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Not only birdhouses

By on June 27, 2018 in Arts with 2 Comments

Thomas Howell has his pick of comfortable, sturdy handmade furniture, like this live-edge bench or the southwest patterned reclaimed chair to the right. The size of the display in his yard fluctuates with seasonal sales bursts.

Wood artisan crafts plenty of nesting boxes, but he also makes and re-builds furniture: ‘I maybe dream about it… and then start building…’


By Susan Lagsdin

Living far up the Skagit Valley, woodcrafter Thomas Howell’s young life was shaped by both artistry and necessity.

“I’ve always been creative, since I was a child,” he said. On non-school days he’d eagerly wake up early, and, “I’d either be sketching pictures of the sun coming up over the hill — or I’d be out on the river fishing, maybe hunting rabbits,” the former from innate creativity, the latter because his dad couldn’t always bring home enough money for the next meal.

After graduation he went straight to work, mostly outdoors, laboring for a lifetime with his strength and skill.

Now 63 and retired, Thomas figures he’s had 45 different jobs. He started in the woods thinning, woodcutting, working helicopter logging sites and removing “danger trees,” work he continues today on a smaller scale and which yields him usable wood for his myriad projects. (He said of the timber work, “I always cut alone — that means I’ve learned to stitch myself up, too,” referring to a chainsaw/leg mishap.)

Thomas repaired and sold car tires as a teen, he’s brokered fish in Alaska, boating out to the tenders to negotiate salmon harvests and he’s guided trophy elk hunters into the Idaho wilderness. He’s sold antiques commercially. His latest career was in communication; he took jobs around the country splicing fiber optic cable and installing transformers. (“Those ‘bucket babies’ are wasting time. I just put my hooks on my boots and get up to the top of the pole…”)

An independent streak and capacity for tough work remained with him after retirement. The compulsion to create beautiful objects with his hands stayed with him too.

“I’m not an artist,” he said, “but I am an artisan.”

When asked about his process, he momentarily drew a blank. Sketches? Diagrams? Graph paper? “No — I just think hard about a piece of wood — maybe dream about it — and then when I get up I go out and start building…”

His pleasure seems to come from combining disparate elements — breeds of trees, shapes of furniture, icons and oddities that spring from his imagination. Distinctive found items stack up, destined to find their own artful soulmates somewhere in the shed or shop.

Thomas’s front yard displays all manner of bird nesting boxes: multi-unit apartments with tiny round entrances for finches and sparrows, larger open-doored condos for robins and doves, ground-level cubbies for quail.

Bird homes dominate the yard, but it’s also peppered with benches and tables, a small wishing well planter, a few old refurbished chairs.

He rolled up the door of a metal shed full of potential furniture. Massive blonde maple burls (one five-foot by five-foot chunk perfect for a lodge coffee table) edge out slabs of scavenged wood, half-rounds of timbers, stacked poles, old wood he collected early on, new wood donated or discovered.

Some pieces are exotics he’s purchased — Brazilian blood wood, zebra wood, purple heart, yellow heart (“You can’t get a nail in that stuff — you have to use a drill,” he said.)

Thomas’s small house on a quiet side street above the river in East Wenatchee has become a slightly crowded showplace.

Pointing to one large, complex nautical-themed cabinet with mirror, side drawers, shelves, inlaid wood and fish-shaped metal drawer pulls, he said, “A guy asked me — ‘what if you can’t sell that?’ ‘Well’, I said, ‘I guess I own a real fine piece of furniture, don’t I?’”

He’s surrounded by his woodwork, but he’s not a hoarder. Most of the pieces go to his permanent booth at Spruce and Willow on Wenatchee Avenue or occasional parking lot displays near downtown. “Those sell out pretty quickly.” He said modestly, “I don’t have to load up a lot of pieces to take back home.”

People who’ve known him for years donate raw materials and also keep an eye on his newest creations. And, because his artfully crowded lawn is near the Loop Trail, frequent bikers or dogwalkers, neighbors and passers-by, peruse his yard and then return, maybe heading home with a special item.

It’s almost irresistible. Somewhere on that lawn is the perfect — what? Birdfeeder? Footstool? Chair? Bench? Yes. Undoubtedly.

And if you can’t find it, just describe it. Thomas can probably dream one up for you.

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  1. Terri Jungquist says:

    I own several pcs of Thomas Howell’s wood creations. They are my “keepers” and enjoy them every single day. Not only is this man talented, but one of the kindest people you will ever meet.

  2. WOW just what I was looking for. Came here byy searching for

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