Customers strolling through the county are exposed to all kinds of artwork – watercolor, pottery, sculpture and photography to name a few. Another medium not always instantly thought of as art is woodworking, unless of course one has seen Joel Thomas’ handcrafted furniture. The detail, the tones of the wood he selects, and the overall feel of the pieces leaves no doubt of his natural artistic talent.
Joel, who has been doing carpentry and woodworking for some twenty-odd years, ventured out into his own space in Sister Bay three years ago, saying it was time to make the leap. He chose a building, which he calls The Studio, that had plenty of room for his materials and equipment and could grow along with his business. He does meet customers in his workshop to go over custom orders; however, a number of them first come across his furniture at Fine Line Designs Gallery in Ephraim. Owner Connie Hatch has been an admirer of Joel’s work for years. “Joel really does such beautiful work,” she said. “There are subtle touches that you don’t even notice right away, such as a slight curve on a piece. His finishes are like satin and his inlays are masterful. It’s gotten to the point where I can’t even look at store-bought furniture anymore.” Customers from all over the Midwest and as far away as Napa Valley have obviously agreed.
Seeing himself as a functional artist, Joel has the luxury of both creating his own designs for gallery showings and incorporating his clients’ ideas for custom pieces. “The custom work is very collaborative,” he explained. “Most people know what they are looking for.” A lot of Joel’s business is repeat orders; customers may start with a small side table, then they may come back for a dining room or bedroom set. Since every order is custom made by Joel himself, there is a lead time of three to four months. However, he has taken on a very young apprentice with an eye towards the future. His four year-old son, Payton, has his own pint-sized workbench complete with mini clamps, wood scraps and jars of paint.
Celeste Wegman, of Celeste Wegman Interiors, has had Joel create special pieces for some of her clients. “I really appreciate the craftsman he truly is. He has such a feel for how he marries the wood together and the finishes are just gorgeous when they are done.”
Through local word of mouth and from the marketing efforts of his wife, Holly, Joel has been able to keep consistently busy in his woodshop. “This just feels right. It’s very rewarding that I’m able to make a living from doing something I enjoy. Any other option just wouldn’t interest me.” Sometimes his art takes longer than his customers expect it to; however, most agree that it is well worth the wait.