Building a life
Engineering CEO leaves behind corporate life to pursue a love of furniture-making
By GWENN FRISS
STAFF WRITER - Cape Cod Times
(A Cape Cod Times Article - Published: April 13, 2003)
CUMMAQUID -- Daniel W. Santos was in the news regularly in the early '90s as the sometimes controversial project manager for the National Guard's cleanup of groundwater pollution at Massachusetts Military Reservation. He then rose to CEO at Horsley & Witten Inc., helping the Sandwich engineering company grow from 13 employees to more than 50.
Daniel W. Santos, who left corporate life last year to become a cabinetmaker, uses a hand beader tool from the early 20th century to scratch a profile in an American Black Walnut drawer front.
(Staff photo by Cape Cod Times Photographer, KEVIN MINGORA)
Now, at 43, Santos has traded his suit and tie for a comfortable shirt and jeans. The cup of coffee is now tea, usually herbal. He doesn't fly to meet clients anymore. He strolls about 75 yards to his workshop where a day's work involves hand-planing a Shaker-style table top or using a century-old tool to carve the bead trim on a Hepplewhite-style end table.
Santos has gone from corporate shaker to cabinetmaker.
He designs, makes and sells period furniture in several styles - including William and Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale and Hepplewhite - made in America from 1700 to 1820 or so, based on English designs. Santos also makes Shaker-style furniture, circa 1800-1860. Selling prices for his pieces range from $600 for a Shaker-style bench to $10,000 for an elaborately carved hutch.
Santos crafts the strong, simple lines of the Shaker style so well that he has been invited to exhibit some pieces in August at the Shaker Museum in Old Chatham, N.Y. That invitation came after he contacted the museum about a 1950s-era brochure he found in an old book and sent along photos and information on his work.
"It's the pinnacle of this craft to be able to reproduce those styles as they were constructed. It is a really worthy goal. If you can do that, as a cabinetmaker, you can do anything," he says.
Whether it's a step down, over or out from corporate life, working with wood is a step Santos has dreamed about ever since he fell in love with making things 30 years ago in a seventh-grade drafting class at Aldrich Junior High in Rhode Island.
"It's been a long, constant almost, obsession," he says. "I love making stuff. I love working with wood and making furniture."
Inspired by that class, Santos bought himself drafting tools at age 12 and started designing buildings for his own enjoyment. He took a woodworking class then, but had no other formal training until he attended workshops this year at the acclaimed North Bennet Street School in Boston. During college, the University of Rhode Island had no architecture program so Santos chose civil engineering as the closest thing.
Busy with college and a young family - his older children are teenagers and young adults now - Santos did not do much woodworking. But out of necessity one day, he bought a circular saw and made a picnic table for the backyard. Over the next 20 years, he built maybe 100 home projects, honing his skills with each one.
He also found demanding jobs that put his civil engineering and team-building skills to work. He helped open the military base's technical meetings to the public and created small community groups to work on solutions. At Horsley & Witten Inc., he started as director of engineering and was promoted to CEO.
"What I liked there was having a lot of responsibility, really having success or failure tied to my leadership and management," Santos says.
But about a year ago, Santos started experiencing atrial fibrillations, erratic heartbeats that can cause strokes. Santos and his second wife, Susan Nickerson, began talking about him making furniture, and he left the corporate world last June.
"The catalyst was more a culmination of events - of wanting to do this for so long, feeling the stress, having the health issues and deciding to do what I wanted to do," Santos says.
Santos figures he works 50 to 60 hours a week now, spending 5 to 7 a.m. in the workshop before helping to get his 6-year-old son, Silas, off to school. Then he heads back to the shop.
"I don't mind the work at all. There's a real product at the end of my hour or day or week," Santos says. "If I didn't have to make money, I would do this anyway and I would spend this much time doing it."
Search for authenticity
His home is filled with cabinets, cupboards, tables and chairs that he's crafted.
"What draws people to wood first is looks - the grain. And the second thing is touch. People want to touch a fine-turned piece of wood," Santos says, running his hand over a table of curly maple, patterned like a gold-and-ebony striped tabby cat.
"It's pretty expensive," he says of the unusual wood as he strokes it. "There aren't curly-maple trees and you don't know if you have it until it (the tree) is opened."
Santos starts a piece of furniture by thinking about it for hours before putting pencil to paper for what sometimes turns into a full-sized sketch. For custom work, he interviews clients and leaves books for them to review.
"We liked his attitude, his calmness. He's very easy to work with," says Betty Verrengia of East Dennis, for whom Santos built an entertainment center and is now building a corner hutch. She was impressed by how particular he was about their needs and his work quality.
Santos spends time looking at the space where the piece will go. He thinks about what the table is for, where it will stand in the house, how the light will strike it, what wood to use, how to cut the wood to avoid waste, what hardware fits best, and whether the client wants drawers that will move on wood or metal slides.
Metal wears better, but he tries to avoid it because the furniture styles he builds wouldn't have had metal slides centuries ago.
Except for a few initial cuts, Santos eschews power tools.
"With a power saw, you're just plowing through. But with a chisel or hand plane, you feel the wood immediately if it starts to break."
The search for authenticity has taken Santos to scores of yard sales over the years and now onto Ebay, the Internet auction site. A mouse click brings up six sellers offering an antique tool, saving him hours of searching and making the price competitive.
A scary decision
Even when Santos was running the base's groundwater program, his passion and avocation was woodworking. Former colleague Ed Pesce says there was often a copy of Fine Woodworking piled on top of Santos' stacks of technical data.
"All the time we worked at the base, he was going every weekend to yard sales looking for old tools," says Pesce, an engineer whom Santos later hired to work at Horsley & Witten. Pesce, who moved to a Braintree firm two years ago, says he was taken aback when he heard through the grapevine that his former boss was leaving the corporate world.
"I found it very curious because he was a mover and a shaker at Horsley-Witten," Pesce says. "To his credit, he decided to try what he had a passion for and I applaud him for it. I'm sure a lot of the people reading this article will probably applaud him and be a little jealous."
Santos says many people he tells about his lifestyle change look at him with envy.
He tries to not let them see the fear.
"It was a terrifying decision and it's still terrifying. This is not an established business," Santos says. "I cannot make (the money) doing this (that) I made in the corporate world. But I think it's worth it to be happy. To be able to live the life you want is priceless.
"It extends to the people around me. I'm going to be a better spouse, better friend, better father. We're a better family and a happier family because of it."
Nickerson says she's noticed the change in her husband already. "He's more relaxed. I just feel like our life has gotten more manageable. It's really nice to have one parent at home," she says.
Silas usually stops by Dad's workshop for an after-school chat each day and has his own wood-working projects. A sturdy simple table he made stands next to his dad's $1,000 Heppelwhite table in the living room. Santos' children from his first marriage - Nicole, 21; Chris, 18; and Stephanie, 15 - also stop by the shop to help out with the business.
Nickerson worked three days per week as an environmental consultant at Horsley & Witten Inc. when son Silas was a baby, but went back to work full-time to bring in more money while her husband establishes this business. The whole family makes sacrifices, Santos says, with fewer dinners out and less stuff.
But the decision for Santos to leave his corporate job's financial security isn't the first tough work decision the couple has made.
When they met, on a bus tour of the base's polluted sites in the early 1990s, he was head of the military's cleanup efforts and she was executive director of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod. It seems an unlikely matching, but they both talk of growing close during those long hours of environmental meetings.
"My experience with representatives at the base had been pretty much adversarial. Their job was to give out as little information as possible and ours was to find out as much as we could," Nickerson says. "But Dan recognized the need for public participation and that the base was in the backyard of these people and they had reason to be jumping around and yelling" about pollution.
Santos says, "I saw in Sue a passion for what she was doing with her environmental work and the respect she had in the community. She was always calm and always fair. When she asked a hard question, it was never personal. I found that very attractive . It comes down to trust. I could trust her."
But there's no romance in chemical plumes, especially when he's the military's head cleanup honcho and she's director of a Capewide watchdog group. When it was apparent love was there to stay, something had to go. He quit the military job in 1994. They married in June 1997 at Brewster's Crosby Mansion.
Santos says his wife's support of the furniture venture is a gift. She says it's more like a loan that she knows will be paid back many times over. "Part of my confidence in doing this is that he's so good at making beautiful furniture. It wasn't like some pie-in-the-sky thing. I felt he could do it so long as he had the time."
Nickerson's role is marketing the creations, which is accomplished mostly by word of mouth now. They both hope to get furniture-making a bigger role in the Cape's artisan community and set up a gallery one day to display and sell fine furniture. In the meantime, Santos sells one well-considered piece at a time, hoping each will bring in more referrals.
"We feel," Nickerson says, "like these pieces that are getting out there are ambassadors for us."
(Published: April 13, 2003)
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Some furniture-making terms:
Dovetail joint: Two pieces of wood interlocking so the joint looks like a dove's tail feathers.
Mortise and tenon joint: Connecting two wood pieces by putting a projecting tenon into a mortise, or hole.
Dowel joint: Gluing round dowels into drilled holes.
Bead: Traditional decoration of a half-round profile that is shaped onto a board's face or edge.
Apron: The sides of a table, connected to its legs.
Primary wood: The wood species used on visible surfaces.
Secondary wood: A less expensive, easy-to-work wood used on interior, unseen furniture parts.
Shellac: Traditional wood finish made by dissolving shellac flakes, the dried secretions of the Indian lac bug, into denatured alcohol.
Cabinet scraper: Woodworking tool with a cast-iron body that holds a thin flexible piece of steel; takes fine wood shavings to smooth better than sandpaper.