Furniture maker has new showroom, workshop in downtown Edgerton

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Wednesday, May 7, 2014

EDGERTON—If everything were as clean and simple as Edgerton custom furniture maker Tad Smardo's table designs, he wouldn't have a care in the world.

But he's got a dog and couple of cats that bug him while he works, a cool spring that's been slow to bring weekend foot traffic to downtown Edgerton, and a credit card machine on the counter that reminds him he doesn't just build tables, now, he sells them, too.

Smardo, 44, sole proprietor of the new Tad's Tables and More, sat for a moment on a couch in his showroom and furniture-making shop on Fulton Street in downtown Edgerton. He ran his hand over the top of his newest creation, a custom-made black walnut coffee table with rounded edges and sturdy square legs.

The table's style: Call it “nouveau whatever.”

“It's just a nice, solid, square table,” Smardo said, tracing the smooth-grained tabletop with his broad, callused fingers.

It was a moment of calm reassurance for Smardo, a man who is neither born salesman nor pizzazz conversationalist.

If the challenges of brand-new business ownership in downtown Edgerton were worries made of wood, Smardo would sand them, round their edges and brighten them with Danish oil on a cloth. That'd be it.

“I'm not a fancy craftsman. I'm not Norm Abram from 'This Old House.' My stuff is pretty simple. It's the type of thing that looks better once you swipe your hand over it and feel it. And it looks even better when it gets older. It's real wood,” Smardo said.

Smardo, a Rockford, Illinois, native learned much of what he knows about woodworking from working in his dad's garage-based woodshop in his younger days.

He owns a saw, a few routers, a planer and sanders—all his dad's former stuff. All are in the rear of Smardo's 4,200-square-foot, renovated storefront on Fulton Street.

That area in back is where Smardo builds all his furniture. It's separated from the showroom by a glass-topped desk where he meets customers.

Anyone who walks by can peer in and see him at work on a bookshelf, a table, a lamp.

Smardo said he always liked the cheese makers in northern Wisconsin whose kitchens have windows that allow the customers to see the workers in action.  

“I wanted exactly that, like throwback days. I wanted all of my work to be in plan view,” he said. “Nobody around here is doing that. Not in a storefront like this, not this way,” he said.

From his experiences in the early 2000s as a commercial cabinet maker in Madison, Smardo said he learned some of what he doesn't like about modern woodworking—the prefab, paint-by-numbers factor.  

“It's amazing what people want to pay for cookie-cutter, chemical-laden, microdensity prefab stuff,” Smardo said.

Smardo's furniture is deceptively simple—square shapes with gentle edges—but they're not cookie-cutter. He often draws up designs himself on pen and notebook paper, such as a plan for a mini breakfast nook for a Chicago micro-apartment dweller whose mom lives in Edgerton. 

“I couldn't build the same end table twice if I tried,” he said.

Smardo works hardwoods he buys in small quantities, and he sometimes doesn't learn the wood grain's character until he planes it down and gets going on a project. That gives some of his creations a unique look.

One piece he's selling, a square, walnut end table, has a blond streak running through the top and the base. 

“I was surprised at how much gumwood—the yellow stuff—was in there, but I like the way it turned out,” he said.

He doesn't like to overwork wood in his furniture. It usually gets a swipe of oil to bring out its grain. Maybe, but not always, he'll finish it with a coating of wax.   

Smardo has picked up most of his customers by word of mouth in town. Some are people who've walked by and dropped in to see what he's up to. He's even repaired a few items people have brought in.

Smardo sells pieces such as his recently completed coffee table for about $200. A floor lamp he built and says is a copy of a $1,200 Egyptian model is marked for $75.

“Everybody's been really positive so far. Every woodworker in town's flocked in to see what I do. And nobody's said, 'Hey, your prices are too high,' or 'Hey, I don't like your work.' That's been encouraging,” he said.

Smardo's been open a month, and he's slowly building a showroom of his own pieces. He's looking forward to Lake Koshkonong's summer vacation crowd, which he thinks could generate some furniture orders.

Of course, if they'd like, they can watch Smardo work.

Smardo said he chose to set up shop in Edgerton mainly because overhead for a downtown storefront in Edgerton costs a fraction compared to where he's worked wood in the past in Madison.

“It's cheaper to run a shop here,” Smardo said. “I'm not wanting to be a big operator—a big guy. I just want to build some furniture, make a living and survive. That's it.”

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