One-man shop sets benchmark for Windsor chairs
WALTHAM — Maybe Waltham’s Timothy Clark was destined to be a woodworker, even though back in his Middlebury College days he started as a Pre-Med major before in 1985 earning a degree in Spanish, with a minor in Art.
But he recalled the impression Colonial Williamsburg made on him during a visit to Virginia from his hometown of New Hartford, N.Y., near Utica.
“A major influence was a trip to Williamsburg in 7th grade, when I saw the craftsmen there making furniture and violins, just the working with their hands and the raw wood,” Clark said. “That was just amazingly attractive to me.”
Even his chosen medical pursuit, orthopedic surgery, had involved working with his hands, but during Clark’s college years his mind began to change: He didn’t want to give up his other interests — such as language, art, biking, sailing and woodworking — in service to medicine.
“I liked the mechanics of it … But when I got into it, I realized to do it I was going to have to give up everything else,” said Clark, 53. “I decided, no, make a living at one of these other things I like doing.”
He settled first on furniture design, and set up a shop in his parents’ home to learn the nuts and bolts of furniture making. He was hooked.
“I was interested in furniture design, but decided I better learn how to make it first, so I went home and I was going to do that,” Clark said. “But I really liked making it, and designing it.”
RETURN TO VERMONT
That began his odyssey back to Vermont and more than a dozen woodworking shops before he and his wife, Mimi Clark, bought land on Green Street and Waltham and built a home and his one-man shop in 1998.
And that journey has led to his specialty, Windsor chairs of his own design and elongated Windsor benches — up to 29 feet — being displayed in high-end New York and Washington, D.C., restaurants and hotels. Sales have been steady, he said.
“The orders just keep coming in. I feel very lucky,” Clark said. “The specialization in chairs and benches has been the key to that, I think.”
Clark’s 1986 move to Vermont was practical.
“It was a great place to market your work,” he said. “It was a really nice place to come to, but also from a business standpoint it made a lot of sense to go to Vermont. And there were a lot of furniture makers to find a job with.”
He worked 20 hours a week for a Shelburne woodworker, who also let him use the shop on Clark’s free time, and for five years also worked in bike shops and led bike tours.
“I worked 40, 60 hours a week and learned very quickly just by doing,” he said.
Eventually, he taught woodworking at both the Shelburne Museum’s craft school, where he met Mimi, and Burlington’s Wood School, while also moving his tools from shop to shop, with garages and outbuildings in Bristol and Lincoln among the locations.
“This is shop No. 14, I believe,” Clark said. “I rented basements. I converted a chicken coop for one person. I would offer homeowners to use my tools if I could use their garage for very low rent.”
After three years at the Wood School in the mid-1990s and growing sales, Timothy and Mimi (now Middlebury College’s Chinese School coordinator) were able to buy their property in Waltham.
“Once I built my own shop and had my own thing, it was great. A lot of freedom comes with that,” Clark said, adding that now he can also be home when his son, 15, and daughter, 9, return from their school days.
CARVING A NICHE
Clark said the heart of his business are his versions of classic Windsor chairs, which he had always appreciated for their structural integrity and appearance.
“I don’t want to sell someone else’s chair. I want to sell my chair,” he said. “So I figured out how to make a Windsor that I liked, even though the Windsor chair is an old design.”
Among his variations are a more generous seat and a rail that goes behind the chair’s vertical spindles. In a classic Windsor design, the spindles go through the rail, Clark said, but he believes his design offers more flexibility, and thus more comfort.
“I call it my floating back. The back is flexible, but the rail from the arm on the chair goes around the spindles,” he said. “That’s my trademark design I haven’t seen anywhere else.”
Clark, who also makes chests and beds but prefers the sculptural aspects of chair making, believes his modifications have given him an edge in the marketplace.
“There’s not a lot of competition in modern Windsors,” he said. “I’ve found that niche.”
His Windsor chairs sell for up to $3,000, and he said his work is often on display at Middlebury’s Edgewater Gallery. His benches sell for a sum Clark described as many times that; his website, timothyclark.com, says a 16-foot walnut and ash bench was priced at $8,800. Clark made his first bench after interior designer Tony Chi saw his work online and approached him in 2006. That led to a 29-foot-4-inch bench in the Park Hyatt Hotel in D.C. Others have gone into Spago Restaurant in Vail, Colo., and Rouge Tomate Chelsea restaurant in New York City.
Each has to be made in sections to allow it to be moved. Clark said joining the sections seamlessly is one challenge, and he designed hardware especially for the challenge; Orwell machinist Robert Grant built the hardware.
“There is a line, and in a certain light you might see it. But if you look at it you don’t see the joints,” he said.
Such large pieces demand a painstaking process.
“Every step has to be done in order, or it doesn’t work. So when the seat is roughed out, it can be clamped together and then worked,” Clark said. “Before the legs go on, the bottom gets smoothed and made perfect, so you clamp the two pieces together and you work across that surface. You never work on one piece and then you work on another piece and then you hope they’re all going to go together.”
But the process is rewarding in more ways than one. Certainly, the benches have brought more attention and financial security to Clark’s business.
“When commercial orders come in like that, it’s generally good,” he said. “Because of them, I’m also selling a lot of the smaller benches, which are becoming a huge part of my business.”
And even when he gets so busy he can’t get his boat onto Lake Champlain, working on his specialty is satisfying.
“I would do this even if I wasn’t getting paid for it. I’m somewhat envious of hobby woodworkers because they get to work on whatever they want all the time,” he said. “But when I’m working on benches, I feel like a hobby woodworker.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].