When it comes to seeing and seizing entrepreneurial opportunities, Tommy MacDonald hits the nail on the head.
The long-time host of PBS’ ROUGH CUT, a how-to series about woodworking, is about to enter a seventh season, and has been nominated for four Emmy awards. The show has become a hit among viewers who want to use their hands for something other than scrolling a smart phone.
Tommy says that he truly believes that woodworking is not necessarily an innate gift -- it’s an acquired skill. If you stick with it long enough, you’ll get pretty good at it. It may be a bit more challenging than other artisan endeavors (when you make a mistake, you’ll know it immediately), but that’s the thrill of the challenge. Woodworking is a craft that demands patience, but Tommy’s career trajectory unfolded at buzz-saw speed. He says that he’s worked hard for the opportunity to be a steward of the craft.
Born and raised in Canton, Massachusetts (with the accent to prove it), Tommy came up in a big family (one of nine kids). His career journey started early, attending carpentry classes in sixth grade. Later, while working as a carpenter on Boston’s Big Dig, he injured his shoulder, which, after 15 years, forced him to pursue a different career track.
That search led him to the respected North Bennett Street School, where he learned woodworking. He became a prize pupil there: his pieces were showcased at the Massachusetts Historical Society, The Rhode Island School of Design Museum, The Concord Museum and Doric Hall in the Massachusetts State House.
Designing awesome Federal furniture (one client paid him $100,000 for two pieces) led to an association with how-to icon Bob Vila, the host of the legendary PBS series THIS OLD HOUSE. One on-air interview prompted a great audience response, and Tommy was invited back for a few more appearances. Soon, he was urged to start a video podcast to demonstrate step-by-step woodworking on bobvila.com (at the time, he didn’t even own a computer, but he was a fast learner.).
In 2008, NEW YANKEE WORKSHOP host Norm Abram – a fixture on Boston’s WGBH – was announcing his retirement. Tommy saw his chance: he pitched his show a number of times to the station (sum timeframe: two years). The answer continued to be a rousing “no,” but Tommy steadily built his brand online and garnered more media coverage. At long last, WGBH agreed to a series, provided he could get a sponsor. Tommy cold-called the Woodcraft company (the one-stop shop for wood-related tools, supplies and service) and spoke to the CEO personally (no lawyer, no talent rep). Another yes.
In a perfect world, a how-to series like this would take about 18 months to develop; Tommy had only six months to rebuild his shop into a TV studio, write 13 episodes, build furniture (in particular, for the camera’s eye), and hone his on-camera skills (don’t lose that accent, Tom!).
Yet another challenge: replacing Norm Abram in the public’s heart (the host was beloved by TV audiences for 20 years), while dealing with the unrelenting Internet trolls and learning to develop a thick skin.
The next four years saw Tommy working (and evolving) to get the TV show the way he wanted it. He always thought the premise (woodworking) was too narrow. He wanted to push for more home improvement, but PBS was satisfied enough with what they already had: THIS OLD HOUSE.
So for the next six years, he changed the landscape of how viewers would see conventional furniture making. He brought in special guests from all over the world and expanded into carving, inlaid, steam press lamination, cold press lamination, hand-tool furniture, and traditional furniture. The series ran the gamut on what he thought would make a great woodworking television program. All the while, Tommy built and developed his brand.
Because he knew he had to expand his horizons, he started Tommy Mac Enterprises: consulting for tool companies, making convention appearances, and seriously rebuilding and regularly refreshing his website.
He’s also taken advantage of the new Facebook Live platform, building a house online and chatting it up with fans. In seasons 5 and 6, he bought an “effed-up” split level in Canton and turned it into an amazing, 21st century arts-and-crafts house – on video.
With season 7 in his sights, he’s also planning on going back to the web and continuing to build on his video content. He says that for every success, he’s had a hundred failures, but it’s looking like Tommy is securing his place as the 21st century’s shop teacher to America.