a box with a drawer made only with hand tools. Then they let us loose on the power tools to make a carcass piece with doors and two drawers. Sadly, after one year, the school closed, I suspect because the owner simply was not making money at it. I, of course, went back to work for Reed Bros.”

The next hiatus was to do a three-month apprenticeship at Baulines Craft Guild with Stewart Welch. “Working under someone who was making a living building furniture was a very different experience than going to school, especially in the business aspects of the work.” There he learned how to run a business as well as how to build and design. “It helped me find out what I like, and what I want to do. After that, I opened my own shop, but a few years later, I took off a month and spent it apprenticing to David Marks.”

Apprenticeships and schooling aside, you could say that Tom was born to a woodworking heritage with a strong Arts and Crafts lineage. His great-grandmother was Honor Easton, the sister of Elbert Hubbard, the famous Roycrofter, so he comes by his affection for the style honestly.

With a middle name like Starbuck, I simply had to ask Tom about the middle name he shares with a coffee giant. Like most other locals here in the Seattle area, I know that the once-tiny tea and coffee seller christened itself Starbucks after the name of the first mate in Herman Melville’s novel Moby Dick. What I did not know was how much prominence that name has in the history of Northeast seafarers, or that it was Tom’s family name far earlier.

“My mother’s side of the family was a whaling family from Nantucket,” Tom explained. “At one time, Starbuck was a common surname among whalers in that area. Family lore has it that Melville, who researched the subject of whaling in this region, borrowed the name for his first mate.”

So it is that this talented woodworker shares his middle name with the country’s largest purveyor of upscale coffee. Judging from the quality of his work, Starbucks should be proud to share the moniker.

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