A man with a 5-year plan - The making of a woodworker

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For every job, there is a clipboard. A bank of close to a dozen hangs on a beam, each with a time sheet for keeping an accurate record. Labor accounts for most of the total cost. McDunn keeps a close eye on those sheets and nudges his employees to stay on schedule. “If you don’t watch, pretty soon it’s out of whack with my estimate and the profits sink.”

The making of a woodworker
Growing up, McDunn didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. Woodworking as a career had never crossed his mind, although he did build dollhouse furniture for his sisters, carved a bit as a Boy Scout and took industrial arts courses in high school. He was born 54 years ago in Germany where his dad (a machinist and gunsmith) was stationed in the Army. The family transferred to Massachusetts and eventually moved to Pennsylvania, which was McDunn’s jumping-off point. When he turned 19, he packed up and struck out on his own. He headed for Texas, because he was told he could probably find a job there.

“When I got to Texas, the United States was just getting out of Vietnam, the economy was bad and it turned out jobs were scarce. I ran into a buddy whose girlfriend was from Greenville, and we all decided to move back here.”

For a while, he overhauled engines at a truck repair shop. During this time he met Don Haskell, a good friend to this day, who reignited his interest in carving. His love for woodworking began to emerge, but it didn’t pay the bills. To make more money to live and to fuel his hobby, he bought a tool belt and hammer and went into construction. Within a year, his new career came to a halt when he crushed his foot in an accident and was laid off.

With his last paycheck, he bought his first lathe. He turned several bowls and consigned them to the Greenville County Museum of Art, where he also took courses on three-dimensional design and aesthetics. “I was really fascinated with design concepts, but I really didn’t want to go back to school. I found it more instructive to learn on my own by experimenting with various woods and tools.”

McDunn’s association with the museum eventually led to a job offer. He was stowed away in a basement woodshop where he could continue turning wood bowls and carving a bit. “You might say I was the resident woodworker. I kept on selling some of my pieces in the museum store which gave me confidence that I had some talent. They kept me busy building displays and framing pictures for the curatorial department. I also helped build the museum restaurant and some of the furnishings.”

Claudia Beckwith worked with McDunn at the museum and remembers his stellar reputation as a good worker and a good person. “I’m still using the desk Michael built back in the late ’70s,” she said. “I can’t praise him enough. He’s always been creative, dependable, balanced and solid to the core.”

More than any other experience, McDunn’s stint at the museum 30 years ago seemed to seal his career direction. He had developed the pulse of a woodworker and the mind of a businessman. “I really liked the art atmosphere. I started to feel as though I was innovating and creating something, which was missing in all the other jobs I had had up to that point.”

McDunn worked in the same capacity at the museum for five years, starting at $2.75 an hour. In 1981, recently married to Alice, (“the most important person in my life because she has raised our children and helped to keep this business going”), the time was right to move on. “At the museum, I found that many people wanted things built, and I thought I could make a go of my own business.”

He found himself in a vicious cycle, trying to find the right place to practice his craft. In a five-year span he bounced from one place to another, renting space in five different locations — in a carport, a machine shop at a defunct Air Force base, the basement of his home, an old tool-sharpening building, and in a warehouse he shared with his only competitor in town. “Then, in 1989, I found the perfect building, took out a mortgage and moved in.” He proudly recalls his first major project after starting his business — a solid padauk (a red/dark purple South American wood) conference table for an architecture firm, a contact through his work at the museum.

“Since then I just put one foot in front of the other and keep going. As we like to say in the shop, ‘bit by bit.’ It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve made enough for a modest living and to help our three kids through college. Every year, I revise my five-year business plan that targets things like additional equipment, employees, shows, organizations and, of course, income. To meet my goals, sometimes I work six to seven days a week with no vacations. We do occasional weekends, though. I like to fish and hike and go backpacking in the Appalachians not far from here.”