Tonda Thompson feels as comfortable holding a power saw as she does strutting down a catwalk in stiletto heels.
But sometimes she gets a strange look when she walks into a lumber yard in search of the “rough sawn lumber” she needs to build a piece of furniture.
âSometimes I get people who say, ‘Who is this black woman?’ said Thompson, a print and television model whose company, Vogue Dreams, teaches young people to model. âThat’s the initial reaction – I’m young, female, and black.
âI’m not saying I’m the only black woman to come like this, but you don’t see too many black women buying rough lumber in lumber yards. There aren’t too many black women out there who are. also carpenters. “
Thompson wants to change that.
The model turned carpenter made a name for herself by making furniture through her business, She slangs wood.
Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, Thompson has made an assortment of tables – coffee, breakfast, console and end tables, as well as a picnic table that folds into a bench.
What started out of necessity has turned into a profitable side business, she hopes, will empower women and girls, giving them the confidence to know they can accomplish whatever they want. .
âA lot of people think that women don’t know how to quibble with wood or that women don’t know how to build. And a lot of women have in mind that they can’t build or build it because they’re female, “said Thompson.” With modeling, I teach young girls how to walk with authority, how to be confident. they. She Slangs Wood teaches women that there is a time when you have to roll up your sleeves and do it yourself.
“You don’t have to wait for nobody to do it for you.”
Thompson’s entry into woodworking came a day after his then 3-year-old son watched Mickey Mouse Clubhouse and decided to dance on a glass coffee table. He damaged the table, a family heirloom that belonged to his late uncle and was given to him by a cousin.
âIt was near and dear to me,â Thompson said.
She needed a new table. But amid the pandemic, stores were closed. She went online but couldn’t find anything that she liked. So she decided to build her own.
âI wanted to do something that I loved and would cherish,â said Thompson.
She came across a YouTube video of a carpenter showing how to design and make a wooden coffee table.
âI just started watching the video and I was like, ‘It’s pretty easy,’ and I made the first coffee table,â she said. âI posted it online and people went crazy about it. A week later I had about 10 orders.
His first coffee table was rustic barn style, topped with 2×4 pine slabs, and measured 48 inches long, 36 inches wide, and 16.5 inches high. It took him two weeks to build. Now she can make tables in an hour.
âIt’s the only product I refused to sell,â Thompson said of that first table, which is in his basement.
“You just have to inquire”
When Thompson first started working with wood, the only power tools she owned were a circular saw and drill given to her by a friend, as well as drill bits provided by her brother.
Now Thompson’s garage doubles as a carpentry shop, complete with a saw table, miter saw, drill press, planers, carpenters, and an air compressor. She even mills that “rough sawn timberâ- wood that has not been treated – to even out the edges.
Although she quickly racked up orders from people who saw her post on Facebook about the table, Thompson initially didn’t think it could turn into a profitable business. Her goal was to craft items for her house, but once she started crafting items for other people’s homes, that’s when she clicked.
“I never thought I would make a business out of it,” said Thompson, who was introduced to woodworking when he was a high school student at Milwaukee Tech, which is now Bradley Tech High School. âI thought I was spending time in my garage making wooden tables. It really became much more than that.
A friend, Amanda Avalos, bought a house last May and needed to furnish it. When she saw a Facebook post of Thompson’s tables, she asked Thompson to build her a coffee table. The two met in 2014 as part of the nonprofit Public Allies project and have kept in touch ever since.
Avalos became Thompson’s first sale.
âLove it,â Avalos said of his walnut-colored wood coffee table in his living room. “It’s beautiful. It’s solid. I love this piece.
Thompson’s work caught the attention of Yelp, the online assessment site, which asked her to teach woodworking. She also ran live Zoom demo classes on how to build wooden tables.
Woodworking became easy for Thompson, but she admits the biggest learning curve was how to handle tools safely. The saw, she says, gives a little kick when it starts.
âYou really have to be careful what you are doing,â said Thompson, who almost lost his thumb in one incident, which is not a good thing for a photographer.
Still, she said, woodworking is “not intimidating.”
“You just have to educate yourself on how to use it like you educate yourself about anything.”
“I am in better health to return to the table and fight”
Woodworking is one of the many hats that Thompson wears.
She is a political activist who, in 2018, ran for a seat on the north side of the Common Council. Since the death of her newborn son in 2013, Thompson has worked to promote maternal health and improve infant mortality rates in Milwaukee.
She is the main organizer and founder of the HaRUNbee 5k Walk / Run for Healthy Birth Outcomes, an initiative to reduce child and maternal mortality in the city. She heads the nonprofit National Coalition for Healthy Black Families, which teaches entrepreneurship as a means of self-reliance.
Avalos said Thompson has a lot of skills.
“Carpentry is just one of them,” she said. “She always has great ideas and brings them forward, so I really admire that about her.”
For seven years, Thompson focused on racial justice work until it began to take its toll. When the unrest erupted last year after George Floyd was murdered at the hands of a Minneapolis cop, she took a break from her protests.
Instead, the woodworking became cathartic.
âIf I didn’t take this time to really reflect and heal myself, I wouldn’t be in this position now,â she said. “Now I am in better health to return to the table and fight these issues in the community that I was pretty much born to.”
She has her eyes riveted on a new project – transform a historic building she bought in the Harambee neighborhood. She will use her carpentry skills to clear out and rehabilitate a former candy store that will house her studio and retail space for her woodworking, as well as offices for her non-profit organization.
The goal, she said, is to equip individuals with the skills to create jobs and businesses in order to “reduce the social determinants of health that cause child mortality such as unemployment, homelessness and poverty. poverty, âshe said.
“By teaching the community how to be self-reliant, how to be entrepreneurs, we are actually preventing child mortality in that way and making sure people have enough money to make sure they get health care. appropriate, âsaid Thompson.