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Woodworking in paradise

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.

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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.

WORLD WOOD WORKS 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.”

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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.”

Approaching his mid-30s, Calhoun was faced with a premature midlife crisis, although it is hard to imagine such a quiet guy being in a crisis mode. It was more of a time for reflection as he looked toward the future.

“I called around and got a job working construction, which lasted about nine months,” he recalls. “Then I started really thinking about what it was that I wanted to do. And I decided that I like to do woodworking and I’d love to do furniture. It kind of went with a lot of things I had done.”

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He worked in a small “semi-custom” furniture shop for about a year before deciding to work alone.

“I looked at the situation and said, ‘You know what, I think I can do better on my own.’ I had no idea what I was getting into. I was old enough, 34, to know better, but I still went with it anyway.”

Calhoun had a small inheritance that he sunk into equipment. When he looks back, he is amazed he was able to drum up any business. He was relatively unknown and didn’t possess much of a woodworking portfolio. But somehow he managed to receive enough orders to keep his head above water. Considering the gamble he took, Calhoun acknowledges that he was very fortunate in terms of the outcome.

Telling the story
Maui is home to some very wealthy people, many of whom own several homes and want to furnish them with fine artistic objects, often with the “Hawaiian look.” Calhoun’s pieces often evoke a story and it is important to the furniture maker that his clients understand that.

“When people see your work, it’s like any other art, really,” he explains. “If they meet the artist or see the work and get part of the story, if they feel some connection to that, then they want more of the story. That’s one thing that has really helped my sales recently, to begin to realize those things, and when you’re talking with clients, give them the story because that’s what they want. It’s not just that piece of furniture. How did you start doing this? How did you get to this point where everybody around here says if you’re looking for something like this, go talk to that guy? They want to know all those things. They’re looking for stories. When you stop and think about all of the arts, whether you sing, write plays, do movies or whatever you do, we’re all telling stories.”

Through the years, Calhoun has built pieces featuring many styles from around the world. He has developed his own style, what he calls “Pacific Nouveau.”

“I love Art Nouveau, and I like most of the way it’s gone since then. Furniture design is always evolving. I love the motion; I love the curves, the organic lines. Admittedly a lot of it, even back in the late 1800s, because it was derived from the Rococo revival, tends to be overdone, overly busy and all of that.”

Calhoun starts many of his jobs by simply sitting down with a piece of paper and a pencil, usually with some kind of foggy idea, before he sketches. Eventually he is satisfied with something that “works.”

“Very often it takes hours of moving lines around,” he says. “I’m trying to learn CAD, but between trying to earn a living, the time it takes to do the work in the first place, and learning those types of skills on a computer, it’s a bit of a challenge. I’m trying to work with TurboCAD; it’s accessible and reasonably easy to learn, and a reasonably priced program.”

Tiny Island, big bucks
Again, Maui is home to some very wealthy people, owners of what’s known as “mega-mansions.” For the custom woodworker, that’s where the big paying jobs are. But obtaining them is not all that easy.

“The reality is that most wealthy people that move over here — they either remodel or they build a house — is that they already have a designer, a contractor, a crew, everybody that they’re used to working with,” Calhoun explains. “Most of these people have three or four houses, and the tendency is to bring the whole crew over because they can afford to. So for most of the local woodworkers, we won’t generally see them until they’ve been here a few years, not until they’re a little bit tired of their place, and they want to remodel it. By then, they have found out who is here, what can be done here, and then they’ll hire the local people.”

Since that is the way things work on Maui, Calhoun has working relationships with designers, interior decorators and contractors. The majority of his work is through word of mouth, but he has had varying success with galleries. Some years, his gallery work has accounted for 20 percent of his sales, other years it has been as high as 90 percent. That unpredictability makes it tough for Calhoun, because gallery pieces are all built on spec.

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“That is the rough part,” he says. “If the galleries are doing a great job and the economy is really booming and people are buying, then it’s wonderful because I get to go in my shop and make whatever I want. Well, not fully, but to some degree, make my designs and my execution and put it in the galleries, and two months later I have, a nice big check. To live on Maui and be able to do that, life doesn’t get much better.”

It’s impossible to write a profile of a Hawaiian woodworker without mentioning koa. Although there are other endemic species, koa is the most recognized on the mainland. Contrary to common perception, koa is plentiful on some of the Hawaiian Islands, and the best koa grows on the Big Island between 2,000 and 4,000 feet of elevation. It is the second-most common forest tree in Hawaii and is in no danger of extinction, according to Calhoun. But at the same time, Hawaii only has 10 percent of its original forests left.

“If the trees are on public, state or federal lands, there is no live cutting of koa,” Calhoun says. “On private lands, you still have to get permission. Because the price of koa keeps going up, koa thieves have been on the rise, too. We have a pretty bad [drug] epidemic, so people will steal anything, including koa. But they recently passed some laws that if you buy some koa from somebody, make sure you get a bill of sale. Because if you don’t have it, and you have a load of koa, you can be arrested.”

Calhoun travels to the Big Island to buy his koa from one of the sawyers who usually sets aside nice curly lumber for the small group of furniture makers who live in the islands.

“It has the full range of colors and figures, and everybody talks about curly koa, but I actually prefer the big plain-sawn mottled stuff a lot better. It’s more beautiful.”

Inlay and carving
Through the years, mostly by trial and error, Calhoun has become an inlay specialist. He often uses the technique to create the appearance of movement within his furniture.

“It’s like all of woodworking. If you are going to do it on a highly artistic level, it is very tedious. There’s no getting around it; it just does not happen fast. But it is kind of a Zen meditation thing. It’s not that hard to get into that zone and spend eight hours just doing it. Even then, you don’t really get to enjoy it until you are finally done with it, sanding everything clean and getting that first coat of finish on. That’s when the magic happens.”

Most of Calhoun’s pieces are made with solid wood, and he believes most people still have the perception that veneer is cheap. They don’t understand the history of marquetry and bookmatching, and fail to see what is involved with making a complicated veneer piece such as a piecrust table.

Along with his talent for inlay, the Maui furniture maker has become a talented carver.

“I love carving,” he states. “It all becomes fluid, but it sure didn’t start immediately. I didn’t get a good carving set until I was working for myself for five or six years. I have mixed tools, but most of the time I use a set of Pfeil Swiss-made palm-handle carving tools. I love the feel.”

In and out of the shop
Calhoun’s stand-alone shop is a mere 300 sq. ft., and one side is a tarp that he throws up on the roof in the morning to let the air in. He closes his open-air shop in the afternoon, pulling the tarp down to keep the sun out and the temperature down.

Like many, Calhoun would love to do most of his work with hand tools, but he is astute enough to realize time is money. His main machines include a Laguna 18" band saw with a Leeson variable-speed drive, General 350 table saw with an Excalibur fence system, Grizzly 20" planer, Powermatic 719 mortiser, Record/Crown 8' lathe, and Sharp conversion spray gun.

On occasion, Calhoun receives a call from a contractor offering him a finish carpentry job at a mansion under construction. The money is too good to pass up, and Calhoun stops his furniture making for a few weeks. The work is long and monotonous but, in the end, it pays the bills and provides him more freedom once he returns to his shop. But how does he balance the trim work with his furniture making and deadlines?

“Usually your pocketbook does it for you,” he quips. “It’s finish work, doing all the trim work, the finish jambs, the finish cases, moldings, all that stuff in big houses. Everybody gets paid as subcontractors. It’s not always there. If things get slow, you usually call a contractor to see what else is up. If the galleries aren’t moving any pieces, I start calling around to see who has what going on.”

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Here and there
In 2000, Calhoun got together with fellow Maui furniture maker Matts Fogelvik and formed the Maui Woodworkers Guild. As described on its Web site, “The Guild’s purpose is to promote appreciation for all woodworking in Maui County, particularly work in native Hawaiian woods; promote environmental responsibility to wood and its source; promote Maui craftsmanship and encourage new woodworking enthusiasts; educate its members and the public in the craft and design skills of woodworking.”

Although the group of about 50 woodworkers would like to put on an annual show, securing a venue on Maui is nearly impossible. The hotels are involved with convention work and have little time to deal with a small custom-furniture show.

“I had been involved with Hawaii Forestry Industry Association shows for years, and Art Maui shows and all kinds of art shows here on the island. I’ve been on the Art Maui board previously and just got back on it.”

Calhoun’s involvement in Hawaiian culture also led to a major role in the restoration of “Mo’olele,” Maui’s 43' double-hull Hawaiian sailing canoe, during the mid 1990s. He found someone to fund the project and worked one or two days a week on the canoe, finding it to be interesting and a great learning process. Unfortunately, much of his hard work has gone for naught.

“The hulls were just fiberglass, the sides and the gunnels and the bow and aft covers are all solid koa. It’s more about the history and tradition of sailing. It’s now in Lahaina, it has some structural problems and some termites have gotten into the cross pieces. Due to personal politics … at one point I finally walked away from it, and it’s just kind of floundering now.”

Solo for life
Calhoun has never had an employee or an apprentice, and it’s unlikely that will ever change. He’s had business offers from different people to get involved with flooring, ceramic tile, and running a cabinet shop. But, in the end, he simply wants to work for himself.

  Chinese improv
Calhoun built this Chinese dining set with solid kamani wood. All of the joinery is done in the Chinese style; no glue, just wooden pins that lock the joints tight. The table measures 95" x 40" x 29" and when a table is more than 6' long, the usual Chinese style is to add a center pair of legs, which the client did not want. The solution was to build box beams with internal blocking as the “aprons” (all dovetailed together), and an additional center box beam down the length of the table. The joints where the legs meet the aprons are each comprised of 11 pieces of wood with a single bronze pin that locks it all together. It took Calhoun 10 months to build and finish the table and chairs.  

He continues to be involved and very concerned about the preservation of Hawaiian plants and trees that contribute to the islands’ unique culture.

“Very few so-called ‘native cultures’ exist separate from the flora and fauna where the culture exists. If you don’t have a certain number of plants and things that are very much a part of the culture, how do you continue to express the culture? Part of my interest grew out of working on the canoe, having old friends that are Hawaiians and who are aware of a lot of those things. Unfortunately, a lot of modern Hawaiians aren’t.”

As he sits at a table in his living room, looking down upon a gorgeous valley that spills into the Pacific Ocean, it’s not difficult to see where Calhoun gets his inspiration. He has a stack about 2” thick of projects and sketches of things he admits he’ll probably never make, but he’ll continue to look out the window and sketch.

“When I look at quite a bit of the more recent work coming out of the East Coast, it’s obviously urban. Growing up and living in Hawaii, you can be outdoors pretty much 365 days a year. Except for way up the mountain do you rarely have to defend yourself against the weather. It’s only natural that where I live is inspirational.”

And if the Maui furniture maker has his way, he’ll continue to exhibit that inspiration and his love of the Hawaiian culture by telling its story in his furniture.

“Ability-wise, I’m still learning the business side of it. The business side is the hardest part for most woodworkers. How do you market yourself, how do you tell your story and feel comfortable doing it? That’s the hardest thing to learn. But what I’ve found over the last year is that’s the key to it, learning how to tell your story.”

One gets the feeling Calhoun has many more stories to tell.

Contact: Tom Calhoun, World Wood Works, Makawao, Hawaii. Tel: 808-573-2297.

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue.

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