There’s a woodshop in Maine where you’re just as likely to hear the soulful strumming of an electric guitar as the buzz of a saw.
Either way, you’re hearing Jim Macdonald’s heart and soul.
If we’re being honest, though, the sound of the saw is less of a buzz and more of an insistent squeaking. Jim carefully maneuvers a sliver of wood veneer through a thin saw blade’s path as it chugs up and down, his face a determined mix of concentration and peacefulness. One wrong move could mean rethinking an entire section of his design on the fly. The lines are always cleaner on the first cut, making it rarely worthwhile to go back and fix something.
“Marquetry is very line driven, it’s almost a way of drawing with wood,” he said. “You can see the saw blade that I’m cutting the veneers with as a pencil.”
And to make matters more complicated, this tiny piece of wood he’s drawing is just one piece of the “puzzle” that is marquetry — the art of applying veneer in decorative patterns to existing pieces of woodwork. “Embellishment,” as Jim likes to call it. Although recently he’s started to make pieces that stand alone as wall hangings, much of his career has been spent embellishing his own fine furniture.
Jim’s approach to marquetry is something of a dying art in today’s age of computers and lasers — with a laser cutter, this same design might be cleaner, finer and more exact. Some might say perfect. But it’s important to Jim that his craft be a reflection of his skill with his hands and woodworking and not just a creative mind. Plus, perfect is in the eye of the beholder: Jim feels those tiny variations give his work true character and life. Craftsmanship.
“It’s got to be akin to oil painting or something, where things are just happening in front of you and you get to control it and modify it and push it in different directions — or just go with the flow and it tells you what to do,” Jim explains.
As he finishes each piece he looks at the final product as “kind of like assembling a puzzle” — a puzzle he oftentimes assembles on a handmade guitar body. Jim’s woodworking and guitar playing interest, inspired by a generation of rock and folk music, of “the Beatles and afterwards,” have finally come together in recent years as a “good expression of who I am and what I do.”
“It’s a pretty satisfying thing to take something from a bunch of boards and have it go out the door as something beautiful,” he said.
It’s been nearly 20 years coming for Jim. He started his custom woodworking business in 1988 in Winslow, but built a shop in his backyard in Burnham the following year and has been there ever since, building custom furniture and cabinetry, marquetry, and everything in between.
Jim didn’t know he’d be a woodworker until his early 20s, when his mom brought home a book from the library that changed his life forever. “The Fine Art of Cabinetmaking” by James Krenov spoke to his soul. He says the book didn’t just describe how to build a cabinet — it described how to live a life. How to relate to wood and tools, how to be at harmony with your work.
“I didn’t know anything about it but I read it and it was like the lightbulb went off: I’m a woodworker,” Jim said. “From that moment on I just did whatever it took to become and woodworker and that was it.”
Jim’s path wound him through many different kinds of woodwork — from a packaging company to guitar making, to a commercial kitchen shop, yacht restoration, boat building, and then finally his own business. He took workshops with Silas Kopf at the Haystack School of Crafts, and graduated from student, to assistant, to co-teacher with Kopf at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in Rockport. Jim feels all these experiences have truly affected how he approaches marquetry, from his style, to his steadfast use of his hands, to even the kinds of tools he uses in the workshop.
“Any tool is fair game,” he said, gesturing around him. “I’ve found ways to use all these machines to get the veneer to do my bidding better.”
Nowadays Jim focuses mostly on marquetry and guitar making: the things he feels define him. Jim’s at a point in his life where he thinks his art should express an authentic representation of his life and the things around him, the things that matter to him. He asks himself, “What’s close to home for me?” And what follows are guitars and portraits.
Where 20-something Jim maybe wanted his stuff to look art deco or art nouveau, or inspired by one of the marquetry greats, as he gets older, he said, “I just want it to look like me.”
17 Meadow Ln, Burnham, Maine