SOUTH CHARLESTON, WV - After one wrong step on a rain-slicked metal roof in July 2011, construction contractor Matt Thomas realized his life had changed.
“I lay in that hospital bed, immobilized and worrying about how I’d support my wife and kids,” said Thomas. “It was during that first painful week that Sally Barton with Tamarack Foundation came to visit me.”
Tamarack Foundation is the nonprofiteconomic development arm of Tamarack, West Virginia’s showcase of fine arts and handcrafts. Tamarack Foundation was launching a project to mentor the artists for a year, sharpening their marketing and entrepreneurial skills. Barton invited Thomas to be one of the eight artists in the pilot program.
The son of a carpenter, Matt Thomas learned theimportance of fine craftsmanship at an early age. When he was 16, he became one of the youngest craftsmen to be juried into Tamarack.
The talented young woodworker expanded his skills by apprenticing with master blacksmith Jeff Fettyfrom 1998 to 2002. Fetty helped Thomas successfully apply for a grant for a three-week blacksmithing tour of Spain, Andorra and France.
“He would joke that he was trying to get the sawdust out of my veins and infuse them with metal,” Thomas said. “He never did get all the sawdust out.”
After graduating from high school, Thomas decided to open his own general contracting business — Thomas|work — in 2002.
“It seemed a practical business to get into,” he said, especially as hehad a new bride to support. Although working in construction 40 to 50 hours a week, Thomaskept up his woodworking and blacksmithing skills in an existing 12-by-20-foot shed by his house to supplement the income of his growing family.
He converted an existing 12-foot-by-20-foot shed into a home woodworking shop and set up a forge outside. His craftsmanship continued to attract attention, earning him accolades as an “emerging artist” in the Tamarack Foundation annual report in 2010.
His injury in 2011 abruptly haltedhis construction career, perhaps permanently. Over the months that followed, Thomas regained mobility and focused on his art-quality wood furniture.
The pragmatic Thomas took a business-like approach to his craft. He refined his production process to a tight sequence of steps. Instead of automated woodworking equipment such as CNC routers, he uses specialized jigs with dedicated machines.
“My woodworking business is very production oriented,” he said. “With my wholesale product line, I know precisely how much money I have in materials and how many minutes it takes me to make each piece. While it may be monotonous to complete 100 sushi sets at a time, I enjoy the dependable source of income they represent.”
His signature creations combine his woodworking and metal forging skills. On one suchpiece, gracefully curving iron vines adorn the sharp angles and austere lines of the cherry wood bench.
Thomas forges with the traditional tools of the blacksmith: hammer, fire and anvil.
“Bending iron requires a temperature in excess of 2000 degrees. Obviously, heat this intense would scorch wood,” said Thomas. “With each piece of wood furniture that requires ironwork, I have to make a prototype in steel first. Wrapping an iron vine around a wooden leg requires a metal ‘stunt double.’”
To make the transition from straight metal to a twisting, climbing vine, Thomas creates metal table legs identical to thewood legs. He takes the metal vine hot off the forge and, while it is still malleable, forms it around the metal leg. When it cools, he removes the vine from the metal leg and installs it on the wooden piece.
When Tamarack Foundation arranged for the artists in the entrepreneur project to apply their newly-minted business skills, Thomas was ready. Aided by grants from the West Virginia Departments of Commerce and Agriculture, the artists exhibited at one of the nation’s largest craft trade shows, the Buyers Market of American Craft show in Philadelphia.
Thomas employed a marketing tactic he’d picked up during the mentoring project: introducing his work to gallery owners before the show.
“I put together a mailing that consisted of a full-size folder which held glossy photos, a brochure, postcard and a press release,” he said. “I did the photography myself and created all the marketing materials online. Everything was branded and personalized with the Thomas|work logo and with Thomas|work product shots.”
Producing 200 promotional packagescost Thomas approximately $1,000 — including postage.
“At the time, I thought I was potentially wasting a lot of time and money with the mailing, but it worked like magic,” he said.“Approximately 60-70 percent of my new accounts came as a result of the mailing.”
During the show, he received orders from 56 galleries from Maine to California.
“The mentoring I received helped make the transition to artisan entrepreneur possible,” said Thomas, who continues to work in thewoodworking shop — now enlarged to 850-square-feet — just a few feet from the house he shares with his wife Terri and their four children. “Now I can do what I love, where I love, around those I love. In a way, I’m grateful for the fall.”
Catherine Zacchi is a Communications Specialist with the West Virginia Dept. of Commerce