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A Big Dig casualty finds his calling replicating fine 18th-century furniture

''If you look closely, you can see a little man in there," Thomas J. MacDonald says, pointing out the veneer around his Duncan Phyfe drum table.

It's hard to focus on ''the little man" for wanting to see all the table's details: seamless joints; book-matched veneers; carefully aligned grains; carved, tapered legs; and a smooth, rubbed finish. These details are made by hand, the way craftsmen made them 200 years ago.

But MacDonald points to the veneer again, where the grains form a mysterious pattern. Using a little imagination, one can see a resemblance to Yoda of ''Star Wars."

''Cool, huh?" says MacDonald, 39, who looks like a California surfer, dressed in an orange Bora Bora T-shirt, with his long, blonde hair parted in the middle. He stares into the swirls of wood grain the way others stare at clouds and conjure shapes.

''I'm just a rookie," MacDonald says of his ability to replicate some of the finest American furniture designs of the 18th century.

He started furniture making less than five years ago, yet has the skill of a master. Bob Vila spotted him as a student at the North Bennet Street School in Boston and featured him twice on his show. Now MacDonald has a store in Canton and is working on two Hepplewhite pieces that will take him a year to make and cost his customer $90,000.

''I haven't had time to make my own furniture yet," says MacDonald, who lives in a 450-square-foot bachelor apartment in Canton. No kids, no mortgage, no debt, MacDonald spends his free time four-wheeling, fly fishing, catching a few Red Sox games, and hanging with family and friends.

An opera-goer he's not. In fact, he never attended museums or even thought about art, furniture, and design until a few years ago. ''I didn't know that Queen Anne furniture came from the Queen Anne period, and there even was a Queen Anne," says MacDonald.

One of nine children growing up in a Canton family, MacDonald literally fought his way through school. He dropped out of Blue Hills Vocational Technical High School and struggled to overcome episodes of a troubled youth that included crashing his car and nearly dying from it. But then he got his GED, joined the carpenters' union, and pushed on.

He rehabbed triple-deckers with his brother, Jimmy, and found work on the Big Dig. But then he separated his shoulder; three surgeries later, MacDonald, then 34, learned that his career of heavy lifting was over.

''What do you do when someone tells you that?" asks MacDonald.

Dr. Arnold Scheller (his surgeon and also team physician for the Boston Celtics) suggested he check out North Bennet Street School. Established in 1885, the school focuses on furniture making of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries -- carving, planing, shaping, inlaying, veneering, and hand joining.

''A lot of people are into modern furniture, but there's something about these pieces that does it for me," MacDonald says. ''It's a period before the Industrial Revolution, when everything was still made by hand."

MacDonald learned the basics, and started by building a tool chest. He moved onto a Chippendale chair with a back that resembles Gothic archways, and then to a sleek Chippendale table that seats 18 people. His final project was a Salem secretary, patterned after one made by Henry Rust, a mid-18th-century furniture maker from Salem. With its pigeonholes (designed to hold ledgers), finials, carved shells, and ball-and-claw feet, such a secretary would challenge the most experienced furniture maker, not to mention a student.

''I like the challenges of stuff that's overwhelming," says MacDonald, who put 1,000 hours into the 9-foot-tall secretary, which later sold for $48,000.

''We're used to seeing people do some pretty amazing things. It's at the high end of things being done here, but not surprising," says Steve Brown, head of North Bennet Street's cabinet- and furniture-making department. ''I think Tom surprised himself to be capable of that kind of project."

When Vila, a TV host and pitchman who once hosted PBS's ''This Old House," visited the school, MacDonald's secretary caught his eye. When he featured it on his show, he called it ''a little masterpiece," pointing out the perfectly matched grain of the South American mahogany on the doors and the slant-front desk. Then, Vila asked MacDonald to demonstrate how he carved the shells. The student drew a pattern on wood, then gouged out the interior. Then he stab-cut the shell, defining its edges. Picking up a V-tool, MacDonald gouged the shell's interior, and repeated the motions over and over. Even with television editing, the process looked repetitive, endless.

''It takes just patience and skill," said Vila at the end of the segment.

To that, MacDonald replied, ''It takes more patience than skill."

Generally, he is patient, but he recalls thinking as he worked on the secretary, ''It's a beast -- it doesn't go away. Every day it's there -- it's a monster." It's the kind of love-hate relationship writers, artists, and musicians often have with their work. One doesn't expect it of a furniture maker.

In practically the same breath, MacDonald professes his love for his new career. In January, he opened his studio in Canton, which still smells of paint, spackling, and varnish. Most days, music of Miles Davis or Metallica fills the air. The showroom is sparse because MacDonald has sold nearly everything in it, except three Duncan Phyfe drum tables, a Chippendale chair, a table, and a granite-topped bathroom vanity made of quilted cherry wood.

Anthony DeGiulio, an antique map collector in Troy, N.Y., saw MacDonald and his secretary on Vila's show. ''The one thing that stuck in my mind was it took him 1,000 hours to make it," says DeGiulio. ''It looks so perfect in the pictures, but when you stand right next to it, you realize this guy did it with his two hands. That's so impressive."

After a series of phone calls, DeGiulio met MacDonald in his studio and they pored over photographs of some of the best American furniture designs. Prior to this, DeGiulio thought he wanted MacDonald to make a cabinet for his maps, but seeing all these ideas and listening to MacDonald's enthusiasm, DeGiulio changed his mind. He wanted two Hepplewhite cabinets.

Not just any design would do for MacDonald and DeGiulio, either. They chose something ostentatious, a cabinet that's 8 feet tall, over 5 feet wide, and with embellishments galore, a wedding cake among furniture. It has glass panel doors with sweeping figure-eight mullions, book-matched veneer panels, graduated inlaid bell flowers, bands of veneer everywhere, and brass finials along the top.

''It will have the same characteristics as the original," says MacDonald, who will use machines only to rough cut the lumber. Everything else will be done by hand.

In a little lab he created in his studio, MacDonald practices some of the embellishing techniques he'll use for the Hepplewhite pieces. In particular, he's working on cascading bell flowers. The detail is so small that a casual observer might not even notice it. But up close, one sees a vertical row of tiny inlaid flowers -- the largest one, at the top, as wide as a woman's index fingernail. The petals decrease in size as they descend until they practically disappear.

Each petal is inlaid into the wood using 1/42-inch-thick holly, a white wood that contrasts with the mahogany. In addition, each holly petal is toasted using a technique called sand shading. On a hot plate, MacDonald heats up a cake pan full of sand. The edge of holly goes into the hot sand where the edge turns a soft, subtle brown. MacDonald rotates the wood, smoking the outside perimeter of each petal. A lot of furniture makers might skip this step or leave out the petals. Not MacDonald.

''Do you know how many people think I painted that?" MacDonald says, pointing to bell flowers along a practice leg.

''You're talking about one of the best furniture makers today. My great-great-grandchildren will have a piece by Thomas J. MacDonald," says DeGiulio.

You'd think this praise would rush to MacDonald's head. But it doesn't. ''He's still a guy from Boston," says DeGiulio. ''I get the impression he's just coming to grips with the talent he has."

MacDonald realizes that he's dealing in a narrow market. Few customers will pay $48,000 for a Salem secretary or even $3,500 for a Duncan Phyfe table. But he's not looking for a lot of buyers. He just wants a few who will commission big projects.

''It's not about the money," he says. ''This is an isolated thing I do. This is a personal thing. At the end of the day, I can look at this and say, 'It's mine.' " Done with his two hands.

In downtown Canton, MacDonald walks onto the street and looks up at the sign that fills the storefront windows: ''Thomas J. MacDonald -- Creator of Future Family Heirlooms."

''Cool, huh?" MacDonald says, looking at the sign as if he can't believe he and the furniture maker are one and the same. He has a faraway look in his tawny eyes as if he's thumbing through an encyclopedia of famous furniture names: Hepplewhite, Duncan Phyfe, Biedermeier, and Chippendale.

''Hopefully in 200 years that name will mean something too," he says.

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