"I BET I could make one of those," said George Thompson of Amesbury, Massachusetts, when a friend showed him a small wooden utility tray he had bought at a craftsman's fair, He was on vacation in the White Mountain region of New Hampshire at the time, and had spent a year after retirement doing nothing. He wasn't the sort of man to sit around idle, and he'd found it boring, to say the least. That was twenty years ago, and since then he has built up a one-man business of making and selling miniature wood novelties. Little did he realize then that that little handcrafted article would be the start of a flourishing business and a more contented life.
When he returned home Thompson tried his hand at making a tray like the one he had seen. His first attempt was long and laborious. With only ordinary carpenter's tools, saw, hammer, chisel and some sandpaper, the result was a little on the crude side. The second try was a trifle better, until he finally turned out some good enough to give away as gifts at Christmas to relatives and friends. It wasn't long before calls began to come in. "Why don't you make this?" "Make me that." Thompson complied, and before he knew it he was in the wood novelty business.
Carpentry was not Thompson's line of work, though he was one of these handy men around the house, able to fix anything that needed fixing. The neighbors always knew whom to call on to set a sagging gate, right a crooked shutter or mend a broken step, and he was always glad to oblige.
He was a carriage trimmer by trade as a young man, later traveling down through Maine selling, carriages as far north as the Canadian border. With the advent of the automobile he became superintendent of an auto body company until its liquidation forced his retirement.
THE WOOD used in the making of these novelties is obtained from various sources. Some come from old pine boards that have been stored in old New Hampshire barns for years. Thompson likes old pine, he says, because it lends a mellow aspect to the finished piece, giving it a more authentic look. From South America and Panama come woods native to those places and bought at a local lumberyard. This is a close grained wood and is especially adapted to the making of certain pieces like cobbler's benches, clothes dryers and bread boards. Leaves from antique black walnut tables are fashioned into most attractive trays. Give Thompson any old piece of wood and he'll transform it into a work of art.
Though the first tools used were ordinary carpenter's tools, Thompson has gradually acquired through the years as he could afford them, all the power machines necessary to his trade. His shop, in the basement of his home, measures about twelve by twelve feet, not very large but big enough for his convenience. And what a shop! It would be the envy of any craftsman, fitted as it is with the necessary equipment for transforming the rough piece of wood to the shining finished product. From the thickness planer, to the circular saw, jig saw, lathe, drill press and sanding machine, all are run by pressing a button. Overhead are racks for drying the stained or painted pieces.
Thompson's glassed-in side porch serves as a show case. Here he displays his one-of-a-kind novelties (he has fifty different items), for the convenience of the retail customer. A room in the basement next to the shop is the storeroom where he places the finished pieces until ordered.
THOMPSON MAKES a wide variety of items. There is, for instance, a keyboard, shaped like a key, painted in some bright color, and equipped with hooks on which to hang house or car keys—certainly a convenience when hung inside the back door for easy access. A folding drying rack is an original creation, devised for a woman in a rest home, who asked him to "make me something to dry my clothes on." Some of his best sellers include miniature sea chests with copper hinges and rope handles (these are popular in seaside gift shops as souvenirs), cobbler's benches (to hold cigarettes and matches), wall spice cabinets, knickknack shelves, salt boxes (to be used as such or as wall planters), bread boards, cutlery boxes, hooded cradles (for cigarettes) and ladder-back chairs, to name a few.
His miniature cobbler's benches, one of Thompson's more popular items, are copied from an old original, and made to scale are 8½ inches long. They contain a copper receptacle for ashes, which he hammers into shape from a plain piece of copper, and a drawer for matches. An imitation drawer holds a pack of cigarettes. These benches sell for $1.50 wholesale. He gets $1.50 for the sea chests too, and $1 each for the bread boards and cutting boards.
Thompson makes miniature ox bows, which are a specialty with a certain restaurant of the same name. They buy them to sell as souvenirs of their establishment. Gift shops feature these bows too, to sell for curtain pulls. Forty cents is his price for these. On the whole, his prices are most reasonable, the highest being $5 for his eight-drawer spice cabinet, each piece being priced according to time and labor involved. An interesting feature of his miniature ladder-back chairs is the fact that the seats are woven from one continuous thong of leather.
THOMPSON'S MARKETS are gift shops and handcraft shops and extend over a wide area, taking in parts of three states, Massachusetts, New Hampshire and Maine. There are approximately fifty on his list, and he travels the territory with his car trunk full of samples to take orders or deliver. None are sold on a consignment basis, but definite orders taken for a dozen, half dozen, quarter dozen or single item. Between trips he busies himself in his shop, filling orders or designing some new item to add to his fast growing stock.
As in all businesses Thompson meets all kinds of people. He tells of an unusual request he received when selling black cat door stops. The proprietor of a gift shop asked, "Haven't you one with a different expression?"
Thompson sells some of his work unfinished to adult painting groups, who like to match the piece to the decor of the room in which it is to be used. He paints a few himself, such as woodpecker door knockers, children's pull toys, weather vanes, etc., but the bulk of them he prefers to finish in the natural wood, mahogany, walnut, maple or pine.
In conjunction with his wood novelties, Thompson works with butternuts, making of them fashion accessories. These he buys by the bushel from a New Hampshire source. He saws them into slices, and runs a strip of leather through them to make a belt; the result is an attractive addition to milady's wardrobe. Smaller slices become earrings or buttons, and larger ones, brooches, by affixing appropriate clasps or screws to the reverse side. These he attaches to squares of birch bark to make an unusual, attractive display. The meats extracted from the shells would bring in a good price, but Thompson says, "That is not in my line, so I feed them to the birds and squirrels."
ALTHOUGH THE wood novelty business does not support Thompson, it does supply the luxuries. "But it isn't the money that matters so much," he says, "as it is the fact that it gives me something to do. And I claim that's what a man needs when he comes to the retiring age, not a stopping of work altogether, but a continuing on, along a different and less strenuous line." His hobby keeps him young, healthy and happy.
At eighty-five, Thompson has very few lines in his face, except for the laugh lines at the corners of his frank, grey eyes, and he doesn't look his age by twenty years. It is remarkable too how his hand is as steady as a young person's, and it takes a steady hand when it comes to carving out some intricate design. "And patience, too," he will tell you.
But Thompson's business does not consume all of his time. He has other interests, of which stamp collecting is perhaps the foremost. He possesses a domestic collection surpassed by none in his vicinity. He's an ardent angler too, and takes a day off occasionally, and in old clothes and with rod in hand, he goes off for a day of fishing.
"Whether I catch anything or not, it's all the same," he says. Then back to his workshop to work on an order of a dozen salt boxes, or half a dozen sea chests with renewed vim and enthusiasm. And so he will continue to do for many years to come.
"Retired? Who says I'm retired?" says Thompson. "Maybe when I reach a hundred I'll be ready to. Just now I'm too busy to even think about it."
THIS Early American shelf is a reproduction in miniature and makes a very attractive item for your home. To make a larger shelf increase the dimensions given in the drawing to the desired size. Early American pieces are not very difficult to make; even the novice can construct them successfully. This shelf is of simple design and if your saw or chisel strays a bit from the marked line it doesn't matter—minor flaws, knots, and imperfections help create an appearance of antiquity. The most difficult part of this project is the drawer—if you do not wish to tackle it, leave the drawer out and make another shelf. Although Early American reproductions are usually made of knotty pine, other kinds of wood such as cherry, walnut, willow or wood salvaged from fruit and packing boxes may be used. To give your shelf the final touch we will tell you how to attain a professional mellow, satin finish easily.
The following power tools are very
useful for this project:
Note: To account for inflation, multiply prices by 8 to 10.