Following a passion

Wisconsin furniture maker finds success as a one-person shop, selling at craft shows and online
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Thomas William Dumke is a self-taught woodworker who switched from a full-time machinist to a solo furniture maker almost 18 years ago. He has no regrets.

“If you have a passion for something, you’ve just got to go for it. That’s what I had was the passion. That’s why in 2003, when I said let’s go full-time, that was pure passion talking,” says Dumke, principal of Thomas William Furniture in Oconomowoc, Wis.

Dumke focuses on traditional Shaker-style furniture with some modern twists. He’s had a successful go exhibiting at craft shows throughout the country. Lately, online sales have really picked up.

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Catching the bug

Dumke blames it all on buying his first house with his wife, Linda.

“That’s when I caught the bug as far as woodworking. It was a basic Milwaukee-type bungalow, post-WWII home. Everything very minimal and the upstairs was just an attic. In the first stage of projects, we made the attic into a bedroom. To get some knowledge I started watching This Old House with Bob Vila and Norm Abram.”

He turned to how-to publications to fill the inside of the home with furniture.

“After we got the bedroom finished, Linda was going to order a bedroom set from Sears and it was around $2,000 for a five-piece set with mostly laminated pieces with cardboard backs. I said, ‘I think I can make this.’ So, she gave me some details and specifics from the catalogue,” says Dumke. “That was really the starting point. I made the picture into a reality. There was a headboard, dressing table, nightstand, and a hutch. It took a year-and-a-half. With the tools it was more than $2,000 when I finished, but I had to equip my little shop in the basement.

“What I was doing at that time was what I called a shotgun approach. I was just doing anything and everything. Kitchen cabinets, built-ins, freestanding furniture … I had the pleasure of hooking up with a couple of interior designers, which brought in a nice clientele and chance to make unique custom pieces.”

He moved to his current shop – about 900 sq. ft. – and set up a full-time operation in 2000. By 2005, Dumke stopped building cabinets to focus exclusively on furniture. Being a ‘lone wolf’, as he puts it, he wasn’t interested in hiring employees.

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“I was starting to get a little more particular with the jobs I was on. I did 13 complete kitchens, but doing kitchens is very demanding on the body, so I knew as far as longevity I couldn’t be a one-man shop and do kitchen cabinets. They were difficult to fabricate and install alone, and they took up a lot of space. I stopped doing that and started promoting the furniture.

“We started at local art fairs showing small Shaker tables, some Queen Anne pieces, and it really gave us a whole different customer base. These are people going to art fairs looking for art. Furniture’s a very small medium in the art fair world which we came to find is rather conservative. There were very few furniture makers selling their product at them.”

Southern exposure

“In 2007, we started doing shows in Florida,” Dumke continues. “There were a lot of retirees, Baby Boomers who still had cash, looking for new things for their condos or lofts. There are tons and tons of shows in Florida.”

Florida buyers showed an interest in ‘scaled down’ furniture to fit their homes so Dumke began to focus on Shaker pieces that were “slender, light and airy”. Having noticed artisans in other mediums incorporating colors into their work, he began using different woods to create unique visual contrasts.

“Previously all of my furniture was either cherry or walnut or maple. But being around other artists, I started to mix and match woods in the same piece and that really started to take off for me. People really like the mixtures of cherry and maple, walnut and zebrawood, tiger maple and leopardwood. There were some combinations that really took off.”

The couple was attending shows throughout the country by 2009. They know which produce the best return on investment and stick with them for sales and marketing value. Some are very competitive with a rigorous jury process.

“One of top ten shows we got into was in Fort Worth, Texas called the Main Street Arts Festival. It’s a four-day art fair that’s outdoors and draws 400,000 people in that period so you’re bound to find a customer or two. There are usually over 200 artisans set up on the street and a constant flow of people. Another top show is Cherry Creek in Denver, an amazing, art-savvy city.”

The Maple Display Cabinet from Thomas William Furniture with leopardwood, glass doors and shelves, and a clear lacquer finish.

The Maple Display Cabinet from Thomas William Furniture with leopardwood, glass doors and shelves, and a clear lacquer finish.

One of Dumke’s proudest achievements is exhibiting at the juried Smithsonian Craft Show. He applied for eight years until getting accepted, and in 2020 was accepted for his third consecutive year.

“Rejection is discouraging. Your anticipations are up, you hear all these good things about artists selling very well, and it’s also part of marketing as far as saying you’ve been. So, it’s frustrating, and very expensive. It’s sometimes $50 to apply and sometimes you’re applying to 20 shows a year and double-booking because you don’t know if you’re going to get in or not.”

One size doesn’t fit all

Dumke’s 2020 Collection has 18 pieces, featuring a variety of tables and cabinets. He generally declines requests for one-offs.

“We try to keep things very streamlined. This is what I make, this is what I would like you to buy. But if it doesn’t fit their space, which most often happens, and they want a special size, we do that.”

The goal is to attract repeat customers, which currently account for about 30 percent of his business.

“I’m a one-man shop. All of my pieces are very similar so customers can develop a nice little grouping, buying two, three, or four pieces, so I’m always going after that repeat customer.

“Part of the success in repeat customers is that Linda is so good at marketing. She keeps my name in front of people, even if they’re not ready to buy yet, we still keep my name in front of them so when they are ready, they’ll buy from me, hopefully.”

Dumke keeps a small inventory for buyers in a rush. Otherwise, he typically has a three to four-month backlog.

“We ship all over the country, including Alaska and Hawaii. The average customer is 65 to 70 and many customers have two or three homes. I’ve met people with five homes. People under 50 really do not buy my work, especially at art fairs. Younger couples are just not interested.

Tall Cherry Display Cabinet.

Tall Cherry Display Cabinet.

Shifting online

The pandemic has cancelled show dates, so sales have mostly moved online. And thanks to Linda, the shop’s website is up to the task.

“Linda has worked on the website for the past 12 years and that has set us up success for this year. All the marketing she does has given us the assurance that we can still be in business in this kind of a climate.

“With some of the art fairs, we knew eventually they were going to go away. They didn’t have that uniqueness to them anymore. They became too big of a business. So, we knew we wanted to reach the online market.”

He has a wholesale agreement with the Artful Home, an art dealer in Madison, Wis., that accounts for about 40 percent of his sales.

“They have a huge online presence along with putting out a catalog four times a year. That’s my only wholesale account and we do very well through them.”

The Dumkes, who do not have any children, enjoy the lifestyle they’ve created, made possible by a relentless approach to marketing.

“You’ve got to let people know who you are, where you are, and what you do and you have to brand it yourself so they get familiar with you,” says Dumke. “I’ve met a lot of kids coming out of woodworking colleges and I recommend that they either marry up or start taking business and marketing courses because you could have the best furniture but if you don’t have proper marketing, then you’re going to go nowhere.”

For more, visit www.thomaswilliamfurniture.com

This article was originally published in the January 2021 issue.

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