Tommy Mac & ‘Rough Cut’

As ‘Rough Cut’ begins season two, we discover the host’s career path to television success.

By Glen D. Huey
Pages: 40-43

From the November issue #193
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This Salem secretary was the piece that started Tommy down the homestretch to hosting a woodworking show. Bob Vila was captivated by the secretary and made it a point to remember Tommy.

I’m a firm believer that every person has a talent; everyone is great at something. To find that something and make it your life’s work is how you stand out from others. And that leads to success – be it money, fame or happiness.
Step one of that discovery is to recognize what your life’s calling is when it passes in front of you, and to be able to see yourself in that position. With that, you need the discipline to stay on course while rising above naysayers, and you have to take advantage of any opportunity that comes your way. Of course, it also helps to have a little luck.

Thomas MacDonald, host of “Rough Cut: Woodworking with Tommy Mac” – the newest woodworking show from WGBH, Boston’s public television station – perfectly fits this description. He’s a “go-getter” woodworker who found his calling as he progressed through the woodworking program at North Bennet Street School (NBSS) in Boston.

As he did so, Tommy accepted advice that led him in the right direction, he was aggressive enough to make things happen as he took advantage of opportunities, and he had the discipline to stay the course – even when others doubted his ability. He had a bit of luck, too.

At the Beginning
If you’ve read anything about Tommy, you surely have read that he was injured while working construction on Boston’s massive “Big Dig” project. But the real story of his path to hosting an Emmy-nominated woodworking show, which opens its second season in October 2011, begins much later.

Tommy reached a settlement for his construction misfortune then began renovating a house near his parent’s home. He soon discovered that wasn’t his calling, so he continued his search – but he knew he wanted to stay in construction, or to work with wood in some way. As his funds dwindled, Tommy turned to NBSS. “I went to North Bennet out of desperation,” he said. That turned out to be a great decision.

Inside the workshop at North Bennet, Tommy works diligently on his Salem secretary base in this NBSS archive photo.

Once at North Bennet, things began to take shape. On a walk through of the school, Tommy, a personable fellow, struck up a conversation with an older gentleman – Jock Gifford. You may not know the name Jock Gifford, but you probably know his work. Gifford is, said Tommy, a gifted artisan. He is a furniture maker, an accomplished jewelry artist and, to most woodworkers, he’s best-known as the architect of Norm Abram’s old digs at “The New Yankee Workshop” and for his numerous appearances on “This Old House” (shows that are both produced by WGBH). During their time at NBSS, Gifford and Tommy became friends.

False Start
As Tommy advanced through the NBSS program, he made regular trips to a jobs posting board at the school to find woodworking opportunities for pay. He completed some repairs for a couple who then asked about commissioned work. The clients wanted a nice highboy built for their home. Tommy met his clients at a museum, walked with them to discuss different pieces on display, then worked out the details for the commissioned piece.
Needless to say, Tommy was pumped. Back at NBSS, he was walking on air; he could now call himself a professional furniture maker. But a couple weeks later, a call came to cancel the commission. His clients backed out of the deal. Though it was a blow, Tommy pushed on and stayed focused on woodworking.

Then the school’s instructors came to him with a challenge. They handed Tommy a photograph and suggested that he set his sights beyond a highboy and build a Salem block-front secretary – they wanted Tommy to move beyond his comfort zone.