Monadnock Profiles: A master woodworker

  • Bill Thomas of Rindge is a founding member of the NH Furniture Masters and has been building custom furniture for more than 40 years. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Bill Thomas of Rindge is a founding member of the NH Furniture Masters and has been building custom furniture for more than 40 years. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Bill Thomas of Rindge is a founding member of the NH Furniture Masters and has been building custom furniture for more than 40 years. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Bill Thomas of Rindge is a founding member of the NH Furniture Masters and has been building custom furniture for more than 40 years. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Bill Thomas of Rindge is a founding member of the NH Furniture Masters and has been building custom furniture for more than 40 years. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Bill Thomas of Rindge is a founding member of the NH Furniture Masters and has been building custom furniture for more than 40 years. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

  • Bill Thomas. Staff photo by Tim Goodwin—

Monadnock Ledger-Transcript
Published: 1/22/2020 8:21:26 PM

Bill Thomas likes to joke that when he retires he might become a dentist or get into brain surgery.

While Thomas has no plans to go back to school, let alone perform medical procedures on anybody, it’s an appropriate answer from the Rindge man who has spent his entire life working in an industry that many get into after they wrap up their career.

There was just something about woodworking that appealed to Thomas. In his early days, Thomas was a carpenter, doing mostly home renovations. “But I always wanted to get into making furniture,” he said.

When the opportunity to purchase an old woodworking shop in Hillsborough came up in the late 1970s, Thomas jumped at the opportunity to be his own boss – and get into a field that he had long felt was his true calling.

“For some reason or another, I felt furniture making was the top of the line for woodworking,” he said.

It was only after he officially took over the shop in Hillsborough that he went to North Bennett Street School in Boston that specialized in the details of furniture making and set him on a path that has given him a freedom that most long for and few take the chance to actually realize.

“I had it in the back of my mind and it was more interesting to me than going to college,” he said.

Thomas learned early on that in order to make it in the industry, he needed to put aside what appealed to him and create pieces that people wanted.

“The problem building stuff on spec, it’s hard to sell,” Thomas said.

He remembers one time when one of his wing chairs was part of a gallery exhibit and he found a woman sitting in it. She said she loved it and if the fabric was blue she’d buy it. Thomas offered to make another one complete with a fabric she picked out, but it was one of those things where she wanted it right then and there and the sale was lost.

It’s one of those businesses where you have to ride the high and lows – and right now it’s one of those low spots.

“I don’t know about others, but the furniture business isn’t doing that well,” he said. “So you have to hang on to the clients that you get and hope they keep buying stuff.”

That doesn’t mean he has no work, but the commissions aren’t coming in like they used to. It’s a good thing he’s been working on his latest project for the last four years. It’s a replica of the Apollo Desk built by David and Abraham Roentgen – with some differences that make it more modern and appealing for his client. It’s one of the biggest projects he’s ever embarked on, as the sheer magnitude and intricate work of the piece has been a slow creative process.

“Every part of it is a production,” Thomas said.

It has a lock in the front that opens two secret side compartments, complete with a music player. All the components he designed and made himself. Recently he’s been making these triangles out of three pieces of wood shaped as the number seven that will be cut into thin slices to use for the writing surface design.

But when creating a piece like that, it’s not about the finished product – at least in the beginning.

“What the furniture maker sees is that small piece of wood,” Thomas said. “You’re not really thinking about the whole piece. You have it in the back of your mind, but it has nothing to do with the board that you’re planing.”

And the possibilities are endless and that’s what Thomas enjoys. He starts every project with a full scale drawing because as he puts it “that’s a place where you solve a lot of problems.” He loves picking out the exact materials to use and letting the creativity guide him.

“You’re producing something that has value and people can use in their homes,” Thomas said.

During the course of planning a piece, a relationship is formed with a client and it’s much more than just a business transaction.

“You really get to know the people and become friends with them,” he said.

The dining room table that sits in his Rindge home is kind of a funny story. There was this antique shop that had one half of a circular Sheraton dining room table that has a separate leaf for expansion. They asked Thomas if he could recreate the other half, and when he was done, he ended up buying the other half.

He’s made a number of wing chair frames and chests over the years, and it’s th e challenge that comes with each new project that keeps it fresh and exciting.

It was 25 years ago when Thomas and a group of five other furniture makers got together and established the NH Furniture Masters.

“We met and talked about what we could do to get people interested in buying furniture,” Thomas said.

The organization started by putting on a series of auctions and now consists of a year-round dedicated gallery space in the Greater Concord Chamber of Commerce. The current show highlights the work of the organization’s former chairmen, which Thomas served in the capacity for three years.

“The whole thing about the Furniture Masters is that we were all out in our own shops working by ourselves, ” Thomas said. “But it became much more of a community and it raised everybody’s standards.”

Thomas and his wife Anne moved to Rindge 20 years ago and about five years into it, he joined the Zoning Board of Adjustments.

“When we moved down here, right off the bat there was some sort of a local issue,” Thomas said.

He started going to meetings and in addition to becoming informed about what was going on around town, “it was a way to get to know people in town,” he said.

Thomas enjoyed the process and found it to be a way to be an active member of the community.

“I knew I didn’t want to be on the planning board and I didn’t want to run for selectman,” he said.

Being on the ZBA allows him to be involved and help enforce the zoning laws decided by the town.

“It’s working together with people that aren’t necessarily like minded to make decision,” Thomas said.

When he’s not working in his shop or adjudicating zoning issues, Thomas is a lover of Irish music. He plays the flute and the uilleann pipes, the Irish version of the bagpipes played sitting down. He’s done a few small gigs over the years, but really just does it for the enjoyment.

“Irish music is a lake you can dive deep into,” he said.

He goes to Cooper’s Hill Public House on Tuesdays for their weekly Irish music session to play with others who share a similar passion. His wife is a jazz singer and his son, Will, is a member of Windborne, a singing group based in Massachusetts that recently played at the Nelson Town Hall. So music is in the family.

Thomas grew up in Connecticut, but his father was originally from Concord. His uncle owned a farm in Hopkinton and “some of my earliest memories are of his farm,” he said.

He always knew he wanted to live in New Hampshire, and has spent the last 40-plus years between Hillsborough and Rindge. His mom still lives in Hillsborough and his brother in in Fitzwilliam.

Thomas never saw himself working in an office and was fortunate enough to make a career doing what he enjoys. And until he decides to go to medical school, chances are he’s going to stick with creating one of a kind furniture pieces.


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