Carving a niche in Vermont
Near the idyllic Vermont village of Saxtons River, 52-year-old Tom Golding creates uniquely designed pieces of fine furniture, decorative accessories, and architectural elements, all adorned with intricate carving. Tom's rare combination of talents as a woodworker and a woodcarver enable him to completely control the design, construction, and embellishment of everything that he makes. "When I design a piece, the woodcarver in me knows what the woodworker is doing and vice versa," says the silver-haired craftsman. And it's this compatible control that results in distinctively attractive work that's admired, purchased, and proudly displayed by his customers.
A winding road to carving
In 1965, at age 18, Tom Golding unsuspectingly began a woodworking career when he got a civil service job with the U.S. Navy at San Francisco's Hunter's Point Naval Shipyard. The young Californian started out as an apprentice boat builder, doing what he refers to as "amateur woodworking."
Nevertheless, Tom did learn how to use hand and power tools, and picked up basic woodworking skills. Over the years, Tom expanded those skills by building everything from houseboats to windmills. By the early 1980s, he and his wife, Diane, had established a small construction business in Southern California. By 1982 the couple had put away enough money to buy some land. But instead of shopping in California, they decided on New England, and wound up in Brattleboro, Vermont. The day after arriving, they made an offer on a house with five acres, then set out to build another contracting business—one with a central focus on general building and renovation.
It wasn't long before Tom began experimenting with adding carvings to architectural pieces, such as beams, doors, and posts, as well as making carved mirrors and clocks. "When I started adding the carving, the work really became enjoyable, and I looked forward to more," he recalls.
Eventually, after a move to rural Saxtons River, he was able to phase out the construction business and focus on furnituremaking and carving. He and Diane also began raising and selling Icelandic sheep. "The sheep make good pets, wool, and manure, and are good for mowing, so they're my best friends," he jokes.
Carving takes practice while designs just happen
Tom built upon the woodworking skills he learned as a young adult by observation, self-study, and hands-on application. Carving came to him by somewhat the same route.
"Except for a two-week session in Colorado with classical carver Nora Hall, I learned it by looking at other types of carving and reading books," Tom comments. "I began with chip carving, referring to Wayne Barton's books. He's a master chip carver. I also studied books that were inspirational with their patterns and designs. I would think to myself that they were beyond me, but I'd go ahead and try to figure out how they were done. And I discovered that I actually could develop the technique to do them."
The artistic side of carving—the designing—just happened. "A lot of it follows the principle that comes naturally to me—going from the general to the specific," he says. "I get a general idea for the pattern first. Then I go to the specific—the details. But I think that's pretty typical with any type of art."
Although Tom has been called a "classic-style" carver, using ancient Greek and Roman themes, he'll work in many styles. His preference, though, is Art Nouveau, a design theme of the late 19th century characterized by sinuous lines and floral motifs. "I've tried a lot of styles—classical, folk, East Indian, Hindu, Celtic, you name it," he states. "But Art Nouveau is the style I choose if I design something that I want to make for the sake of doing it. Making a living as a carver, though, I need to be flexible, creating whatever my clients prefer."
Tom is working on a beam for a local logger's home. "That's for a log cabin, so they want nature scenes with ducks and cattails. It's an example of the flexibility and versatility that I need to demonstrate in this business."
Crafting the rosette window
Perhaps the most ambitious project Tom has ever launched is one for himself. It's a 6'-diameter carved rosette inlaid with stained glass and surrounded with a mantel ring of intricate carving. The huge piece eventually will hang in the secondstory window of the gallery.
"I made the rosette from 251⁄2 "-thick pieces of basswood," Tom notes. "It has 30 joints that are doweled or splined as necessary. The openings for the glass I cut out with an orbital jigsaw. I've enjoyed my four months of work on it because of the challenges, both technical and aesthetic," he says. "And all told, I believe it's worth $20,000."
In addition to his own designs, the carver has done some reproduction work with great success, but it'll never be his first choice. "I once reproduced a chair to the point where nobody could tell which was the original. When I reproduced yet another one, I couldn't even tell," he chuckles.
Growing the business
From doors to dining sets, the work keeps coming in. Since Tom opened his shop near Saxtons River, his business has grown continually. Besides selling noncommissioned pieces, commissioned work keeps increasing. One such commission was for two 8'-tall, 3"- thick carved mahogany doors that were installed in a union hall. Another, yet to be done, is a 18"x30' wall art panel featuring a unicorn figure and a female figure to symbolize purity.
"I intend to make it from bookmatched, 4"-thick walnut panels left over from a 4"x20"x8'-long piece that I've used for some other projects in the past," he says. "I initially paid around $300 for that chunk of walnut, but I estimate that when it's gone, the wood will have been used in about $35,000 worth of work."
That the stock used represents only about 10% of the selling price of his work surprises some people. But carving is labor-intensive. For the carving-enhanced cherry dining room set, shown at the beginning of the article, Tom got $19,000. "That may seem high," Tom says of the project, "but it reflects the several months it took to produce. However, my pieces commonly have prices as varying as their designs. There's the high-end and the low-end, and lots in the middle. My Celtic-motif hand mirror, for instance, brings a reasonable $125."
Tom is very comfortable with his pricing. "When I arrive at a price for a piece, it's because I simply couldn't do it for less and remain in business," he says frankly. "Pricing is difficult in the beginning. You're always bashful about asking too much. But you gain confidence, and learn to put a price on something that truly stands for the actual work that you put into the piece."
Much of Tom's business is repeat. But surprisingly for his rural location, he gets drop-ins, too. He calls them "spontaneous buyers," who just happen upon his shop while driving in the beautful, tranquil countryside. "I've had people walk in, look around, then simply spend several thousand dollars for a couple of pieces of wall art," he recalls.
Carving uses hand tools; furniture needs power
Tom is a perfectionist. His furniture and carvings give every indication of that, and so does his shop. It's neat. It's organized, as evidenced below. Everything has its place. But there's creativity in the most subtle of places. There are, for instance, hand-carved, paddlelike extensions from his stationary machinery's power switches. They're not only aesthetically pleasing but technically functional.
Although Tom employs only hand tools in his carving, the craftsman admits his liking for the power tools so evident everywhere—a 6" jointer, a 20" planer, a 10" Powermatic tablesaw, a 20" bandsaw, a 20" drill press, a few scrollsaws, and a shaper. "They represent accuracy and speed," he says. And they allow him to spend more time with the knife and carving gouge.
But like many woodworkers, Tom knows that he has too many tools. "All I need for carving is about a dozen tools," he admits. "In fact, I start off my students with the Golding Carving Tool Set." Here's what's in it:
"I've got my own system to develop a different grind on the gouges for use in hard and soft woods," Tom continues. "I sharpen all my gouges by buffing. I put a hard-cloth buffing wheel on my grinder and use a polishing compound that is intended for use on stainless steel (SCR made by DICO). It doesn't clog the buffing wheel as readily as would a more aggressive compound, such as emory. Because I carve mostly softer woods, such as basswood and butternut, I normally use a shallow bevel angle. But when I carve a harder wood, like cherry, the cutting edge dulls quickly unless I steepen the angle of the gouge bevel. And I do that with the buffing wheel. Believe me, I keep the buffing wheel real close when I work with the hardwoods!"
And it's that time-consuming handwork that he's mastered that drives him to new challenges. Now, with fervor, he passes on his love for carving through teaching.
Passing on a tradition honed to perfection
"I began a few years ago by teaching chip carving. Then, it was both woodworking and carving," Tom explains. "Those lessons evolved into my present five-day 'Carving Intensives,' which I limit to eight students per class and conduct four times per year."
A typical carving workshop consists of 11⁄2 days of formal training on high relief, low relief, and chip carving, followed by 31⁄2 days of concentration in one of those styles of particular interest to the student. With minimal instruction, Tom has the participants carving very quickly. "When people come, they're carving within the first 10 minutes," he comments. "I show everyone in the morning, "This is how you hold the knife. This is how you hold the chisel." Once they know how to use them, that's that. The rest of the time I'm showing them how to make their work look good."
Carving Intensives workshops currently cost $390, including materials and tools. To date, they've attracted students of all ages from as far away as Hawaii.
From all appearances, fate has been good to Tom. He lives in the picturesque Vermont countryside working at what he enjoys. The road there may have had some detours, but Tom won't hesitate to tell you that it has all been fun. "So far, I'd call it a fulfilling journey," he says, almost with a sigh. "Often, not knowing exactly what lies ahead means pleasant surprises."