Master furniture refinisher Richard Thomas sweeps a bare hand across the blond-colored French walnut barn door that dates to 1750.
He points to unsightly flaws, nicks, and imperfections crying out for his expertise.
The door has been in Thomas’ Portland Avenue workshop before – an unassuming structure with a tiny weather-molested sign reading simply: “Richard Thomas, Master Refinisher.”
The door was purchased in Dallas for former Gov. Frank Keating and his wife, Cathy. It was Thomas who first laid healing hands upon it, restoring it to its full splendor. When it needed attention again in February, the telephone in Thomas’ shop rang.
It is a door, but it is not used as one.
Instead, Gov. Mary Fallin and her family breakfast each morning on its fastidiously maintained, hand-rubbed surface at the Governor’s Mansion. It sits atop a stable wrought iron base manufactured specifically for it.
A benevolent organization wishes to keep it in wondrous condition for Fallin, or for any other governor who might break bread from it in the future. The Friends of the Governor’s Mansion Inc., maintains all the furnishings and items donated to the home of the state’s chief executive.
Since 2004, the “Friends” have relied on Thomas, a Chickasaw Nation citizen, to refinish, refurbish, rebuild, restore and refine many cherished and historically significant items used by Oklahoma’s first family.
Building the business
A 1978 graduate of Putnam City High School, he graduated from Oscar Rose Junior College, known today as Rose State College. A life working in computer technology awaited Thomas back in 1983.
That is not the script that played out, however.
“I was a painting contractor throughout college, mostly exterior painting with occasional tasks inside,” Thomas said in trying to explain how computers acquiesced to paint, stain, sandpaper and power tools. He was working on high-profile homes, many of them located in Oak Tree Estates, an Edmond real estate development with $1 million-plus homes dotting the fringes of links trod upon by pro golfing elites.
Thomas earned the respect of seasoned remodeler and painter Jack Evans.
“He’d send jobs my way. He also began sharing tricks, tips and secrets about what he knew,” Thomas said. So, at 23, Thomas began refinishing furniture while continuing to paint. Five years would pass before he could eke out a living performing refinishing exclusively.
That was 31 years ago.
The heard of an artist
“I have always been an artist at heart. I was drawing and carving wood before I was a teenager. I built two or three boats when I was 12-13,” said Thomas, 54. “I do leatherwork and craft moccasins, quivers, bows, spears. All of the Native American artistry has come from books I’ve read or by educating myself in the craft through trial and error – mostly error,” he laughs.
His workshop is stacked high with personal projects. Thomas-made squirrel sticks – a kind of mallet hurled at squirrels while hunting – are proudly displayed at the Chickasaw Visitors Center in Sulphur and Chickasaw Welcome Center in Davis.
But clients come first and his success is illustrated in his schedule. Projects brought to him today are on a 60-day waiting period.
With the youngest of four children graduating Putnam City North High School this spring, he and his wife, Pam, will have an empty nest for the first time in a long time.
He is moving toward retiring, but the business he crafted from scratch keeps the dream just beyond reach.
“I probably will never ‘retire retire,’” Thomas said. “I’ll have important projects to work on and clients who have trusted me for decades, so I’ll keep at it.”
Gene Lehmann is a senior writer with the Chickasaw Nation Media Relations Department