Doc Thode - An American National Treasure
Thursday 23 December 2010
Doc Thode was internationally recognised for his exquisite replica period furniture, Stuart Mortimer wrote this account of him before his unfortunate passing in October 2010
Doctor Paul Thode is a turner, cabinetmaker, toolmaker and maker of one-third scale reproduction furniture including chairs, for which he is best known. He is known affectionately as 'Doc,' a fanatical woodworker, and he is considered a treasure within the American woodworking world.
Doc was born in Denver, Colorado, on July 30, 1919, and was introduced to woodworking by his father in a small basement shop in their home. At 10-years-old he was turning cowls and other parts for model aircraft and making other parts from balsa wood and tissue paper. He then went on to take metal and woodworking classes at Smiley Junior High School, in Denver.
In 1937 he attended Colorado College for pre-medical studies and later Colorado University. He graduated in 1944, but throughout his studies he continued to "bumble around" as he puts it, in his home basement workshop. He married in April 1945, and after graduation, was automatically drafted into the army air corps. He was with his wife, Mary, based on Adak Island in the Aleutian Islands, between the years of 1946 and 1947.
He found his army service and mixing with the native people in the Aleutian Islands to be a very fulfilling and humbling experience. After his discharge from the army in 1947, he accepted a residency in general practice in medicine and ended up at the old county hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he became chief of staff.
Doc is a very independent, down to earth, sometimes blunt chap who never cared for the country club crowd; he adored his wife and five children. He is also a tenor singer and loved square dancing with his wife.
Throughout his career as a doctor, he continued to make reproduction furniture despite his mother telling him that she disliked old furniture. However, through a friend, she later became involved in rummaging for and trading in antiques. As a result of his mother's involvement in the antique business, and after he saw one of his mother's dolls which was about one-third size real life, he decided to make a chair for the doll. After this, he became very interested in reproducing one-third size replicas of her stock. He made replicas of tables with intricate pie-crust surrounds, tall boy chests, cradles, cabinets and corner cabinets, but he became best known for his wide range of high quality chairs - mainly Windsor and Chippendale - in a wide range of styles. He also has a love for, and makes some small pieces, in the Shaker style.
Doc also made several full-size pieces of furniture, all in early American style, including 13 grandfather clocks using mainly cherry (Prunus serotina), maple (Acer campestre), walnut (Juglans nigra) and mahogany (Khaya ivorensis).
He keeps most of his pieces - except for his chairs - I suspect this is due to sentimental reasons and memories of his mother. He has, however, sold a considerable number of his chairs throughout the world. This man can replicate virtually anything in wood - his greatest love is chair making - he has given chairs to his best friends: Lee Carter, Dale Nish and others have quite a collection between them - and my wife and I have three lovely pieces.
Since Doc and Lee met many years ago they have been virtually joined at the hip; Doc refers to Lee and Dale as his "sawdust creating comrades." Doc always turns on a metal lathe and has always worked on the same lathe. As well as the usual old-fashioned turning tools, he also uses some modern ones but he employs the most unorthodox method of turning spindles that I have ever witnessed. Doc uses a series of hand-made tools, including some made from rough files, to very smooth ones in matching pairs hinged at the ends. He roughs out with the coarse files by clamping the wood between the files and rounding the blank between centres. He works through the file clamps to their smoothest to attain a perfectly fine finish. As well as making his own tools he also makes the metal fittings, hinges latches etc. and also does all the cane work.
Sadly, Doc lost his wife in 2000 and I remember his devastation. In his own words, he took heart in having friends like Lee Carter and Dale Nish and other assorted personalities, to keep him on track. He treasured his yearly trips to Provo, Utah with Lee Carter, and described the trips to me as a lifeline, and I quote him: "A rewarding and enlightening experience that I can never begin to express in words."
My wife and I last visited Doc at his home in Fort Collins in September this year, and his home looked the same as when we last visited. Doc was surrounded by his books and full-sized antique furniture, some made by him, including the one-third sized replicas he is best known for.
An article on such a woodworking character would not be complete without a mention of his workshop. To gain access to his workplace is an obstacle course from the time you open the door to the basement. After the narrow stairs you enter his haven. Only Doc himself is able, with some difficulty, to negotiate around the three basement rooms that are filled with all sorts of very dusty machinery, wood and all sorts of things that I cannot identify: ironwork, piping and other bits of scrap fittings. Recent work stages can be identified only where dust has been recently moved; to others this is chaotic, but to Doc this is his heaven.
Lee Carter says that shavings in his workshop have not been moved for 30 years, and Dale Nish describes it as, "A dust bomb ready to explode." Dale swore after his first visit that he would never enter the shop again.
Now 91 years of age, Doc refers to the first 90 years as being a ball, but now his health is failing. He comments on his enriched life through his family, and singing as a young man at the Central City Opera theatre. Doc is a humble man in respect of his achievements and woodwork.
During the Rocky Mountain Symposium this September, Lee Carter and Dale Nish coaxed Doc into attending the symposium banquet with his daughter, Sue, and son, Hank. There, he offered the last chair he had made as a donation to the charity auction. Lee and Dale made speeches in celebration of Doc's achievements, relating in particular to his furniture making and the bond they made through woodturning.
Needless to say the auctioneer identified and related to Doc during the auction of his chair. It came as no surprise that Dale Nish bought the piece for the highest price at the auction, and the highest Doc has ever received for one of his chairs. The auctioneer asked Dale: "How far would you have gone," to which Dale replied: "Until I got it."
I thank Dale Nish for photographs of Doc's work from his private gallery; Lee Carter, Kay and Dennis Liggett for their input regarding this article, but most of all, the biggest thank you goes to you, Doc, for your friendship throughout the years; your legacy to the woodworking world and for being one of life's great characters.
It is on a very sad note that I have to announce Doc's passing on Saturday October 16 at 2a.m. He will be sorely missed by many in the woodworking world. His spirit and enthusiasm for woodworking will live on in our hearts with his wide-ranging legacy of wonderful furniture.
Before his death, I sent a copy of this article to Doc's daughter, Sue. After reading and showing him the article I had written, he smiled and said: "I am flattered that an international magazine should want to publish something about me."