IOWA CITY — A major life event prompted Todd Tomkins to launch TNT Woodworking, but it wasn’t primarily about a career change.
“It all started because we had a kid, and I had a strong desire to be a stay-at-home dad,” Tomkins recalled.
Tomkins, now 36, was grocery lead — essentially managing that department — at New Pioneer Coop’s Coralville store when he and his wife Jill began to prepare for the arrival of their son, Will, born just over two years ago. He credits NewPi’s management with accommodating his plan to produce custom-made furniture, cabinets and other products from the workshop on the lower level of his family’s Iowa City split-level.
“I saw this cycle transition into doing one of my hobbies, which is woodworking, a lot more frequently,” he said. “An hour and a half here and there, I can usually break away and come down and cut something or stain something.
“It’s started to develop into something a lot bigger. Now I’m doing a lot more stuff and I have a few days designated to do just woodworking.”
Tomkins still works part time at NewPi, where he’s helped train new employees and supplied some store fixtures.
“They’ve given me this opportunity to build a lot of fixtures and displays and fun stuff for the store,” he said. “I’ve gone through this whole transition where I’m kind of doing a maintenance-slash-woodworking-slash-handyman gig at the co-op.”
Tomkins inherited his knack for and love of working with wood.
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“My dad works at a lumberyard and was always building things,” he said. “My uncle was a carpenter. Eventually it struck me that, ‘Hey, I could do this.’”
Without a storefront to display his work, most of Tomkins’s jobs are made to order.
“I try to take people’s design ideas and concepts,” he said. A current example is a customer looking for a unique coffee table.
“They want rustic and metal, so now we’re looking at gas piping and wood on top, something that mixes that modern and rustic together,” he said.
“That’s one thing I love the most about woodworking — there is a lot of custom stuff. It’s not me going out to my shop and making a thousand of the same thing.”
Tomkins said he’s delivered an entire kitchen’s worth of cabinets for less than half the cost of mass-produced units.
“And it’s all hardwood,” he said. “There’s nothing fake about it — there’s no particle board.”
That fits well with Tomkins’s business goals.
“Everybody wants a little bit of something different, and that’s great,” Tomkins said. “We should be able to make custom-made products that last forever for a reasonable price.”
Tomkins has sold Iowa-shaped kitchen chopping boards at NewPi, where customers also can see those display shelves and crates. He also designed and built a “little library” box mounted outside Horn Elementary School in Iowa City.
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“That’s my main approach to marketing,” he said. “Just getting out there and doing stuff for the community.”
Raw materials come from a handful of sources: Hills Hardwood, Suburban Lumber in Cedar Rapids “and often I default to the local Menard’s.”
Occasionally he’s managed to source closer to home.
“My whole shed is full of a local maple tree that got dropped on the southeast side of Iowa City,” Tomkins said. “It means a lot, it’s as local as I can get.”
Tomkins’s dream would be to recycle downed trees into his work.
“I’d mill it, then I’d be able to have it” for projects, he said.
Business is picking up, but Tomkins doesn’t expect to move away from his home base any time soon, preferring instead to keep his overhead low.
“I love the idea of working out of my garage,” Tomkins said. “I believe everybody deserves beautiful, sustainable, sturdy, durable, inexpensive custom-made products. If you’re going to spend a lot of money on something, get it done right.”
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l Owner: Todd Tomkins
l Business: TNT Woodworking
l Phone: (319) 310-3784; firstname.lastname@example.org
l Website: www.facebook.com/tntwoodworking