Restoring American Craftsmanship

Restoring American Craftsmanship

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You never know where and when the right mix of circumstance, passion and conviction will strike and resonate in you – so much so that you know it must not be a coincidence. For John Loftis, that moment happened in his late teens while watching a television show. “There was a pair of octogenarian plaster workers restoring an ornate antebellum mansion in the Deep South. The narrator said these two men were the last ones who knew their craft – and with their passing, the trade knowledge would die too. Even at that age, I found it tragic, and I was stirred.”

Twenty-five years and a successful marketing career later, he would return to that inspiring moment when he handmade some wooden Christmas gifts for family and friends. Those pieces were so good that recipients demanded he make more for sale. Eventually, with his business acumen interlaced with his trade skills, he became president of the North Texas Woodworkers Association, where he quickly built rapport among both masters and novices.

That network laid the groundwork for him to found Lone Star Artisans, a network of master Texas craftsmen driving a resurgence in woodcraft through contemporary, custom and commissioned pieces.

In the process of building his team, John found a mission to complement his passion: “Beautiful things need to be created, celebrated and preserved. They need to be made as well as we know how. We need to actively support and encourage people to learn and practice artisan skills.” In woodworking, that means “scraping off anything that hides the truth of the wood.”

And while we know that there is most often a correlation between quality and cost, John tells us the difference between a $200 dresser and a $4,000 dresser “is meaningful by juxtaposition. I use the best materials, and although I do finish wood, I prefer not to stain it so it can speak for itself. It does so through detail and craftsmanship: clean lines, exposed joinery, solid hardwood drawer sides, and dovetails. Even more important, though, are the myriad things you can’t see from the outside. That’s where the customer must understand and trust the maker’s approach to creating. Every piece should be heirloom quality.”

In 1984, John’s first project was a cherry cutting board for his mom. He still makes cutting boards, but they amalgamate function and form: optionally circular, inlaid or grain-specific and finished only with mineral oil and the Lone Star Artisans firebrand. “Being an artisan takes craftsmanship – a sense of technical excellence in your trade; and artistry – exploring what is possible.”

The work can be painstaking, especially with unique materials and designs. John recently spent more than 30 hours planning a commissioned jewelry box of peat bog-preserved New Zealand kauri wood carbon-dated to 52,000 years old. Although most of his pieces take 4-6 weeks between discussion and delivery, that one took more than 5 months.

He continues to build his network carefully, but organically. “I ask around about the best people in a certain craft, and the same names come up, so it’s relatively easy to decide who to partner with. That’s how it worked with our writing instruments. I don’t turn wood, but the folks who make our pens are tremendously gifted.”

“This didn’t start out as a business venture,” he concludes. “I’m a ‘maker,’ and I started this whole thing by just wanting to make cool stuff. But there’s something satisfying and special about taking rough, raw stuff and making something beautiful out of it.” This is one craft John is determined to not let die.

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