Winky Merrill writer
"I’ve always built things,” says fine furniture craftsman, Rees Tulloss. As a child growing up in Weston, Tulloss discovered his talent early on—as soon as he could pound a nail. At age seven, using scrap lumber from a renovation project on his family’s home, he built a small clubhouse in the backyard using just a hand saw, hammer, and nails. “It was an ugly little shed,” he laughs. Now, thirty-seven years later, he is living in his boyhood home (although it has been magnificently transformed by several more renovation projects involving Tulloss’s design and labor) and he is still building things.
What has he built? Coffee tables, side tables, dining tables and chairs, clocks, desks, jewelry boxes, kitchen cupboards, built-ins….basically, anything that’s build-able. His work is impeccable and incorporates all types of wood, dovetails and inlays. His furniture frequently wins awards at the annual Weston Arts & Crafts Association (WACA) show.
In addition to fine furniture, Tulloss has an impressive list of unusual projects like constructing a chicken coop and incubator (the Tulloss family of Weston raises chickens that produce organic eggs); building an igloo (this past winter he slept in it with his children); creating a rocket ship for his son (complete with a 12-volt power system, lights, and a mock “flux capacitor” made famous in the film Back to the Future); refurbishing an antique arcade game called “Peppy the Clown” for Children’s Hospital in Boston; and designing and building his own three thousand square-foot post and beam three-story furniture shop.
Tulloss’s shop, which looks like a barn and is connected to his house through a screened porch, is a woodworker’s paradise. He rented milling equipment and cut the posts and beams from seventy oak trees harvested by Land’s Sake from woods behind Regis College. With help from a contractor, he framed and finished the shop. Having worked in a cramped garage for years, he knew exactly what he wanted it to include. The top level (from which he has a nice view of the neighborhood) contains all of his tools and equipment and an elaborate dust collection system. The middle level has a finishing room, a showroom, and his office, as well as a barn door to the driveway that allows large pieces to be taken in and out. The bottom floor holds lumber, the dust collector, and a wood-burning stove in which Tulloss burns his scraps, supplying a good portion of the shop’s heat in winter months.
Those who commission a piece of custom furniture from Tulloss will find that he is thoughtful, thorough, and tremendously careful in his approach. As an engineer, his problem-solving skills come to the fore when faced with the challenges of designing something for a very specific use. He says, “The hardest part is figuring out how to make it.” He enjoys engineering the project just as much as making the artistic choices such as the design, choice of wood, the joinery and finishes. “I’m an accidental artist. I’m really more of an engineer who ended up in the artists’ world,” he says.
For less customized furniture pieces, Tulloss will often make two or three of the same design at a time in different types of wood. “Once I’ve figured it out, have set up the equipment and made all the jigs, it makes sense to build several,” he says.
Currently he is designing and building a new reading lectern for a synagogue. He met several times with the necessary committees to show them design options and even built a full-size mock-up to help determine final details. Other current projects include a lingerie chest, a pedestal table, and some dining chairs. In addition to all this, he frequently works with art consultants and artists, providing clever displays and shadowboxes for child-friendly artworks that are installed throughout Children’s Hospital. A long-time environmentalist, Tulloss has recently begun researching plans to install an array of solar panels on the roof of his workshop in an effort to reduce his family’s reliance on fossil fuels. When an idea for a new project occurs to him, he simply cannot resist researching and following up on it.
Tulloss credits his mother with modeling a “can do” attitude. Widowed with three young children, her skills as a seamstress and dressmaker made her very handy with tools. “She took on any project from re-wiring light fixtures to creosoting our fence. One of the key things I learned from her was that you can do anything. You just go into it and try to figure it out and usually you can.”
At Weston High School, Tulloss took classes in furniture making and helped the theater company build stage sets. He graduated from Cornell University in 1986 with a degree in computer engineering. During college, he built furniture for his various student apartments. One year he built a dining room table but varnished only the top. “It curled up like a potato chip! That was when I learned you have to varnish the entire piece.”
After graduating, he moved to Westwood near Los Angeles in search of a job in computer animation. To make ends meet during his job search, he took a position building sets for commercials. “We built a hillside desert complete with sand in a soundstage for a car commercial. They filmed the car as it drove through the set and it ended up being [used for] five seconds in the commercial. A week later we tore it all up.” Although it was fun to learn different trade techniques, it bothered Tulloss that everything ended up in the dumpster.
In Westwood, he and a friend began building furniture in a garage using a Reader’s Digest book on furniture projects as their guide and a Mustang convertible to transport their wood. “The more I pursued furniture building, the more I realized how much I didn’t know. I decided that I needed to go to furniture school.” So, Tulloss gave up on a potential career in computer animation and moved back east (his then girlfriend and now wife, Jenny, was a major draw at the time) to attend “Leeds Design Workshops” in Easthampton, Massachusetts. There he learned drafting and drawing skills, the proper use of hand tools and power equipment, and hand-cut joinery. Since then, he has continued to gain knowledge and experience with every new project.
“I like the idea that I’m building something that will last—that these pieces of furniture may be passed on from generation to generation,” Tulloss says. He is also passing something else on to the next generation—that same “can do” attitude he learned from his mother. And he enjoys doing woodworking projects with his young children. His daughter, Camille (8), is making a jewelry box and his son, Caleb (11), is making a box for his “spy stuff.” Working at home and for himself has a strong appeal and he is grateful that it has given him the freedom to play a big role in his kids’ lives.