Furniture all their own

2012-09-16T00:00:00Z 2014-08-20T10:02:23Z Furniture all their ownDan Sorenson Special To The Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star

Dan Hostetler calls his business Tempus Fugit Woodworks. The Latin title sounds impressive, but he doesn't fool himself that he's ever going to get rich turning trees to his will. Tempus Fugit Woodworks is only Hostetler, 57.

He rents a humble, drafty shop in an alley, has no showroom, only a website. Hostetler's teen son expressed some interest in his father's work, and occasionally helped out in the shop. But Hostetler said there wasn't enough money in the work to even pay him. It just takes too much training and then time on each piece to make it a very profitable business.

Hostetler has watched some of the TV shows that romanticize the craft, like PBS's "The Woodwright's Shop, with Roy Underhill," where the New England cabinetmaker turns out reproductions of period pieces with only hand tools like those used in the 1700s and 1800s.

"The trouble with those shows, they make it look easier than it is," says Hostetler. That's why he named his business Tempus Fugit - Latin for "time flies." "That comes from people telling me, 'This won't take you anytime at all.' It always takes longer than people think," says Hostetler. Some will pay the price; most can't.

Hostetler understands. He says his own house doesn't have much of his work. "It's like the cobbler's kid's shoes," he says. He can't afford to spend much of his time on his own furniture. He mixes high craft and practicality.

"I'm a real fan of hand tools. I use hand tools probably more than most woodworkers I know," he says of the craftsmen who insist on using only hand tools, "but you have to get things done."

Even using power tools when they will hasten production and won't compromise quality, he says the gorgeous rocking chairs he's working on will have to sell for $4,000 apiece, and won't leave him with more than a few hundred dollars income a week, after materials and overhead for his humble shop.

"Yeah, about $4,000 apiece, almost a month of work apiece."

The rockers are inspired by long-tailed rockers of the legendary - at least a legend to fine furniture craftsmen - Sam Maloof. Maloof (1916-2009), was the first craftsman to receive a MacArthur "genius" grant. Hostetler's take on the Maloof rocker may become his signature piece, but even reproducing it regularly and in larger numbers isn't likely to make him a lot of money. He says there's hardly a straight piece of wood on the whole chair. Very little is saved by making several at once because nearly all the pieces are made and fitted with hand tools.

Many of his customers want pieces that they hope will be heirlooms, passed down through their families.

He understands, but dislikes, composition board furniture. But the mass-produced fake wood composition board and photographic fake veneer furniture you assemble yourself won't be around long, he says.

"It's not going to survive until your relatives get it," he says. "It's probably not going to survive the next move," Hostetler says. "It's disposable. I try to think about heritage."

That custom work doesn't sustain him financially. So, he also does some more practical, affordable work for clients, too.

"I do some very humble stuff, plywood frames with hardwood facing on it," Hostetler says of some of the commercial work he does.

One of his standbys during the economic slowdown has been the work he's done for the owners of the Hotel Congress and Maynards Market & Kitchen in the railroad station downtown. He built the big slab table, for community dining, in the store, and some windows and benches for inside Maynards restaurant. And he recently did a banquette that faces the bar in Club Congress inside the hotel.

•••

Steve Bennett wanted a mesquite desk for his home office, something made just for him, just the way he wanted it.

He stumbled across some beautiful pieces on display in a Tucson shop and picked up the craftsman's business card.

"I do woodworking myself," says the Raytheon program manager, an engineer by training, a craftsman at heart. But he didn't have a shop set up, and, because he wanted mesquite, he knew he had a very demanding project in mind.

That card was Ben McNitt's, of McNitt Brothers Wood Works. McNitt has worked in wood nearly his entire life. As a boy, he learned from his father. But he turned professional only when he retired five years ago, at age 62, from careers as a journalist - first as a reporter in Tucson during the 1970s and early 1980s, and then as a CNN bureau chief in Cairo covering the Middle East, and later as a media guy for an environmental group in Washington, D.C.

"I wanted something different," McNitt said of woodworking after a life of journalism. "Coming from journalism where the sense of time is so narrow, this is completely different. You've got the tools," McNitt says, and if something goes wrong, "you can't blame anybody else." On the other hand, when a piece turns out the way it was intended to, "you can take some pride in that."

He kept up his woodworking skills throughout his other careers; he even set up a small shop in the living room of his Washington, D.C., condo during that period. Even so, he didn't exactly have overnight success after turning pro. McNitt spent his first year or two back after moving back to Tucson to be a furniture maker just building pieces on spec, with no buyer. And, when he took them all to a big home show at the Tucson Convention Center, he says "I got a lot of oohs and aahs, but I didn't sell a single stick." But word got out, he started selling some of his furniture and, better yet, getting commissions to build specific pieces.

"Now, it's almost 100 percent commissioned work," McNitt says. He says the customers often know exactly what they want. He's fine with that, in fact enjoys fulfilling dreams. "There's a joy in working with a client that's invested - and do it in a way they can afford." McNitt says his work isn't cheap, but is more affordable than it would be if he wasn't already retired.

Despite the years of woodworking, he insists "I'm not a master craftsman." He is still learning. And his production is low, turning out only one or two pieces a month. "Doing one or two pieces a month, I'm not driving anybody out of business," he says.

And cheap is relative. His Chippendale-style chairs are $600 apiece, and that's with the client providing the wood and the upholstery. But for people to work with a craftsman to get exactly what they want, and something of what McNitt calls "generational quality," they seem to consider it good value. McNitt says he's worked five to seven days a week for the last 28 months, nearly all of it commissioned.

Bennett's desk is a good example. Bennett said he wanted a big desk, made of mesquite, but he didn't want it to have a massive look. He wanted something more than a wood piece with drawers and a big slab on top. He and McNitt worked together on the design, and they're both proud of it.

Although Bennett says the desk cost him between $4,000 and $5,000 (he won't say exactly), he considers it a bargain for a showpiece that was built to his requirements.

"I wanted a person making a piece of furniture for me who cared about what he was making," Bennett says, as well as someone willing to collaborate on the design. He says he got that with McNitt.

McNitt and Bennett said the design borrows from no particular style or period of furniture. To lighten up the look of the big desk, they put open space between the drawer towers and the desktop - the massive top appears to float. And the front panel is not a single piece, but made up of angled sections, which also reduces its apparent mass. Its outer surfaces are all made of carefully matched mesquite, so there's continuity between the pieces with just enough difference to catch the eye.

For most woodworkers in Tucson, McNitt says, mesquite is the signature wood. It's tough to work with, but he said that's often what people want because it speaks of the desert and the Southwest. And while there is commercially produced mesquite furniture, McNitt says most of it is Spanish colonial or Mexican rustic. McNitt says he tries to "stay away from the conventions," to do something new.

Sources

• McNitt Brothers Wood Works, www.mcnittbros.com

• Tempus Fugit Woodworks, www.tempusfugitwoodworks.com

Contact Tucson freelance writer Dan Sorenson at d.sorenson@cox.net

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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