Tom DeVore and Will Hinnefeld of Tom Will Make — creators of durable, hand-crafted objects, made with sustainability in mind.
Tom DeVore and Will Hinnefeld, industrial design graduates from the University of Cincinnati's School of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning (DAAP), launched their business Tom Will Make as an extension of the projects they were working on in school. "We went to school together and were friends all five years," Will says. "And our company also grew out of that time together. We were able to do our last senior project together and that laid the groundwork for the business."
Today they divide their time between Tom Will Make and other creative jobs — Tom as an adjunct at DAAP and Will as an employee of Art Woodworking & Manufacturing in Northside, growing their woodworking and design skill set and working to turn a passion project into a sustainable endeavor.
Have you always had an interest in woodcraft or is that something you developed at DAAP?
Tom: It was something that interests me but I had never gotten into it before school and at school my first co-op was with Such + Such, so I got to dive into making things, working every day in a shop. I explored other things but (woodcraft) drew me back.
Where’s the intersection between woodcraft and product design?
Tom: You have to have good craft to understand wood and respect wood and to create good designs out of wood — they’re really tied together. We’re not master woodcrafters, we’re not classically trained — there are people way more skilled in woodworking than us — so we’re trying to learn enough to realize our designs as we go and create designs that are meaningful to people. And use resources efficiently to make well-crafted products.
Did you have wood workers in your family?
Will: The earliest projects I worked on were in my grandpa’s shop.
Tom: Pops’ shop.
Will: Yeah. Pops’ shop. It’s still around. Jelly jars screwed to the wall with nuts and bolts and stuff. He only did it for himself and his family — he was an entrepreneur but not a woodworker by trade.
Do you have a specific memory of when you were working together and thought, “This is working really well. We’re a great team. This is what we should be doing?”
Tom: We had this fantasy — we still have this fantasy — of living on a permaculture reserve that we’ve created, sort of like a utopia where we’re producing everything that we’re consuming. Taking part in the cycles of nature.
Will: That was where it started. I kind of forgot about that.
Tom: We were like, “Well. I don’t know if we’ll actually survive doing that, so maybe we could still use some of those principles in something that we know — we know how to design things — so we’re going to try to live that way through our design, which ties our life and work together.
Will: Plus, the commune needs an export.
What was the first product you made together?
Will: A lot of our products are driven by one of us more than the other. And lots of bouncing ideas back and forth. All the projects have been together in that aspect — critiqued by each other.
Tom: Even in school we would give each other feedback a lot. So in a sense they are all collaborative but driven by one person.
Do you remember what the first item you ever sold was?
Will: Probably coasters.
Tom: We might have sold dog toys first at Second Sunday on Main. Our first sale that got us really excited was coasters online. We got featured on notcot.org and immediately had like 20 people buy it and that was like, “Wow. People actually gave us money for this thing.”
The feeling of selling something is really gratifying and makes you feel like you’re making something people appreciate. Is that still something that continues to drive you to make things?
Tom: I think the goal is always to make money but that’s not what makes me want to do it; it’s almost like a compulsion to want to create something, whether it’s furniture or music or drawing so I just feel like I have to do something. And I like to make furniture. It’s really satisfying to make. The process of doing it satisfies your body, your mind.
Will: I’ve been thinking of it more as a creative outlet recently. That has kind of allowed me to justify not making a lot of money (laughing).
Tom: I think to speak on our motivation, there’s also a desire to provide good products. There’s a lot of crappy stuff out there and a lot of people buy crappy stuff so part of the inspiration I think was how can we inspire people to buy a few nice things and keep them and use them? And those things keep getting better with age and they aren’t using resources that are destroying the environment. So there’s that in there, too. These bowls aren’t going to save the world, obviously, but there’s something satisfying about trying to put this good thing out there.
Where do your source your wood?
Will: We like using wood that’s local that comes from the eco-system that we live in. We use ash because there’s a lot of dead ash these days because of an invasive species (the emerald ash borer). There’s also walnut in the area and we get our wood from local sawmills so it feels good to be part of that local economy.
What was one of your biggest failures and how did you overcome it?
Will: We had a lot of issues with our Topo Coasters originally, which have become one of our more successful products. It took a while to figure out how to manufacture those reliably and easily. That broadly is a problem we’ve had to focus the most on — how to produce our products repeatedly.
Tom: At scale. Around every corner, that provided a new challenge. Also the shop gets really cold in the winter, so that provided a new series of hurdles we were jumping over. To our credit, to brag a little, we didn’t give up. We kept trying new things.
Do you have any advice for struggling makers out there?
Tom: Expect to do it wrong a few times.
Will: Welcome to the club.
Tom: Nothing’s easy. That’s good advice. Just keep going. It’s not going to be amazing your first time around.
What’s your dream for this business or where do you hope to see yourself in 10 years?
Will: I think we will have our own shop that’s on our own garden, like a food-forest type garden, and maybe a couple of residences around it. Nice idyllic country setting. Regular sales from repeat customers, like retailers.
Tom: Retailers. The intermediate step is going to trade shows and getting our stuff out there. That’s the vision.
Tom: Convincing my girlfriend to live on this said property.
Will: File that under challenges.
Is there a phrase or motto you live by or operate the business by?
Tom: I would say that, to quote from Wendell Berry, who is a poet, writer, naturalist, activist from Kentucky, a farmer, he’s talking about good work and he defines that as respecting yourself, doing it, the process of its doing, the history that has gone into this art, the environment that it’s done in, everybody that it touches, just having a ton of respect for what you’re doing.
Will: We also came up with a mantra a long time ago: “A is for action.”
Explore the collection here. And follow Tom and Will on Instagram @tom_will_make.