Thomas Erst is a midwest transplant making unique wood creations in Los Angeles, California under the name Thomas Wayne Woodworks. Now a seasoned craftsman, Thomas came to the West Coast years ago somewhat lost in life and searching for his true calling. As cliche as it may be, a series of events unfolded that led him into a profession that is both hard work and true passion. Thrust out of his familiar midwest surroundings, Thomas’ eagerness has pushed him into making one of a kind wood creations and fed into the discovery of a new world of outdoor adventure. From wizard-esque geometric woodworking to nomadic motorcycle rides through the vastness of the Southwestern United States, Thomas is a model example of the modern humble craftsman.
Thomas was generous enough to take some time out of his day and answer some questions we had…
Witness This: Where are you based out of as far as your residence and workshop?
Thomas Erst: I’m based out of Los Angeles, Silver Lake to be specific. I’ve got a small little shop in a shed here, and my main gig is out of a woodshop in Downtown LA.
WT: How did you get into woodworking? I think I saw somewhere that you create retail and window displays for some big name stores, is that your main gig right now?
TE: It’s kind of a crazy story. About 4 years ago I was living in San Francisco, and I was kind of lost in life, and I decided I was going to move back down to LA and go to barber school. Well I moved back down and a friend asked if I was looking for a job. She said she was looking for people to “install retail displays.” I thought that sounded easy enough to get me back on my feet for a bit. I interviewed, got the job, and showed up to a full-on wood shop my first day. I was totally out of my element. I had never done any woodworking, so I just kind of faked it till I made it. Luckily there were some easier, smaller jobs for me to learn on and things just kind of progressed from there.
That’s still my 9-5 to this day. I build displays and fixtures for retail stores, and then I travel around and install them. I’m super grateful for it. It has taught me a ton about woodworking, given me an opportunity to travel to several places I never would have imagined, and gave me a little bit of direction at a point in my life where I had no idea what I was doing, but hopefully soon I can move on and be completely on my own.
WT: A lot of design and especially woodworking is based around geometric relationships. Some shapes that you’ve developed thematic work around, namely the Cuboctahedron and Icosahedron are shapes that I had never even heard of. What is it about these shapes that you find fascinating?
TE: You know, it kind of just started off as something fun and a way to challenge myself. One of my first real tasks at my job (other than just building a box or sanding some random things) was to build these 3 foot tall pyramids. None of us in the shop really knew how to figure out the angles and details at the time, and we all were picking our brains trying to figure it out. We eventually did, and I was kind of like: “Oh yea, math, I remember that.” So I wanted to challenge myself to create other shapes. It was just kind of fun figuring out all the complex miter cuts, and putting together all these little pieces to create a shape. I’ve always found geometric shapes and objects beautiful, and I actually kind of enjoy the math behind it, so it eventually just turned into a style for me.
WT: Your work is refined and minimal yet intricate and undoubtedly tedious. A design is good not because of how many steps it takes to get there and often less is more – in the example of your planter, the ‘less’ is that it is made up of primarily triangles. However, one of your Icosahedron planters requires 63 individual cuts. Do you think the average person is cognizant of how much work you put into these?
TE: Some people are; people who make things get it. Other people just look at stuff and have no clue. I suppose that is why I appreciate working with wood. Especially when creating shapes. Most people probably wouldn’t think about how many cuts go into a simple mitered box; even that has 24 edges that have to be individually cut. It’s not like working with metal where you could create a jig, and tack some pieces together and create a shape. All your edges have to be cut precisely and meet in a specific way. I really enjoy that, even if no one else thinks about it.
WT: Machines are becoming more advanced and available every day. The foray of new technology into processes and techniques that are historically done by hand must be a point of divide in the craftsman world. Do you see any machines like CNC routers or lasers being incorporated into your work?
TE: I’ll never say never, but for now, it is hard to see that in my future. We have a CNC at the shop I work at, and there is no doubt that it is an incredible and helpful tool, but at this point I’ll stick to keeping things simple.
WT: What kind of activities do you look forward to outside the workshop? I noticed that you’re really into adventure motorcycle riding as well as mountain climbing – activities with a strong romantic notion along the theme of man vs nature. You don’t seem like the Club Med / Caribbean Cruise type. Do those activities speak to a desire to challenge yourself and venture to places unseen by most?
TE: Yea motorcycles and climbing definitely take up a good chunk of my time away from the shop. I moved to LA from Chicago 7 years ago, and I remember the first time I rode up into the mountains here. It changed things for me. I didn’t have much appreciation for the outdoors before then. Growing up in flat suburbia, or living among the skyscrapers in Chicago, I never really knew what was out there. California kind of changed everything for me in that aspect. From that day on, getting out into the wilderness has always been extremely important to me.
As far as speaking to a desire to challenge myself – absolutely. Climbing especially. I raced BMX bikes up until I moved out to California, and when I started climbing a little over a year ago, I realized something was missing in my life since I stopped riding bikes. I feel like it is so important for everyone, men especially, to have some sort of physical activity in their life that forces them to push themselves, and keep their bodies moving.
So yeah, no Club Med for me. I am going to Mexico in a couple weeks though, and my girlfriend and I are staying at a hotel instead of camping, so that’s kind of a change for me. Guess I’m getting soft with my old age. Ha.
VALENTINES DAY SPECIAL
Now I’m gonna let you in on a little secret. I came across Thomas’ work through the social web that is Instagram. What stopped me as I scrolled through was a Valentines Package Deal he put together consisting of an Icosahedron planter and 10″ x 10″ geometric heart wall piece for the insane price of $90 + shipping. It’s some one of a kind stuff that will have your Valentine thinking you’re the best thing ever. Invest in sustainable business and support artists that you believe in – just don’t tell my girlfriend what I’m getting her! Thomas will be accepting orders through Monday, February 3rd for Valentines Day delivery. Visit his shop for more details.