Diversified Pieces Showcase Woodworker’s Artistic Talents

Allan Walton of Boothbay Harbor, ME, incorporates his eclectic skills to produce high-end woodwork that ‘no one else does.’

By Helen Kuhl

Flipping through Allan Walton’s portfolio, just like speaking to him about his work, can be a confusing experience. It includes everything from pure artwork, in the watercolors he created and sold through galleries for four years, to straightforward, high-quality kitchens, to unique furniture pieces and millwork. And that doesn’t even include the boat work.

That diversification in skills and interests has served Walton well for the past 20 years, not only because it helped him survive economically, but also because it built a reputation for him as a man who can do anything. That reputation brought him a loyal, steady clientele that requires top-notch work and does not have to ask about price.

Walton credits his upbringing in rural Maine as contributing to his wide range of talents. “Being independent was stressed very highly. So I learned a lot of skills from both my mother and father,” he says. “They were self-sufficient people. If you wanted a house, you built it yourself. My mother would say, ‘You have to know how to cook,’ and my father would say, ‘You have to know how to change a spark plug or hang a door or whatever.’ That’s how we were raised.”

His art studies at the University of Maine also were diverse. “We were trained not to specialize,” he says. “The whole art program was focused on understanding how to do a lot of different mediums.”

           
           
     
      Walton did a lot of hand carving on this pair of “alligator beds” done in basswood. They were bleached and feature milk paint with a crackle finish, plus a topcoat of urethane. Photo by Robert Mitchell Photography    

Woodworking was always a part of Walton’s life, he adds. “My grandfather was a woodworker, a barn builder. And my father was a mechanic, but also an excellent woodworker. As a kid, we didn’t have a lot of toys and I was always building things out of wood.”

When he got out of art school, Walton began working at an Ethan Allen plant in Andover, ME, and then moved to Boothbay Harbor, where his jobs included fiberglass work in a boatyard, boatbuilding and working for a few home builders. He then pursued his artistic interests full-time for four years, doing primarily watercolors.

But as he and his wife Barbara (who currently serves as Walton Works’ bookkeeper) began their family, he needed to earn more money. So he began working for a builder who had only two part-time employees at the time, doing outdoor and indoor work. He stayed with him as he grew to being the area’s “premier” builder with 40 workers.

As the company grew, so did Walton’s reputation for producing high-quality woodwork. “Nobody else around here was doing the kind of work we were doing,” he says. “We did raised panel cherry kitchens with glass upper cabinet doors, dovetailed drawers, with a beautiful finish. No one else did that.”

Walton also added his special “signature” to the kitchens he built, carving a flower into the sink front. “It got so that people came to that builder just to get a kitchen that was ‘signed,’” he says.

“And if the customer was a real pain, they wouldn’t get a flower,” adds Barbara.

But the growth of that company also required Walton to handle a lot of duties that he did not relish, such as estimating and supervising, with little time for actual woodwork. So after seven years, he decided to go out on his own.

“Two weeks after I went into business for myself, we had the crash of ’89,” he says. “That first year I did two or three kitchens. But the next year was really hard.”

Working in an 11-foot by 22-foot garage shop with heat provided by a kerosene space heater, Walton did whatever work he could to get by. A little over a year later, he was able to move into his current location, a 22-foot by 40-foot shop that was purchased together with a home next door. The shop includes storage space upstairs and a partial basement.

           
           
       
    A woman who had purchased some of Walton’s watercolors asked if he could also do painted furniture. The result was four years’ worth of work in her home, including this armoire painted with a Dutch skating scene.    

In the past 11 years, Walton has filled the shop with basic woodworking equipment (a Powermatic shaper, jointer and planer; SCMI bandsaw; Grizzly lathe; Williams and Hussey moulding planer and a bag press from Vacuum Pressing Systems) and built a steady business doing a wide variety of woodwork.

One of his steadiest customers has been a wealthy couple for whom he had done some work when he was with the previous company. They also have provided referrals to numerous other clients. “They appreciated the work that I did on their house, so they remembered me for that,” Walton says, “and they have had work for me every year since I have been on my own.”

That work included several pieces of custom furniture and also led down a different path — drafting plans for their yachts. “When they decided to build a yacht, they weren’t happy with the architect,” Walton says. “They came to me because they knew I could do it.”

The project, which was pure drafting, was for a yacht that was one of five chosen to receive an International Super Yacht Design Award in 1996. That work brought Walton subsequent drafting jobs on other yachts that eventually won acclaim as well.

But despite intense periods of drafting, Walton also continued his woodworking. Some of it included pieces for the yachts, such as a set of dining room chairs, a six-foot-diameter wooden steering wheel and a coffee table fitted with hydraulics that allow it to be lifted to dining table height.

Walton also has been able to incorporate his artist’s skills into several projects. This includes hand-carved furniture and millwork, as well as painting elaborate scenery on several Dutch-style furniture pieces for one client, who had bought some of his paintings and asked if he could build painted furniture. The result was ongoing work on furniture, cabinetry and millwork for her home for four years.

Although Walton’s woodworking projects are eclectic, to say the least, he has a set policy when it comes to pricing his work. He charges $40 an hour and bills every two weeks.

“I keep track of my time, and I very seldom do estimates. If I do, they are verbal and it’s a handshake,” Walton says. “I don’t write contracts, ever. If people come in here and want my work, they will pay for it. And the people that I work for don’t even have to ask how much it costs.”

For projects where he does give an estimate, he gets payments in thirds, he adds. “Right now I am working on a $12,000 bedroom set,” he says. “I get $4,000 upfront to get the project started. When we get to the point where it’s looking pretty much how it’s going to look and we are starting to think about the finish, we’ll get the next allotment. Then the final payment is done on delivery.”

 

           
           
     
      Nestled between two window seats is this painted entertainment unit featuring bifold doors.    

Walton says that his average sales are $50,000 a year, with $120,000 being his record. Most of his work is done in the local area, which is a popular spot for high-end vacation homes.

While Walton depends on doing a wide variety of work to help him survive, he feels that he fills a distinct niche in his area by providing an extremely high level of woodwork, bolstered by his artistic and boatbuilding abilities. “I get the tough jobs sometimes, that’s what I have a reputation for doing,” he says. “It’s either stuff that other shops don’t want to fool around with or don’t have the patience for, or they just can’t draw the manpower to deal with something intense. It’s an odd niche that I’m in around here.

“No one does work as diversified as me,” he adds. “And that’s been the only way I’ve been able to survive.”

But while his work is exceptional, his philosophy for maintaining high quality is straightforward. “It’s basic woodworking,” he says. “You try to use a mechanical joint, first of all, mortise-and-tenon or dovetail. You use glue. And you make it as good as you can possibly make it. My standard is that I don’t want to have to repair anything. I mean, if something is made properly, that’s it for life. It is wood and it should last forever.”

And Walton is equally basic when it comes to describing the type of work he prefers doing: “an interesting project that pays good money,” he says, although he adds, “designing my own stuff and building it. I really like that part of it.”

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.