Who’s Gonna Fill Norm’s Shoes?

As Norm Abram’s reign as the embodiment of hobbyist woodworking comes to an end, many woodworkers have huddled around the router table to speculate who might step in to become the next icon of our craft. Well, WGBH has unveiled a rising star in one Tommy MacDonald. The widely acclaimed, award-winning furniture designer from Boston will debut his new woodworking show:Rough Cut: Woodworking with Tommy Mac. The show is scheduled to air on public television stations around the country (check with your local station to see if it plans to pick up the show) beginning in October of this year. I recently had an opportunity to visit with Tommy, along with Emmy Winning WGBH Executive Producer Laurie Donnelly, to get some perspective about Tommy and the new show.

Tommy with his Shaker-inspired stepstool. John Gillooly©

Meet Tommy Macdonald. Boston native Tommy MacDonald is a professional woodworker and a product of the famous North Bennet Street School. The first thing that struck me about Tommy is that when the conversation turns to woodworking, this guy has a gigantic ball of fire burning inside of him. His passion for the craft pours from him like sawdust off a spinning dado blade. Given this, I was quite surprised to learn that he actually transitioned into woodworking only after experiencing an injury that ended his career as a union carpenter in his early thirties. Tommy said, “I just kind of fell into woodworking. I was recovering from a shoulder injury, and a friend encouraged me to look into North Bennet Street School. When I checked it out, I was immediately inspired by all the incredible work there. The passion and precision just spoke to me right away. That was a decade ago, and I have remained passionate about woodworking ever since.”

 

Tommy with his Bombe secretary. John Gillooly©

Tommy is well versed in historical furniture from a variety of regions and periods, and has built pieces of many traditional styles including Chippendale, Queen Anne, and Federal. He also enjoys developing his own style, using designs from masters of yesteryear as a starting point, and adding his own contemporary accents. Tommy indicated that his favorite project is “my next project!”, but also has some pieces that stand out for him within his current portfolio, including a Federal side board, and a Bombe secretary (pictured). When I asked him if he was comfortable with people comparing him to Norm Abram, or measuring him by Norm’s success, Tommy was endearing in his response: “Look, Norm is an icon. I have always looked up to Norm, and will continue to look up to him. I am not trying to be Norm, or even the ‘next Norm.’ I have my own style, and I want to help people develop their own style while we explore this amazing world of woodworking together.”

Tommy with his Bombe secretary. John Gillooly©

If you are like me and wondering whether Tommy favors hand tools or power tools, the answer is a little of each. “I believe in using the right tool for each job. I enjoy working with hand tools where precision is required, and I favor power tools for tasks that require more efficiency. If I worked with only hand tools, as a professional woodworker I would starve. If I worked with only power tools, the quality of my work and ability to deliver detail would suffer.” If he had to choose a single favorite tool across his entire collection of hand tools and power tools, it is, “without any hesitation my No. 4 ½ high angle plane. That”s my plane.”

A look behind the scenes on the set of Rough Cut, as the crew films a segment at Artisan Lumber in Lunenberg, Mass. Shown: Host Tommy MacDonald, Special Guest Brian Brown, Director of Photography Steve D

As a woodworker, Tommy feels that one of his strengths is his ability to read his material, and incorporate the characteristics of a piece of wood into the final design of a project. He said, “I spend hours working with the stock, optimizing design details to take advantage of everything that the wood offers before I touch it with a single cutting tool. On a recent project, I spent four days working with this incredible figured cherry stock before I made the first rough cut. I believe that you need to build a project in your mind before you start building at the bench.”

Tommy and the crew filming inside the historic John Adams House in Quincy, Mass. Shown: Host Tommy MacDonald, Director of Photography Steve D

About the show. Rough Cut is an educational show targeting a broad range of woodworkers with a diverse skill set. In each show, Tommy will start by taking us on a field trip where he will pick up a bit of design inspiration from a historical venue, and then return to his shop (it really is his own personal woodworking shop, not a television studio, or other manufactured setting) where he will teach us how to build the project.Executive Producer Laurie Donnelly chose Tommy as the next WGBH woodworking talent for many reasons, including his woodworking skill, engaging personality, and “an ability to attract a broad demographic, as he has proven in his on-line woodworking activities.”

Tommy describes the show as a “real world look at woodworking. We are going to build projects that people will want to actually build, and when I make a mistake, you will see it; and then we will show you how to fix it.”

Tommy and crew filming on site at historic John Adams House in Quincy, Mass. Shown: Host Tommy MacDonald speaking with Deputy Superintendent Caroline Keinath as Director of Photography Steve D

We can expect to see a good mix of hand tools and power tools as Tommy walks us through the process of building each project. Tommy is also planning a Q & A section at the end of each show, where he will review the project, address any challenges that came up during the building process, and be sure the viewers have all the information necessary to build the project. “Ultimately, I want everyone who watches the show to believe that they can actually build each project. Woodworking is for anyone who wants to do it, on whatever budget they can afford. If people get that from watching this show, I believe we’ll have succeeded.”A couple of the projects to watch for in the first season include a Shaker-inspired nightstand, which Tommy describes as a “simple mortise and tenon exercise, with traditional Shaker style tapered legs, and a bit of my own flavor added. In this project I hope to show people the possibilities around using a traditional design as a starting point, but then applying their own design elements to make it more personal.” Also, Tommy will teach us how to build a simple flag display box, featuring spline miters, with a bit of character added as he utilizes reclaimed live oak from the USS Constitution as his primary building material. In addition to those, eleven additional projects are planned for the first season. A full set of plans and a DVD will be available for purchase as a complement to each episode if anyone desires additional information on a given project.

Conclusions. Based on the time I was able to spend with Tommy, I have the following predictions. First, if you are sitting on the sidelines thinking about woodworking, Tommy’s passion and engaging style just might be the force that finally pulls you in. Second,we are all going to learn a lot by watching this show. Tommy’s unguarded character, willingness to expose his mistakes, and his expansive woodworking repertoire will offer something to us all. With the vision and energy behind this show, it should prove to be innovative, candid, diverse, educational and entertaining. I am never one to wish away summer, but October could be mighty fun!

To learn more about Tommy and Rough Cut, check out the show’s Facebook page at http://www.facebook.com/RoughCutTv.

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  • Doug Chachere, Sr.

    ok

  • Doug Chachere, Sr.

    ok

  • donytop5

    I think Tom and WGBH have a real good thing going on here. Looking forward to the premiere!

  • donytop5

    I think Tom and WGBH have a real good thing going on here. Looking forward to the premiere!

  • Steve

    Hate to see Norm go but the new guy looks good too.

  • Steve

    Hate to see Norm go but the new guy looks good too.

  • paulcomi

    Thanks for providing a very honest assessment of the show and Tommy himself. From what I know having spoken to Tommy many times over the past couple years you got it right.

  • paulcomi

    Thanks for providing a very honest assessment of the show and Tommy himself. From what I know having spoken to Tommy many times over the past couple years you got it right.

  • Mike L

    watched the show several times, found him ok but will never be a replacement for Norm. Does’t really give detailed information, isn’t someone I would like to meet. I think Mark (the woodwhisperer) would be a much better choice. He explains the reasons for doing each and every step of the project, gives more informative shows.

  • Mike L

    watched the show several times, found him ok but will never be a replacement for Norm. Does’t really give detailed information, isn’t someone I would like to meet. I think Mark (the woodwhisperer) would be a much better choice. He explains the reasons for doing each and every step of the project, gives more informative shows.