by Michael Dresdner
In the world of high-end woodworking, choosing a specialty niche is always a bit of a gamble, but the one Mark Lackley and his wife Kim have staked out is definitely a winner. They make very posh and admittedly pricey game tables for those who take their cards and poker chips seriously. Hardly a one-trick pony, Mark is well versed in making other fine furniture also, but these days the gaming tables have taken over to become their best bet.
If that seems like an odd choice, the path there was equally odd, especially considering their educational backgrounds. Mark graduated from Yale in 1987 with a degree in political science, then cast about to see what struck his interest. "I had played football in college," Mark explained, "and then spent eight months playing football in Brighton, England for a team sponsored by a beer company. I came back home to Atlanta, tried being a paralegal for a while, then took a job as a reporter in Savannah, Georgia. However, I really wanted to be woodworker."
Although his grandfather was a woodworker, he did not try his hand at it until he was in his late 20s. "I went to work for a fourth-generation Greek furniture maker," he recounted, "after answering an ad that said 'furniture maker; will train.' Getting the job was not easy. I had to go back three times to convince him I was serious, in part because he thought I was over educated for a six dollar an hour job.
"I went to work for him after telling him upfront that I knew less than nothing. I had never taken shop class or touched power tools. He was looking for someone green so he could pay them near minimum wage. I was with him about a year and a half before going to work at a large production cabinet shop north of Atlanta. They did high-end houses from top to bottom, and had about 60 employees. I stayed there around a year.
"About that time, I started to rekindle an old college relationship with Kim, another Yale grad. We decided to get together full-time and soon got married. It was easier for me to move than for her, so I went to Boston where she was doing startups for the high-tech industry after graduating with an MBA from Harvard. I took yet another woodworking job, this time doing high-end 18th century reproductions. All these jobs helped me learn enough to eventually go out on my own, and in 1995, I did just that.
"I joined a co-op shop in Boston and set out to do high-end custom furniture. At the time, I thought I knew everything, but soon learned I knew nothing. The other three furniture makers in the co-op were graduates of the prestigious North Bennett Street School. Being with them gave me a real education during my three years in that shop. I repeatedly got to see three different approaches on how to tackle every aspect of custom building, from drafting to hardware to veneering. I'm a firm believer that to excel, you must be humbled by being exposed to really good woodworking. That helps you understand what you don't know, which in turn makes you more receptive to learning.
"That co-op shop was a wonderful experience. None of us were making money, but we convinced ourselves that we were all just one great job away from our big break. We were each certain that all we needed was that one perfect commission that would launch us on the road to woodworking stardom. Of course, it doesn't happen that way, but that experience opened my eyes to quite a bit. We probably would have kept the co-op shop going, but when the dot com boom hit, the landlord decided to make the building white collar and boosted the rent out of our price range.
"I then opened a shop in Wooster and spent two years there. Soon after, when the dot com industry started failing, Kim decided to make a career change. We moved to Vermont in an attempt to find the 'Mayberry RFD' of the Northeast, a bucolic town that would be the ideal place to raise a family. We settled in Woodstock, Vermont, opened a shop in nearby Quechee, and Kim started taking over the marketing end of what by then was our business. The best way to describe it is that she does everything except make sawdust. I think Sam Maloof was right when he said you can't be a successful woodworker without a willing partner. Of course, having one with a Harvard MBA is an even greater asset.
"After a couple years of being trapped in a break-even business, we decided that we needed to specialize. We did some research online and found no one doing really nice gaming tables. About that time a college friend asked us to build him a poker table. The table we built for him won a design award, which got us some attention and became the inspiration for a model we still make. After putting it on the web site, we started to get both orders and press coverage in the form of newspaper and magazine articles. From there, things took off. We designed other pieces, like our posh Texas Hold'em Table outfitted with fine inlays, pull-out drink holders and all the trimmings.
"Currently, we have expanded to the point where we have two full-time employees. The approach we take is that with so much foreign competition, especially on the lower end, we have to do the best quality table out there. We simply want to be the best source for high-end game tables. Our card tables start at three or four thousand, and poker tables start at eight thousand.
We still take some commissions both for fine furniture and custom game tables, but not surprisingly, our regular line is more profitable."
When it comes to design, Mark will often reach back into traditional forms, using the past to create something new. "I love to take the design basis from a particular furniture period," Mark told me, "and design a new piece in that style. I'm currently doing a drawing for a customer who wants a Gothic style poker table, and am also excited about a smaller reversible Hepplewhite style table we are making.
"You need a sense of the history of design, proportion and woodworking chops that take a lot of time to acquire," Mark insists, "but once you are there, you can let your skills take you where you want to go. Some painter once said 'I've spent my whole life learning to paint like a child,' the idea being that you must reach a certain sill level before you can be free to create. Similarly, I think the key to woodworking is gaining enough skill to be able to work from the heart. When that happens, you can execute whatever you envision without being constrained by the nuts and bolts of building."
"When you reach a harmony between originality of design and your ability to build, then you have done something."