Tim Neal likes to know he is “putting beauty into the world,” even if is one small piece at a time.
Neal describes himself as a “fine wood” craftsman, whose most popular products are his handcrafted pens and cutting boards. He favors a range of exotic woods including Padauk, a reddish wood resistant to abrasion; Purpleheart, a striking naturally purple-hued wood; curly maple, as used in violin making; Zebrawood, a creamy brown striped wood from Central America, burl woods, with swirly, knotty grain; and richly-grained Mesquite from Texas.
While the retired IT worker takes commissions for larger, custom pieces, such as tables and cabinets, he finds it more practical to make and sell compact collectibles for transport to shows. In addition to pens and cutting boards, he builds Pennsylvania spice boxes, jewelry boxes, wine bottle stoppers, trivets, wooden bowls, and even razor handles.
“I think I do it (woodworking) for relaxation,” he says. “It’s a way for me to zone out and focus on something that I’m trying to perfect. I can go into my shop in the morning and not come out until evening.”
Neal’s earliest woodworking memories are of his father making shelves. As he notes in his bio, working with wood “fascinated him.”
“There was something amazing about starting with something that was practically worthless, and turning it into something someone could use, and that they liked!”
As a lad of 11, he began cutting up scraps of wood he found in the basement of his family home. His mother recognized his growing passion, so she sent him to a neighborhood youth center to take classes under a veteran woodworker. Other than that experience and a few professional courses as an adult, Neal is self-taught.
Woodworking was relegated to a weekend hobby until his industry was caught in the financial crisis in 2009, and he and his wife found themselves untethered from their careers. They decided it was time to “reinvent ourselves.”
He started by selling his small wares at arts and crafts shows, setting up a 10’ x 10’ tent and engaging with the crowds. His work was “an immediate hit.”
“We always had good results,” he says. “I had to learn to pick the right kind of shows. For example, bazaars don’t work for what I sell.”
He decided to concentrate on producing finely crafted items, especially cutting boards and pens.
“What drew me in to pen making, is that you can produce a product very quickly,” he says. “Within a couple of hours, you get the satisfaction of seeing the results. Sometimes I could complete two or three in a day, and I found that to be very satisfying.”
Smaller crafts were also easier to sell, both due to a lower price point and because he could custom personalize his work with signatures or laser engraved images.
Another benefit of doing shows is the personal feedback.
“I really appreciate what people tell me,” he says. “Customers from the past often come back and pull out what I’ve sold them before, telling me how much they like it.”
He even gets requests to repair small wood items he might not have made in the first place. Neal tells of an elderly gentleman who showed him a money clip with wood inlay in brass. It was chewed up from years of use. The man had been turned down by others who refused to work on it.
“He asked if I could repair it,” Neal says. “I knew why the others had turned it down — it was not worth the time and effort. But I said I would do it, just because I could tell it meant a lot to him by the way he talked about it.”
So Neal repaired it, put in a new inlay, and sent it back. The client sent a nice letter of thanks, and two years later actually looked him up at a show.
“He pulled that money clip out and showed it to me,” Neal says. “It was such a good feeling.”
Proving that when you put beauty into the world, it comes back to you.