Several months ago, a customer came into Randy Schmidt’s shop in Escalon bearing a piece of paper and stack of old boards and posts, a mix of redwood and oak.
The man brought a basic idea. The paper bore a rudimentary drawing of an L-shaped counter, with another drawing of the front, for what will soon become a sales counter and glass display case in an antique shop in Murphys.
What he really needed was some imagination, and that is when Schmidt went to work. He drew out a more elaborate sketch. Then another, and a revision of that one. Then he built a small-scale version to show the customer what it might look like. Being destined for a store, the customer envisioned the ensemble with black Formica countertop. No way. Schmidt produced an intricate mesh of inlaid three-inch squares from a long block of oak – “cut like a loaf of bread” – and framed within redwood strips. He broke up the pattern with a diamond-shaped inset of the same materials.
Mere woodworking? No, this is art: usable, functional and practical, but clearly with an artisan’s touch. He’ll do the same with tables and chairs, decorative doorways, indoor or outdoor furniture, floors – anything wood. When one customer needed shorter-than-usual customized bar stools, he built them to include inlaid seat patterns and for $600-per-chair less than had she ordered from a specialty shop elsewhere.
“I love the feeling when I’ve finished something and think, ‘I can’t believe I created that,’ ” Schmidt said.
The art of custom woodworking might not be lost, but it certainly is getting tougher to find in an era of inexpensive imported goods that, in many cases, are soon tossed into landfills instead of being passed down as family heirlooms.
Schmidt’s father, Marvin, went to work at Escalon Lumber in 1947 and bought the lumberyard and hardware store in 1964. He still runs it daily. When the economy tanked, building stopped. Independent lumberyards like theirs struggled to compete with the big-box suppliers and larger yards. So Randy, 56, ramped up the business’ cabinet-making side, expanded furniture repair and restoration, and began making new furnishings as well.
He discovered – or perhaps rediscovered – the joys of taking a simple idea and letting his imagination make it unique. Certainly, he had the background. How many boys get to grow up with an almost fully equipped wood shop at their disposal?
“About the only thing we didn’t have was a lathe,” he said. “I learned lathing in high school. Then we bought a lathe.”
Schmidt taught himself the techniques needed to use stains, tools and chemicals to make a new piece of wood look old. Likewise, he taught himself the art of restoration of older pieces without making them look too new or ruining their value as antiques. He made his first woodcarving at 19, creating a valance for a window in his parents’ home. Years ago, a man from Sweden worked for the company and became a mentor of sorts to Schmidt.
“I really learned to focus more on the artistic side than making cabinets,” he said. “There are lots of guys building cabinets. There are very few (woodworking) artists.”
There is a stark reality about the custom woodworking business. The cost of the craftsman’s time and the quality of materials they use often send their wares out of the customer’s price range, as the Swede learned.
“He moved back to Sweden,” Schmidt said. “He couldn’t make a living here. People want quality, but they think tradesmen are morons and idiots and want to pay ’em that way.”
Yet Schmidt has a strong customer base built on referrals. He continues to try new things, to hone his craft, to learn and create to order. He passes on some of his expertise to students at Escalon High, which eliminated its shop program more than a decade ago before bringing it back last year.
“They’d sold off everything except for a table saw and, I think, a bench sander,” woodworking teacher Dan Rovig said. “We started over with all new equipment. Not every kid is going to get a four-year degree. They might be in the trades – cabinetry or construction. Randy is on our executive committee. He’s been a big asset to the program.”
Some teens have apprenticed with him during the summers, applying the math they learned or struggled to learn in the classrooms.
“If you work at it long enough, you’ll figure it out,” he said.
Which is often what he does, and is doing with the pieces he’s building for the antique dealer.
“I draw it and modify it until we have what we want,” Schmidt said. “I change it as I build it. There is no finished model.”
Until it is indeed finished, of course.
“It’s really satisfying to take an old antique or recycled wood or new wood and create something beautiful,” he said.
Starting with an idea, enhanced by imagination, then formed by the hands of a craftsman.