For This Creator, Inspiration Grows on Trees
By day, Associate Creative Director Tommaso Lesnick helps develop memorable and effective marketing campaigns for AbelsonTaylor healthcare clients. On his own time, he’s the creative force behind tommasomade, a line of unique household items carved from the wood of local trees. PM360 magazine recently profiled Tommaso in My Other Life https://www.pm360online.com/my-other-life-with-tommaso-lesnick/. Following is an extended interview with the self-taught woodworker, demonstrating the many benefits of living creatively.
On your website, you say you work with carefully sourced local hardwoods from the “urban forest.” What does that mean?
“Urban forest” is a term I picked up from one of the first places I sourced live-edge wood. I think of it as the idea that nothing is specifically harvested to be lumber. A tree may need to come down on a private homeowner’s lot, or in a forest preserve due to disease, storm damage, or good forestry practice. Or perhaps a plot of land is getting cleared for a development. Those trees usually get turned into firewood or mulch, but there are several folks who will work with tree cutting services to take the whole logs. They mill them, kiln dry them to stabilize the moisture content and kill any bugs, and then sell them to woodworkers as slabs. I decided early on that I wanted to use only these local woods as opposed to exotic imported woods, which are beautiful but not as sustainable.
What are your favorite woods to work with?
Like many woodworkers, I love black walnut, but I use and enjoy the wide variety of species we have here in Illinois. I love the tones in well-figured hard maple, and I’ve worked with box elder and honey locust recently, both of which have made for some unique pieces.
How long does it typically take to make a new item? What kinds of tools and equipment do you use?
The time it takes to make a piece very much depends on its size and complexity. For example, sometimes I may take an hour picking bark and dirt out of a hole with dental tools, but other times the bark literally comes off in one or two tries. I once counted 27 different steps to make a kitchen board from start to finish! As for tools, I liberally mix traditional hand tools and modern power tools, and I don’t get overly hung up on which one I reach for. They all require skill and practice, and ultimately, they are wielded by and show the same hand. Some things are better done with a chisel and an adze, others by a router or band saw. I’m as interested in the final product as the process, and I love making a spoon entirely by hand with traditional carving tools just as much as I love using my 1936 Delta DP200 floor standing drill press.
Let’s talk some more about your tools. You started with an old jigsaw, a second-hand sander, and a drill. Besides your vintage Delta drill press, what other tools do you have now?
I love sanding (a task most woodworkers hate), and consequently I have a fair number of sanding tools. I find it calming and meditative. Beyond the sanding tools, I have a typical range of both powered and hand tools – usually smaller, more compact versions of tools you might find in a professional shop, such as a benchtop bandsaw and a thickness planer. I also have some specialty hand-carving tools for green woodworking, i.e., working with unseasoned wood. These have evocative names like spokeshaves, drawknives, hook knives, and curved gouges.
How did you learn your woodworking skills, and what is your process like?
I’m mostly self-taught. Although I have a degree in fine art, I never took shop class or anything practical. But because of my art background, I tend to approach woodworking more like sculpture than carpentry. I really want each piece to appear simple and effortless, like it’s always been there in the wood. The hardest thing sometimes is to know when a piece is done. Knowing when to stop is key.
If someone wants to get into woodworking now, what’s the best way to learn the basics?
YouTube has a great woodworking community, and there are dozens of channels to follow. From basic to advanced skills, and for information about tools, it has been a great resource for me. Instagram also has a lot of makers sharing their work. Once I started following a few hashtags, the algorithms had me in their sights – I’m discovering new makers, techniques, and styles all the time.
Do you schedule time for your woodworking or do you work when the mood strikes you?
I don’t keep a set schedule. Because I do sometimes use woodworking as a way to relax and be meditative, I try to not have it be a source of stress. One of the things I love about it is that it’s super flexible. I might have an idea that I ruminate on for months before I go work on it, or I might be fiddling around in the shop when an idea comes, and I’m able to make something right then and there. Whenever a piece isn’t looking right to me, instead of forcing a solution onto it, I put it aside and come back to it another time. I have enough projects going that I always have something else to work on.
Why did you choose to focus on vases, candle holders, tables, benches, kitchen boards, and utensils?
The kitchen boards started out as gifts for family, and the furniture seemed to be just a fun, gigantic version of those. Turns out that’s only partly true: you really DO need some bigger tools to make the bigger pieces! Early on I had several requests for custom centerpieces, and the candle boards were an evolution of those. I’m always on the lookout for a new kind of object that might work well with my personal style, and both the vases and utensils have been part of that growth.
Once you’ve completed an item, how do you finish it off to maintain both its beauty and utility?
I started off making an all-natural mix of beeswax and food-grade mineral oil. I eventually came across a food-safe pure linseed oil that cures harder and lasts longer. But I still often finish with my beeswax mix – it just smells great and gives everything a nice satin sheen.
Are there any rituals you follow when working? Music? Coffee? Shop dog or cat?
I always wanted a shop dog! My pooch will come in and nose around a bit, but she never stays. If I don’t have any machines running (dust collector, sander, router) then I’ll listen to music. With the machines going and earplugs in, though, the noise in my own head is usually plenty to keep me company!
How does someone buy one of your works? Do you accept commissions?
My work is available at tommasomade and I do accept commissions. I just finished up a few matching kitchen board and utensil sets, and I’m working on a coffee table and side table set in ash for someone right now.
I had a little bout of cancer at 48, and through that experience learned the meaning of gratitude on a whole new level. There’s a little swirl inside the 8 that’s a version of the symbol for gratitude. So my tattoo is really a reminder to show gratitude for all things!