Woodworking in paradise

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There is something magical about the island of Maui. But to pinpoint exactly what that magic is? Well, that’s pretty much an impossible task. Maybe it’s a state of mind, a feeling one experiences by being surrounded by the constant beauty of white sandy beaches, cascading waterfalls, tropical forests, colorful flowers and the omnipresent Haleakala, the world’s largest dormant volcano.

If you’re a native like Tom Calhoun, and manage to enjoy life without much interaction with tourists, then Maui can be one step short of paradise. It is the “other” Hawaii, the true Hawaii that tourists rarely encounter or experience.


Owner: Tom Calhoun

Location: Makawao, Maui, Hawaii

Facility: 300 sq. ft. shop, wood shed, outside drying area

Working solo: 22 years

Previous experience: 11 years working in hydraulics

Side work: Finish carpentry

No complaints: “There are a lot of people out there who don’t get to do what they really love to do in life, don’t get to live their passion or at least one of their passions. I’ve had this discussion with other artists. It all goes back to lifestyle. To be an artist, to do something artistic that you love to do, and be able to pay your bills doing it, and to live on Maui is an incredible privilege.”

Maui is the second-largest of the Hawaiian Islands and is slightly less than half the size of Rhode Island. The small island has a population of about 140,000, but it has more than two million visitors a year. Its major industries are tourism, sugar, pineapples, cattle and other forms of agriculture. And that’s why Calhoun is an anomaly. He is one of less than a dozen custom furniture makers on Maui and apparently the only native Hawaiian among the group.

“I guess I am kind of unusual in terms of the small custom shop,” says Calhoun. “I think I’m just about the only [native] guy, at least on this island, and maybe one or two on Oahu and the Big Island.”

Calhoun is unusual in many ways — from his quiet demeanor, humility, appreciation of his surroundings and deep understanding of the Hawaiian culture, to his superior woodworking design and building abilities. It all adds up to form an insightful, philosophical and talented custom furniture maker.

“Growing up and living here in Hawaii, we are just so surrounded by the natural world that you can’t get away from the movement of the ocean. You can’t [avoid] seeing the plants growing, being aware of these kinds of things. All of those things are very much part of my life, and I like the challenge of trying to bring that kind of movement into a piece of wood that does not move.”

Late bloomer
Calhoun was born in Oahu and had little artistic training throughout his school years except for a brief stint in a cabinet shop. After receiving a low number in the draft lottery, he joined the Navy to study electronics. However, he was placed in the field of hydraulics and spent the next six years traveling the Pacific and West Coast. When he returned to civilian life, he moved to Maui and took a job in what he knew best — hydraulics.

“I worked for a private hydraulics company here in Maui and did all kinds of repairs. I worked there for about five years before I got totally disgusted with machines and big tractors, big mobile equipment, going home with black grease under my fingernails every day, tired of the people I was working with — all of that,” he says. “I looked at it and said, ‘Why am I doing this? This is not creative. It pays well, but that’s all it had going for it.’ It was a job. So I quit.”