Rick Thurston, woodcrafter, restores fine furniture

Barbara Hootman
  • Master woodworker, drawing on shipbuilding skills, focuses on building and restoring furniture.
  • Woodworker finds building and restoring furniture a rewarding craft demanding focus and patience
  • Former ship builder now builds and restores furniture, bringing it to an art form.
  • Woodworking craftsman finds building and restoring furniture a rewarding art form

By land or by sea, Rick Thurston is known as a master woodworker, devoting his expertise to the construction and repair of fine furniture.

"I love woodworking, and it brings into play my experiences in the nautical crafts," he said. His five-year-old business is Sanctuary One, across the street from the old train depot on Sutton Avenue in Black Mountain.

The Thurston family was involved with sailmaking for some 90 years. The name Thurston Sails is well known in the sailing world.

Thurston struck out on his own when he was 18, opening Thurston Towers, where he was a jack-of-all-trades. He had been a sailmaker and became a master welder. He brought his love of the sea and of building things into his new business. He produced handcrafted towers, the metal structures seen crowning boats. Each tower had to be crafted for each boat.

"I use the talents and skills that I perfected when I had Thurston Towers and (from) when I was working in the family business to designing and creating fine furniture, and (to) restoring and repairing furniture," he said. "It appeals to my artistic side, and I find it immensely fulfilling.

"Restoration is a big part of what I do now. Restoring and repairing furniture is important because it is a way of preserving history and family stories. There is a story that goes with each piece. It is a way of recycling and of saving what sometimes seems hopeless. I take damaged, worn and painted treasures and return them to their original state. Building and yacht restoration are what brought me to building and restoring furniture."

Thurston's first job in Black Mountain was restoring a coffin.

"I didn't even have my tools set up when a van pulled up in front of the shop, and a distressed man got out and asked if I was the furniture maker," he said. "I admitted I was, and the van doors opened and there was a coffin needing attention. The top was split, and it had to fixed and ready for use by the next day. It was ready, and no one could tell that it had been repaired.

Thurston has restored a beautiful Chippendale chair from the 1800s and a few George Hepplewhite pieces from 1780-1810. Each of these required careful attention to detail and a lots of patience.

A vintage Lowboy, a special piece of furniture that had been handed down as a wedding present, was restored.

"Little names and nicknames were scratched into the surface," Thurston said. "The owner could remember scratching the names into the furniture when she was about 5 years old. I repaired and refinished the piece, but left the names as keepsakes. The family loved it."

Mary Begley, owner of the refurbished Lowboy, considers Thurston to be an artist.

"The Lowboy was given to my mother as a wedding present from her father and was the only thing she ever got from him," she said. "It sits in my home today. Leaving the scratched-in names just gave it more character. Rick is a real artist who pours his heart and soul into each creation he designs and restores. You get a part of him in each of his pieces."

Thurston said that what is common to each challenge is being able to think through a problem and solve it, using his hands, muscles and tools to bring to life what the client wants.

One of the highlights of Thurston's boating days was having a yacht in need of help. He offered up his 80-foot slip for the boat to be towed into. Walter Cronkite stepped out on deck and said, "Hi, I'm Walter."

"I really couldn't believe it, because I grew up watching Walter Cronkite every evening," Thurston said. "He needed some welding done on his boat, and when he found out I was a master welder, he wanted a custom-made ladder to make it easier to board it. He also wanted a New York Times and coffee for himself and his entourage who protected him well. He also wanted me to show him around Wickford where Thurston Towers was located.

"We called my dad, because Cronkite was familiar with the sails he made. I repaired his boat and made him the ladder he wanted and presented one of his representatives with a bill for zero. He had done enough for me and my family every evening."

Cronkite sent Thurston an autographed copy of the coffee table book, "North by North East," a video taken in his office and an invitation to visit him on Martha's Vineyard.