If you want to change a person’s life, Charlie Shackleton has an idea: Give them the opportunity to create something with their hands. “Fundamentally, humans are active people who like to make things,” says the Irish-born furniture maker, who with his wife, the potter Miranda Thomas, own ShackletonThomas, a company that produces handmade furniture and pottery in Bridgewater, Vermont. Classes and an ambitious apprenticeship program have always been a part of Shackleton’s business model, but a dozen years ago he further homed in on helping others get creative when he launched the Naked Table Project. In it, Shackleton invites people to make tables from locally sourced wood at his workshop. Participants learn about the trees that yielded the lumber, and the event wraps up with a celebratory lunch of local foods served on the new tables. “Not only does this event make happy memories,” says Shackleton, “but you get to take home this functional object, which everyone can sit around for many years.” —Ian Aldrich
Q&A with Furniture Maker Charlie Shackleton
What was the idea behind the Naked Table project?
A little more than a decade ago, there was a local sustainability group that was looking for ideas to inspire [that movement] and give it meaning. My project was quite simple: to make a table from a tree and introduce people to the whole experience around doing that. It was a way to connect people to each other and the environment.
But it was built around the idea that there’s something powerful about making something with your hands. Why was that important to you?
The sheer act of making something out of nothing is astonishing. I started this company because I wanted to foster people who love to make things—young people in school who weren’t doing well in the classroom, adults who wanted to try something different—not just so they’d learn to make things but because doing so increases self-confidence. And it creates a buzz from doing it.
Have you seen people find that kind of empowerment?
We have people who come here [for classes] and tell us they’re complete klutzes with their hands. You give them a tool, and maybe they’re a banker with no background in any of this, and you tell them they can carve the clay or do a decoration. They have this look of terror—they’re terrified of getting dirty or of getting cut. But then they start doing it, and they become obsessive. They become different people. It’s quite powerful.
You’ve said that handmade things have more allure. Why is that?
We use hand tools and what we make is not uniform. You get slight variations through the whole thing, and it gives that thing vibe, like, Oh, a human being was here and made this. My wife and I have this handle from a Roman pot. It’s 2,000 years old. You can not only see the maker’s thumbprint but also where his nail pressed into the clay. That’s amazing. That’s a moment in time that you connect with by looking at it.
What’s your advice to someone who wants to follow in your footsteps as a furniture maker?
Furniture making is based around two things: food and sex. Dining room tables and beds. That is not a joke. Everything else in the house—side tables, dressers—emanates from those two things. As a furniture maker, that’s what you’ve got to start with.
Season four of Weekends with Yankee, which features our visit with Charlie Shackleton and a closer look at the Naked Table Project, airs on WGBH, WGBY, and New Hampshire PBS. To search local listings, go to weekendswithyankee.com