If a week’s vacation in coastal Maine sounds good, here’s one even better: Imagine spending it at the bench with one of Thomas Moser’s master cabinetmakers building a piece of heirloom furniture. Then, when the week ends, you take it home.
How’s that for a souvenir?
The Thomas Moser Company has been making this unique Customer in Residence Program available to its clients since September 2007. Around that time, one of Moser’s customers asked if he could spend his vacation “interning” in the company’s 90,000-square-ft. shop and learn how to make something himself. Moser was intrigued by the idea and set him up with a master cabinetmaker. The two spent a week building a desk, and the outcome proved satisfying all around. It seemed like a great opportunity to build new bonds between budding or seasoned woodworkers and professional builders — all in the context of creating something together. So Moser developed a program to do just that.
The first official Customer in Residence (CIR) session consisted of five clients, each partnered up with a cabinetmaker for individualized mentoring. The Program has retained the same format ever since. CIR sessions, which take place in the company’s Freeport, Maine, facility, are limited to five or six participants and last for six days. Sessions run from early April through November each year, with one scheduled per month. This allows the company to block out a week’s time with five of its cabinetmakers without hindering the normal workflow of ongoing furniture-building. So far, 45 of its 60 full-time cabinetmakers have rotated through the CIR program. Participation is voluntary.
Steve Wyman, who heads up the CIR, explained how the woodworking side of this “intensive internship” works. Essentially, each participant can choose to build anything from the Thomas Moser furniture collection, or they can take an existing Moser design and customize it to suit personal tastes. The mentor cabinetmaker contacts the participant ahead of the session date to settle on a final project design and identify what the client wishes to learn from the experience. Some customers want to fine-tune certain woodworking skills; others want to learn a few techniques they don’t know. Still others may not have a shop at home and simply want to be involved in the building process from beginning to end. Levels of experience and expectation are varied, and the program offers enough flexibility to suit individual needs.
While teaching woodworking skills is integral to the Program, Customer In Residence isn’t intended to be a woodworking school, per se.
“People who tend to do this lead very busy lives. Here’s a chance to build what is oftentimes a very complex piece of furniture in a week…We give our CIR clients the chance to make something they might otherwise never try, with the unique opportunity of building it right in our own shop where they can see how we do it,” Wyman says.
As much as possible, the goal for CIR participants is to be involved in every step of building their project. Usually, this starts with selecting lumber from the company’s on-site inventory. Then, cabinetmaker and client spend roughly 35 hours over the next five days building and finishing the piece. While the cabinetmaker is able to step in and assist—or even do—any machining technique the client isn’t comfortable with, the objective is the other way around.
“We want our cabinetmakers to observe and advise—not just jump in and do things.”
On the other hand, the mentor builder can also step in and be the assistant. “We are happy to let the client be in charge, when that makes sense…if you don’t like to sand, our cabinetmaker can do it for you,” Wyman admits.
Imagine how nice that would be, for a change!
Originally, Wyman thought the CIR “menu” would consist of five to 10 project options, but the company has learned that clients want to build what they need. So, projects have covered the gamut— from beds to dining tables, stools to continuous arm chairs, and from upholstered pieces to casework. Some of the more advanced furniture can take longer to build than a workweek’s time will allow. In these situations, the mentor may have to step in and complete some stages of the building process. Or, the experience is tailored to focus more heavily on some aspects of the project than others.
“If someone wants to build an eight-drawer side chest, for instance, we know how long it takes to complete it. The cabinetmaker will inquire about what his or her client wants to learn, and we’ll figure out how to adapt the project to fit those needs within the session’s timing. Sometimes we give them a head start. Maybe we build the case and have that ready when they arrive; they make the face frame and apply the moldings… Or, the client builds and fits one or two drawers, but not all eight of them. We and they determine together what they want to accomplish.”
While CIR sessions are, of course, focused on shop time, the experience also includes a number of other highlights. Participants stay at the Harraseeket Inn and dine at some of the area’s best restaurants. There are tours of Thomas Moser’s original studio in nearby New Gloucester and of his Auburn shop. Tool and equipment use and safety training is provided, as well as “lunch and learn” presentations each day. Evenings are open to sightseeing and visiting Portland and the surrounding area. The session ends with a special signing ceremony during which participants and their mentor partners each autograph the project. And, Thomas Moser will visit the group at some point.
The cost to participate ranges from about $5,000 to $10,000, depending on the furniture piece chosen. This fee includes all of the materials needed to build the project, on-site mentoring, local transportation to and from the shop or excursions, meals and lodging. Not included in the fee is airfare or any additional shipping charges that may apply to send a piece home. A $3,500 deposit is required to hold a spot in a session, but it’s refundable if a client can’t make the date, or it can be applied to a different session when rescheduling is necessary. Eight sessions are planned for 2011, with some openings still available.
Wyman says the most recent session, which ended on August 13, marks 100 CIR clients to date. “Graduates” have included individuals, siblings, married couples and parent/child teams. Priority is given to previous Thomas Moser customers, but that isn’t a requirement for eligibility.
If shop time is your idea of a great getaway, here’s a “working” vacation that’s bound to create once-in-a-lifetime memories along with a cherished keepsake.