August 16, 2017
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Time marches on for an apple farmer

  • Thomas Marshall in his workshop Photo by Irene Hilsendager

By: Irene Hilsendager
July 28, 2017

Having met Thomas Marshall at the Power-up Museum in Penngrove during their open house July 8, more questions definitely had to be asked of this tall gentleman that looked as if he was a farmer just coming in from the apple orchards.

Looking at a beautiful clock under plexi- glass, I asked Marshall if it was for sale. He said, “Nah” this is just a hobby. This is called fret work.”

Hearing the word “fret” opened my ears; fret work in my world means guitar. Marshall immediately interjected “fret work is working with wood.”    Thus he set out to explain all the intricate tools that have to be used. Thomas said that he orders patterns from the best artist around the world who lives in Kansas.

Tom is an old apple farmer and some of his timepieces certainly indicate it, but he said that he has turned the orchard over to his son and now silly him has to work for his son. A few of his timepieces show the apples and orchard decorations.

Being the inquisitive one that I am, I asked if he would mind showing me his handy work and invited myself to his home. The Marshall’s live way out in the country, south of Sebastopol amid apple orchards and vineyards. You could stand in the sloping driveway of their ranch and looking west you can almost see the Pacific Ocean over the next hill.

After ringing the doorbell and not finding anybody to answer, we heard rustling in the garage and were greeted by Pat Marshall, the wife of the renowned clock maker, and were   introduced to Thomas again and the greeting was, “Do you want to go down to the basement?” Of course seeing such a grand farmhouse, there would be a basement. Tom said don’t look at the mess but all that was seen were beautiful and intricate timepieces.  Hanging on every wall, in the rafters and lying on a work- bench. Some were completed pieces of art and others were still being put together. 

Back in 1992 he saw a scroll saw demonstration at a state fair and kept going back time after time to observe the gentleman cutting out different things and was hooked after that. It didn’t take Thomas very long to purchase a saw and has been at it since. Being a farmer he has large and calloused hands but when he works with the saw everything is so intricate. No one would think that he would be able to make such delicate works of art, but glancing around his workshop and available wall space in their upstairs living quarters, you just stand and stare and wonder how Marshall is able to produce such beaming specimens of wood.

For any size projects, Marshall hand cuts paper patterns; which he orders from a source in the Midwest. Thomas says that this person is the best in the world for drawing patterns. After cutting the pattern, he attaches them to wood with an adhesive and cuts the designs before using glue to assemble the pieces. 

Marshall uses many different kinds of woods in order to get contrasts in the design. Many are stained and some are sanded with steel wool. He likes to use woods that have a natural red or yellow coloring that enhance projects like flowers especially when he builds display cabinets or jewelry boxes. Thomas doesn’t like to use nails as it may split the wood and he is extremely careful when using glue; when staining it shows up and Marshall is a perfectionist.

Building each piece of his one of a kind art, Marshal says everything takes time and he is not known for his patience, but things can become quite expensive. He loves to work with walnut wood but it can be extremely expensive and not everybody has   the money to buy that kind of wood. With all of the time that he puts into doing each piece, everything can be out of price range for some customers. As an Army veteran, Thomas has donated many hand sized military hearts commemorating the American vet to a hospital in the Midwestern part of the United States.

Marshall has lived in the old farmhouse that was built in 1942. It is spacious and the ground floor holds the workshop and often times during winter months when the farm work is not demanding, you will find him in his downstairs’ lair.  Since his patience is not his best attribute, he will walk away from the saw and mull it over but then he starts to think the project may never get finished, he goes back and before you know it he has it assembled.

Marshall enjoys bringing his pieces to the Sonoma County Fair where he has received some first place, second place and best of show ribbons.  He recalls, after entering his handcrafted 86-inch-tall grandfather clock with ornate fretwork and made out of oak tabletops, and not getting first place because the judges said the clock was cut by laser, he was very upset as it took Thomas three months to complete. Marshall is an old-school craftsman and wouldn’t even consider using new technology. He says every project is a challenge. The more delicate the work, the better he likes it. 

Marshall nearing his 80th birthday says it is relaxing to work on wall hangings, decorative boxes, trinket cabinets and picture frames, but clocks are his passion. Thomas is proud of a 37-inch clock tower that earned the best of show and best division awards along with his blue ribbon. The clock tower features three sets of doors that  open along with a balcony and a dial with roman numerals. This is one piece that tried his patience. He also mentioned he had constructed a jewelry box that he took to the fair and when a man admired it for some time and finally asked Thomas if he could purchase it for his wife’s Christmas present.  Marshall quoted $300 which really only covered his time and expenses, but the man agreed to it and happily walked away with his wife’s gift in his hand.

Marshall is intrigued with clocks and trains. Some of his completed works really show it. He built the “Gravenstein Station” at Apple Town, U.S.A., a clock that is complete with two engine fronts, flashing lights, two water tower tank houses along with spinning windmills and etchings of train cars and a railroad crossing. Train whistles and the chug-chug of the engines chimes out on the hour.

Thomas rarely sells any of his beautiful pieces. He would rather put it on display in the home or gives pieces to friends, family and relatives. He has said, there is no financial return on his hard work, but it is just the satisfaction of being able to complete a piece.

Both Thomas and Pat, his wife, are very humble people but very intelligent and a whiz when it comes to doing any project. Thomas may cut and glue very intricate objects but Pat is the one that does the cosmetic work with her blending of colors and an eye for beauty. If you ever go to the Sonoma County Fair, look for any of Thomas’ fret work and if you see him standing near the display, you will wonder how such beautiful art work came from the hands and mind of Marshall.