Tommy MacDonald Hits the Nail On the Head
by Ronald Sklar
The star of PBS’ Rough Cut – Woodworking with Tommy Mac says that creating furniture from scratch is can-do, even for those who think of themselves as can’t-don’t.
I’m trying to broaden the horizons of what has been shown on television for woodworking,” says Rough Cut host Tommy MacDonald, known to his growing legion of fans as Tommy Mac. “I just want to continue to broaden people’s expectations of themselves when they go to do some woodworking, so they really can do any of this stuff.”
The popular PBS how-to program enters its third season this fall, and Tommy Mac isn’t surprised that the fine art of woodworking has caught on with old die-hards with calluses as well as curious newbies with carpal tunnel.
“I really and truly believe that if you really want to dedicate the time doing this type of work, you’ll be able to do it in some capacity,” he says.
Those are pretty much fighting words for an old-world New England guy who normally takes his sweet old time and hones his craft. But now he’s stepping up for season three, and a whole lot of woodworking fans are clamoring for more. In order to teach out loud what’s in his head, MacDonald has to think and work at buzz-saw speed, yet maintain his usual stamp of quality and slow-good attention to detail.
“It’s very methodical,” he says of the craft. “It’s kind of like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. You really need to start in one spot and end up in another. I bet Type A guys would really get wrapped up in the whole process, as long as you aren’t agonizing over all of the small things that you don’t really need to agonize over. I think the more you do it, the more you realize that the things that you agonize over in the beginning don’t amount to a hill of beans six months or a year down the road.”
A life-long resident of Canton, Massachusetts (with a New England accent not heard on PBS since the days of Zoom), MacDonald polished his passion for woodworking since middle-school shop class.
“My dad was a civil engineer,” he says. “He couldn’t do woodworking to save his life, but he had nine kids and we were always paneling and doing drop ceilings. We were always fixing cars. He could make miracles out of a couple of nuts and bolts and bubble gum and elastic. My dad was definitely MacGyver, for sure.
“I had six sisters and two brothers. I was second to last, and I was fixing all my brothers’ and sisters’ cars, fixing whatever was broken around the house. I was kind of my dad’s helper. I got to the point where I ended up doing all the stuff.”
By adulthood, he was a full-fledged carpenter (with a union card), improving homes all over the area. By the mid-Nineties, he worked on Boston’s Big Dig, but an on-the-job injury and a shoulder separation forced him to set his career sights elsewhere. That’s when he found furniture making.
Since then, MacDonald has had his work showcased at the Massachusetts Historical Society, The Rhode Island School of Design Museum, The Concord Museum, and Doric Hall in the Massachusetts State House.
When he was urged to start a video podcast to demonstrate step-by-step woodworking, he didn’t even own a computer. But he learned fast, and before long he was on television.
“I’m striking a chord with a lot of people on television because I’m pretty damn good at what I’m doing, but I’m not the expert,” he says. “I’m just another guy in the shop trying to figure out a really good way to make something that I want to build.”
Yet with the TV series, he was able to sand off one finished product after another, with a huge following doing the same at home. MacDonald is eternally appreciative for the opportunity to share his passion with a national audience.
“I’ve had some pretty tough times along the way, so I’m really grateful just to be here,” he says. “I got into a car accident when I was twenty-years old, and it really almost killed me, so every day I wake up and I feel like I’m on borrowed time. For me personally, it’s just an honor to be a steward of the craft, and I’m doing my best not to mess it up. I have a really good family that’s not afraid to knock me down a couple of pegs, if my head gets too big. I’m just lucky to be here, man, I’m just blessed. Honestly.”
For those about to carve, McDonald says that focus is key, and not being afraid to goof up. That is a given (even for him).
“The mistakes you make are instantly clear,” he says. “You’re like, ‘Oh, I get it,’ and then you have to try to fix your mistake or pick up another piece of wood. Overall, the material is pretty inexpensive, even if you are paying fifteen or twenty bucks a board foot. The amount of time that goes into these projects is where all the money is.”
However, once you get into the groove, you’re grooving with the best of them.
“If you have the passion to do it, and you’re willing to stay on the learning curve, you can achieve anything,” he says. “What I do is an acquired skill. If you just spend enough time and have the tools, you can get pretty good at it. It’s like anything. I don’t cook, but I know that if I stayed in the kitchen long enough, I would learn how to cook something. If you really, really want to do it, you can do it.”
Find out more about Tommy and Rough Cut: www.thomasjmacdonald.com