Handmade: Marc Stimpson of Hope's Woodshop
Amidst a raucous choir of buzz saws and hammers, I enter what is now a ubiquitous scene in Providence: an artists' collective sharing a massive, re-purposed industrial workspace. Everywhere I turn, furniture and other objects are being crafted by hand in this giant former mill on Manton Avenue.
Seven different artisan operations reside here, but I'm here to meet Marc Stimpson – founder of the nascent community woodworking organization Hope's Woodshop. Stimpson greets me with a sprinkle of sawdust on his denim shirt and a smile stretching wide across his scruffy face. Through Rhode Island Sawmill in Coventry, he harvests local lumber like black walnut, cherry, butternut and maple, crafting Rhode Island's native trees into gorgeous wooden furniture with a story to tell.
Since the birth of Hope's Woodshop in October 2012, Stimpson's work has sprouted up in well-known foodie establishments: the bar at Persimmon in Bristol; displaying merchandise at Stock Culinary Goods in Providence; and hosting diners at the new Pizzico in Barrington. Each table, desk, bar top and shelving piece possesses distinctive live edges, knots and imperfections. Every piece is hand-planed, and never sanded. Stimpson knows where every tree comes from, and exactly how he wants it to enhance the dining experience in its new home.
"In Rhode Island, it's about the local-ness of it – this tree was from Coventry or this tree was from Portsmouth," Stimpson said. "And when you're sitting there, you feel the wood and there's something really cool about it; there's a strong connection."
Just like the local food movement, Stimpson's work is born of a widespread cultural desire to rediscover our pre-industrial roots. He bemoans the Ikea craze, and the rampant practice of eating on the couch.
He said, "We're in such a culture nowadays where our furniture is disposable. [But] when it actually means something to us, we enjoy sitting around it. I love to challenge people and say, 'Put one of my tables in your house and I guarantee it changes the whole feel of your home.'"
Jan Faust Dane, owner of Stock Culinary Goods, says customers instantly notice Stimpson's table, the main display of her East Side retail shop. It's easy to see why: The table, made from a black walnut tree from East Greenwich, is rustic yet modern, standing firmly on black steel legs from a repurposed jeweler's press.
Dane excitedly tells me of how she and Stimpson first met, just after Stock opened in 2012. It was right before Thanksgiving, and the tables she'd been borrowing from friends for her displays all had to be returned for the holiday.
"I wanted to present this image and he [Stimpson] walked in one day and complimented the style of the shelving, the look of the store. And I said, 'Oh, you're a builder?' and he said, "Yeah, I do tables." And I went on, 'Oh my gosh! I need a table.' And immediately, without hesitating, he said, 'I'll build a table for you. But in the meantime take my dining room table.' And that's when I started calling him my 'table angel.'"
Lisa Speidel, co-owner of Persimmon with her chef/husband Champe, first encountered Stimpson's work at Stock.
"We were drawn to the tactile nature of his work," Lisa said. "His attention to detail and careful sourcing of materials. In short, his approach is in sync with many of our goals at Persimmon. We wanted something that would be a showpiece but still subtle because our space is intimate."
Stimpson tackled the work of building Persimmon's new bar with his father, a finish carpenter/cabinet maker. Stimpson is in fact a third-generation woodworker, yet he took an ambling road to arrive at his calling. After graduating from Johnson & Wales with a degree in international business, he took a lucrative job with a Fortune 500 company. Yet, in a moment of risk and inspiration, he left the comfortable trappings of job security and benefits to follow his passion.
"Something was just missing inside of me and I was, like, 'I need to do something else,'" Stimpson says. "And here I am today, taking what my father taught me and adding my own set of skills to it. So, I kind of took a weird way around to get there but I feel like I was meant to do it."
Not just a for-profit enterprise, Stimpson donates 20% of his earnings back to Hope's Woodshop to fulfill its true purpose and namesake: strengthening environmentally friendly woodworking skills in the community. Twice a week the shop hosts YouthBuild, a nationally recognized program where low-income youth can work towards a GED or high school diploma while gaining valuable construction skills. Right now, Stimpson and his students are refinishing 60 donated desks that they'll give away to area youth. His dream is to give away one dining room table for each table he sells.
"My ultimate goals are to put more furniture in the homes of people in need," Stimpson says. "For the woodshop to be a safe haven where children and adults can come as they please, to learn woodworking techniques outside of their normal curriculum. And it's a very real thing to be sustaining our forests. Eventually we want to make sure that when there's a hurricane or a tree coming down, that we can be there to take that tree – and make sure it's going to a good home, not just being turned into firewood."
I ask what his dining room table was like growing up. He chuckles, and immediately responds, "Small. With expanding leaves . . . that we could never find."
Stimpson says the most important thing to him is gathering around a table with friends and family.
"I think that's why people love going out to eat so much," he says. "It's where you can talk, whether it's good or bad. I started this because I believe people should be around a table, talking and getting to know one another, sharing their stories, growing as a family and confiding in one another."