Profiles: John Malecki - Full Interview


WM: How’s your morning going?

JM: Good. I’m dominating my morning. I had a good run and work out. I did some reading, cleaned my shop, and now I’m editing a video. I’m getting after it.

WM: It sounds like you've been pretty busy so far.

JM: You gotta go full steam ahead on Mondays. They catch up to ya.

WM: That's true. Well, is now a good time to chat?

JM: I'm looking forward to it.

WM: Let's start with the how you got to where you are. How did you go from a football career to running your own woodshop?

JM: In the NFL, you have a lot of time in the offseason to do whatever you want. And you pick up hobbies. You try to spend that time doing something constructive. I picked up woodworking. That started from seeing a coffee table at a friend’s house that I wanted to make. So I buzzed around the internet, looking for plans that were similar. Eventually, I found what I was looking for and built the table. And it wasn’t long before friends started asking me to do little things here and there. I pushed my skills and learned more about making. Before I knew it, I was getting paid to make things for people. I put that money into better tools and a full workshop. That’s when I realized how fulfilling woodworking is.

Once football fizzled out for me, I was able to put all my time into furniture making. I was busy building projects for myself and my family and a few small clients but wanted to learn more. I began to soak up as much info as I could. From magazine articles to YouTube, I studied and learned a lot. I picked up what tools I could afford and promoted myself on social media. Then I jumped on Instagram and things really took off. People started buying my plans and I was getting a lot of commissions. It's been a blast. But I've been fortunate in connecting with people who appreciate custom furniture. And I've been able to grow a decent business out of it.

WM: Who were your influences during that time?

JM: I learned a lot on YouTube from Marc Spagnuolo, The Wood Whisperer. I was also very into Jimmy Diresta. He's a builder that’s a little more of a hybrid - he works in a lot of mediums.

WM: Where do you go for techniques now?

JM: YouTube is great, but sometimes a book or magazine article is what you need to really dig into a topic. And I learn by doing. So there are a lot of magazines on my bench.

WM: Are your videos more for entertainment or education?

JM: At first it was more for entertainment, but I started getting a lot of feedback and questions. It’s my obligation now to pass on what I’ve learned. I'm editing a video right now, in fact, that's more tutorial- and education-based. I work with a lot of reclaimed wood and metal. And while there is a lot of information out there, there is always room for more. I'm starting to supplement my videos with plans and instructive text. It seems a little strange sometimes that I should be giving advice. But I’ve learned a lot and my audience is asking good questions. I can’t leave them hanging. I may never be one of the big-time masters, but at least I can pass on what I know and get someone excited about building.

WM: Do you consider yourself more of a maker or a woodworker?

JM: I identify as a woodworker because it's more a comfortable medium for me. “Maker” is broad and involves electronics, and crafting, and just about everything else. I like to call myself a furniture maker or a builder. I brand myself online as a builder. I  like to make stuff. I build furniture, and I have a blast doing it. I also do some home remodeling.

WM: What is it you love about woodworking?

JM: Woodworking, to me, is the ability to take an idea or concept and create it with your hands. It’s fulfilling to be able to create. I enjoyed doodling when I was growing up. And I was always helping my family with remodeling and work around the house. And getting things done with my hands. It's satisfying to take something from pen and pad and make it a reality.  I don't care how much time you put into it, there is always something you can learn. I look at things I’ve built a year or two ago and see that I was not even close to as good as I am now. I can't wait to see how good I'll be in two more years - or five years or ten years. And that's a beautiful thing about woodworking, it can never be mastered. Even when you're like Sam Maloof. He was always pushing himself to do better.

WM: What’s your go-to tool when you’re in the shop.

JM: I don’t have a favorite anything. But I've recently upgraded my main tools in the last few months. My table saw, my jointer, my planer. When you're working with smaller, less powerful, tools like what I had before, it becomes a burden. It sucks to break down rough sawn lumber on the tiny planer that blows a fuse and the blades get dull too fast. Now that I have the right tools for the job, I actually look forward to milling lumber. I worked for too long on a little Craigslist jointer and a 12-inch tabletop planer. I was trying to move 12 foot long, five quarter boards through it and it's taking forever. It now gets done much quicker. And I’ve recently piped my shop for dust collection which makes things super efficient. I work with reclaimed wood, and it's actually enjoyable. And my current shop is great. It was tough work in my basement with smaller tools. I actually look forward to milling stock now because it's so efficient.

WM: So it’s more about having the right tools for the job.

JM: Exactly. Woodworkers are always looking for upgrades but in the meantime, we make do with what we got. Upgrading my jointer and planer improved my work and the speed at which I was able to do it. It was discouraging to buy rough stock because I knew the hassle it would be to dimension it on my old tools. You get a much more finished product and your stock is actually square. I'm a millennial and we’re not that patient.

I also like to weld. There's an instant gratification to it. There is no waiting overnight for the glue to dry. It a fun skill to add to your furniture-making repertoire.

WM: It opens possibilities.

JM: There are some guys that are doing beautiful, inspirational work. Jory Brigham incorporates metal work with his woodworking. It can add another layer of elegance to your work, and you don’t need your own metal shop. You can add table legs or accents. And it’s not too far from woodworking.

WM: You seem to be a tried and true Pittsburgher. Do your roots show in your work?

JM: I definitely think so. I tailor a lot of my design aesthetics to be very Pittsburgh-y. Pittsburgh is an industrial steel town, old bones, and great old buildings. I use the story of the reclaimed materials that I like to use and implement the industrial vibe of the city. I try to play off that for my clients. My work embodies Pittsburgh. This place has been fantastic to me and hopefully, continues to be for a long time. So, you can see a lot of Pittsburgh in my work.

WM: Do you look at your hometown as inspiration for your work?

JM: I was helping a buddy move this weekend because I happen to have a truck. He’s renting a beautiful apartment in downtown Pittsburgh. The beams, ductwork, and conduit are all exposed. It has vaulted ceilings and concrete floors. You see that raw metal and wood and the construction of the building that's lasted a hundred years. Those features are part of the design. My furniture reflects the same idea. I let the materials and the quality of the construction speak for itself. I don't have to hand-cut mortise and tenon or go over-the-top with my designs.

WM: You mentioned handwork there. Do you have a favorite joinery technique or type?

JM: I'm spoiled by the Domino. I do a lot of floating tenon joinery because it's fast and efficient, and easy to do. And you can make very strong joints with it. Pocket-hole joinery is a great way to learn to woodwork. But you can become better faster if you do mortise-and-tenon joinery. That said, I’m always working on my hand tool skills. There are situations where you have to pull out your block plane or use your flush-cut or dovetail saw. And it'll make specific situations much easier. I like to grab a scrap board and practice my hand-cut dovetails while I wait for a glue-up or a finish to dry. Doing stuff like that will take your work to the next level. I'm not a great hand tool woodworker, but I try to get better. My hand tool collection continues to grow.

WM: What did you learn in the NFL that applies to woodworking?

JM: There are a lot of things I learned as an athlete that I apply to my furniture business. I apply a certain mindset and attention to detail. There's a lot that goes into sports that people underestimate when it comes to skill sets. Just because someone's on the field, doesn't mean that they’re actually great at everything. When I was playing, I was a smaller guy. I was not the biggest, fastest, or the strongest. So I worked on a different set of skills. I had to practice a little harder and a little longer to stay in the game. I take a similar approach to woodworking and furniture making. There is more than one way to put these pieces together. And if I want to get better as a woodworker and creates great projects, I need to push my skills. I can't be content with what goes quickly and efficiently. So I work on those things. I don’t want to be content with what I’ve learned. I want to keep learning and keep pushing myself to get better and create nice pieces. I keep the craft at the front of my mind, knowing that I can get better. I picked that up from sports. I’ve always tried to make sure that I knew what I was good at and then worked on the stuff I wasn’t.

WM: What else are you up to?

JM: I launched a podcast with a buddy of mine by the name of Brad Rodriguez. We talk about making money in the shop. We both create and sell products online. I’m also ramping up my video content. I try to give people an insight and a behind-scenes peak - a day-to-day look at what I’m doing.  I got a new vlog on my YouTube channel where I post a few times a week. I talk about what projects I'm working on and what tools I’m testing. That’s getting a great reaction from people. I’m working a developing a slab class with the local Woodcraft store. The slab stuff is popular right now.

WM: Is there anything else that you’d recommend?

JM: I listen to a lot of audiobooks. My suggestion is to pick up a podcast, or an audiobook from Audible. You can actually gain quite a bit of knowledge even if it’s outside of woodworking. But there are a lot of great woodworking and furniture making podcast. So listen to something while you work. That's a little different than the standard music option. And jump on YouTube and check out all the great makers. There is no shortage of insightful, knowledgeable builders who can help you improve. I do it every day and it helps me dramatically.

WM: Do you have any other hobbies?

JM: I seldom have spare time. I still love football, so I try to go to as many games as I can. I try to stay connected to the Steelers. I try to golf and fish and hunt when I can and carve out the time for it. I just bought a house, so that takes up a lot of free time. And I hang out with my friends when I can. Ya gotta stay social and not seclude yourself to work in the shop.

WM: Who should we interview next?

JM: My podcast partner Brad Rodriguez from Fix This, Build That. Check him out. He does a lot of DIY furniture making. But he's got a big audience and he's an insightful, cool dude. I’d love to see you guys interview Jimmy DiResta. He is a monster influence on the scene. And he creates great content and great inspiration for people in the maker community.

WM: Woodworker destination? 

JM: I love going to the Woodcraft here in Pittsburgh. I love checking out the new lumber selection. They have all the great tools that you can hold and test. A lot of people don’t always get to do that before they buy. I love that part of the experience. I also love the lumber yard. You can go in and see all the exotic woods and slabs lined up. And there are more and more woodworking events all across the states. You can meet a lot of great woodworkers and learn a lot. And make some good friends.

WM: What do you want to leave your fans with?

JM: I'm enjoying this Renaissance of woodworkers and makers. I’m part of the younger generation. I'm self-taught, and there are a lot of people like myself who appreciate quality work. I'm glad you guys are shining that light on great craftsmen that bring inspiration. Woodworking isn’t just a basement hobby for older men, it's cool and people dig it.

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