Endless Journey

Tom Skaggs of Champaign, Ill., considers woodworking a journey whose ultimate destination is mastering the craft. He’s looking forward to a long, enjoyable trip.

Implanted somewhere between the right and left sides of Thomas Skaggs’ brain is a tiny woodshop that is always in full production. Even at his day job as an architect and planner with the University of Illinois at Champaign, his head spins with images of choice pieces of curly cherry, new inlay patterns and joinery challenges. Skaggs loves conjuring up thoughts about complex furniture creations. 

But his wildly creative right brain is well-tempered by a practical and methodical left. Evenings and weekends you’ll find him turning those mental snapshots into attractive wood pieces in a custom-built home shop that would have most hobbyists frothing at the mouth.

An admitted perfectionist, Skaggs’ original furniture designs and attention to detail have led him to construct a multitude of stunning, yet functional pieces. 

“I’m just passionate about woodworking,” he says. “I just enjoy it so much.”

The end product of that passion is furniture like his modestly dubbed “tall chest of drawers,” a large unit made of curly cherry and maple, built to rotate on a swivel (more about this piece later). The work shines as an example of  Skaggs’ original design talents and attention to detail, and he hopes many challenging projects like it await him on the horizon. 

“Woodworking for me is a journey,” he says. “I guess the destination is knowing that you really have mastered the craft, and I don’t know whether I’ll ever feel that way.”

Moving toward that destination, Skaggs makes a conscious effort to stay outside his “woodworking comfort zone” – the mindset wherein a woodworker learns a particular piece, then repeatedly builds versions of it. What Skaggs does to push his own envelope is nothing dramatic, but it takes some discipline.

“On every single new project, in order for me to keep learning, I incorporate one new technique, or more,” he says. “If you learn a few techniques and feel comfortable with those, it’s too easy falling back on that. You’ll never grow as a woodworker. You’ll just keep making the same things over and over again, because you’re afraid to venture into uncharted waters, try new techniques. You’ll be afraid of failure. There hasn’t been a piece yet that I didn’t try something new on.”

The journey begins

Originally from St. Louis, Skaggs met his wife Donna while working his way through school pulling nights in a hospital emergency room. He earned a degree in fine arts (he still finds a little time to paint) and went on to become an architect, majoring in landscape architecture and minoring in historic architecture. The University of Illinois is currently undergoing a major transformation, building enormous parking decks. Skaggs calls it a new phenomenon on campus, and is in charge of the effort.

Skaggs blames “this old house” – his own, not the television show – for sparking his woodworking hobby. In 1991, he and Donna bought a 75-year-old house, but until then he’d not worked much with wood. He had painted in oil, and had done some metalworking, but the house forced him to learn new skills. 

“It is not ancient by any means, but it did require a lot of renovation,” he says. “I needed to buy a lot of tools to deal with the carpentry issues. As we made progress in the house, there was a natural progression from carpentry to woodworking.” 

That shift happened about four years later. As the couple finished rooms, Skaggs began to think about filling them with antiques, just as his mother had done. 

“I grew up in a house full of antiques; my mom was an interior designer. As much as I love antique furniture, I can’t afford the things I really like.” 

That’s probably why, when he began experimenting with furniture-making in 1995, he tended to focus on very traditional designs, mostly resembling Federal-period furniture.

Setting up shop

Like a lot of woodworkers, Skaggs began work in his garage. But the sometimes-brutal Illinois winters curtailed his growing passion for woodworking. 

A suggestion and some encouragement from Donna helped with that. In 1999, mortgage rates looked attractive, so the couple decided to refinance their house. The loan officer asked him if he wanted to take more money out of the loan for anything. 

“I started to say no, and my wife who was sitting next to me did the most unbelievable thing I’ve ever experienced,” he recalls. “She turned to me and said, ‘Wouldn’t this be a good time for you to take some money out to build a workshop?’ I just about fell out of my chair!”

Doing a majority of the work himself, Skaggs built a 20' x 21' addition to the back of his garage for approximately $12,000, not including equipment. The shop has natural gas heating, which means he can work through the winter, and includes a window air conditioner for summer comfort. A programmable thermostat allows the shop temperature to drop to the upper 40s when he’s not around. 

“Typically, my routine is to go out there and work every night,” he says. “I can bring that thing from the upper 40s to 60 or 70 degrees in five minutes.”

He placed his dust collection system and air compressor inside the garage, saving shop space and cutting down noise. He fed a 100-amp panel to the garage with every area of the shop served by independent circuits. “You can never have too many outlets in a shop,” he says. “Some of them are above bench height. I always recommend that to others.”

Skaggs paneled the inside walls with inexpensive wooden beadboard instead of drywall. 

“It looks cooler,” he says, “but also you can nail things into it and not worry about it like you would drywall.”

He still considers his shop a small one, so if he needs to spread out pieces of a project and gain more space to work, he moves equipment around. “My table saw, jointer, planer and belt sander are on mobile bases,” he says. “I can move everything off to the perimeter.”

Natural lighting comes from one double-hung window, a pair of awning windows and two artificial lighting systems. A series of eight florescent light fixtures hangs across a 13' gabled ceiling. The ceiling is painted white to aid illumination, and the lights point inward to the work area.

Another unusual feature is track lighting that Skaggs installed through the perimeter of his shop, where his workbenches are located. “I think it is very interesting that I don’t see track lighting in most shops,” he notes. “I think track lighting is a great solution – you can add or subtract as many lights as you want; you can point them around; you can redirect them.”

The shop roof connects perpendicularly to the garage, creating a small loft where Skaggs stores lumber. He has at least 300 board feet of wood under there, but says he’s on “lumber bargain alert” 24/7.

“It’s kind of a point of humor with my wife,” he says, recounting a visit to see his sister in New Hampshire. Along the way, he ran across a place that had what he referred to as some “killer curly maple.” He bought $200 worth. Driving back home through Pennsylvania turned up a similar find. 

“I found out about a place that sold curly cherry,” he says, adding that he bought $400 worth of that and stuffed the lumber into the minivan they were driving. “Often my vacation souvenirs are lumber.”

Safety first

Skaggs’ learning curve over the years hasn’t been limited to just honing his craft. About three years ago he got a serious lesson in shop safety when an accident came close to being fatal. A table saw kickback drove a piece of cherry 5" into his stomach, just grazing his liver. Donna, a registered nurse, rushed him to the hospital where he underwent surgery. According to the attending physician, had it struck that vital organ, Skaggs might not be around today. He has since recovered without complication, but the incident makes him a preacher for shop safety. 

“You hear about kickbacks happening so fast, and you better believe it,” he says. “It did give me that major lesson about shop safety. Nobody should have to learn it the hard way. 

“Simple things like locking down a fence are crucial. Simple things like going through a checklist before you turn on a power tool: fence locked down, safety things on, proper stance, even rehearsing the cut, thinking it through. Look, think and mentally prepare.”

So did Skaggs have any anxieties about climbing back on the horse?

“It was tough,” he admits. “I have to say that going back into the shop and turning on that table saw for the first time was a bit of a nerve-grabber. But I have a passion for woodworking and I wasn’t going to let the accident kill my joy of woodworking.”

Woodworking by design

Skaggs loves all aspects of woodworking, but enjoys designing the most. In fact, he only builds projects of his own conception. His penchant for self-designed projects is a running joke among woodworking friends who know the inside secret. 

“A lot of my most complicated and interesting pieces have been designed while sitting in meetings at work.” Instead of taking legal pads into boardroom meetings like others at the university do, Skaggs substitutes graph paper inside his meeting notebook. “I can be in a meeting sometimes for two or three hours and maybe my participation in the meetings is 10 or 15 minutes. I now understand why they call them ‘board’ rooms,” Skaggs says, referring to another spelling of the word.

“The only way I can deal with my boredom is to have an out-of-body experience and go right into my workshop and start thinking about a project.” 

 If a partial idea for a project pops into this head, he immediately jots it down or draws little diagrams. He collects them under a magnet on the door of his shop. “I might not get back to it for a year or two, but eventually I go back to my notes. I also tend to use brown craft paper and build mock-ups of things for a sort of prototype of an imagined piece.”

Skaggs loves traditional styles, but tries to incorporate some artistic flair for a more unique statement. For example, he likes to incorporate beautifully figured woods such as a fancy figured maple or curly cherry, and often inlays panels with interesting grains. The piece of furniture he considers his best work is a good example.

“I made a tall dressing chest for my wife and it’s really a complicated piece of furniture; it was, by far, the most ambitious thing I ever built,” he says. “Basically, it’s a tall, narrow case piece. The carcase is cherry and curly cherry; the sides are raised panels. It has a series of curly maple-front drawers. It has what I will call a pediment in a roof on the top of it. It has a gallery – two doors that open up into a jewelry gallery that is a series of small curly maple-front drawers. On either side there are void spaces where there are slide-out necklace racks.”

As if he hadn’t included enough bells and whistles, Skaggs added one more practical touch. 

“The whole carcase sits on top of a base that is independent,” he says. “There is a hidden bearing ring between the two, and the entire carcase turns effortlessly on this bearing ring. The back of the piece is also finished with an inlaid pediment. The entire back is a full-length mirror.”

The creation occupies a corner of the couple’s bedroom. Donna needs only to rotate the piece to use the full-length mirror. Where did the idea come from? Skaggs begins laughing before answering the question.

“It evolved during a two-day training session [at work], which was fortuitous, considering the complexity of the piece,” he says, noting that it offered him some construction challenges.

 “There are so many drawers that the drawer supports are all put together with floating drawer sides. The reason they’re floating is because it allowed for expansion and contraction of the piece. The other thing is that I wanted raised panels on the sides, but you could not join the drawer support into raised panels. I had to find a way to construct the internal drawer supports as floating, so they would be independent of the sides.” 

Skaggs racked his brain (both left and right sides) for about a week until a friend suggested the floating idea. “It was sort of a miracle revelation; it worked beautifully,” he says, adding that the piece took eight months to complete, and had more components than one might think. “I’d not be surprised if I used $300 of materials; that would include the brasses,” he says. 

Design time at board meetings aside, Skaggs tries to find time for the hands-on shop work whenever he can.

“Not having children helps,” he says, adding that his wife’s encouragement is a giant psychological booster. “Talk about total support. Of course, a lot of what I make is for our own home, but she understands that it’s a passion for me.”

Go pro?

So far, Skaggs has made most of his wood creations for family or friends, but the possibility of going professional has crossed his mind.

“It is an ambition of mine,” he says. “I’m getting to the point where I think I’m getting enough skill, and getting enough recognition of my work that it would be feasible for me to consider starting to sell things.” 

When it comes to his work, Skaggs is his own harshest critic. “I still look at my work and deep down mentally focus on where a joint did not fit together exactly perfectly,” he says. “If you look at my early work compared to my later work, where I have improved the most is in scale. I think most woodworkers start out building things clunky, and I was no different. My tabletops were too thick, or legs were too thick, or whatever.

“You learn over time that one of the really important elements of good design is proportion – fluid lines and symmetry. So I’m hard on myself about whether my work is worthy of being put in a gallery,” he says. “I still have a little ways to go before I have that ultimate confidence. At some point, I may try to sell some of my work.”

He’s been in touch with a couple of galleries, but admits he’s a slow worker. His shop isn’t production-oriented, so any successful relationship with a gallery would have to allow him to provide pieces as they became available. But that is a marketing challenge for the future. On the design side, his next immediate challenge is to create something that would fit in both traditional and contemporary settings.

“I really want to build a fancy corner cupboard, something that’s really a visual feast for the eyes,” he says. “I want to build something using this traditional sense of woodworking design and also this new wave, where I am incorporating this commemoratory artistic flair. I really want to explore this new avenue, and I’d like to make a big statement piece. Maybe this will be my next ‘Mount Everest.’”

Skaggs said he would like to get started on the cupboard in the next year, but for now another project is the center of his attention.

“Well, it’s just a small box,” he says, pausing a moment to think about it. “Well, I call it a box on a frame. Well … it’s a fancy box that sets on a frame with legs ... Well, it also has a dual purpose – it can hold coasters and things like that ... But the top ...”

And so it goes. His mind runs like a supercharged lathe, spinning together the components that will become the next Tom Skaggs wood creation.

Earl Stresak

Stresak, a former newspaper and television reporter, is a freelance journalist living in Branson, Mo. In l990, he wrote a story about a classically trained British master woodcarver residing in Denver. As the number of stories he wrote about woodworkers from around the country grew, so did Stresak’s interest in woodworking. 

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