There’s an old, familiar saying, “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” For Brad Tucker, 38, and Liz Ragone, 29, the saying has become both a philosophy and a business model. The couple, who met last winter, are the creative duo behind a new Island woodworking venture, Mill and Mason, and have already garnered attention for the stunning and unique live-edge “river” style tables, benches, and high-end cutting boards they have been making, incorporating beach stones, wampum, shells, and other found objects with epoxy resin.
Tucker, a West Tisbury native and well-known local musician and stonemason, credits his father, uncle, and grandfather with his earliest inspirations in woodworking. “They weren’t really woodworkers or heavy builders,” he says, “but they were always taking scrap wood from around the farm, and building tables or whatever, out of necessity. If they needed a coffee table, they’d just build one.” There were always tools lying around, he says, and “I’ve been messing around since day one.”
Ragone, who grew up in Cataumet and moved to the Island in the summer of 2016, studied fashion design at the Fashion Institute of Design and Merchandising in San Francisco, but says she had no woodworking background prior to meeting Tucker. “He’s just taught me everything,” she says.
Although she’s new to the craft of woodworking, Brad credits Liz with some of the most interesting ideas they have executed, including inlaying flowers in the knothole of a box elder slab that the couple made into a bench. The colorful bench, which features a beautiful natural red pigmentation in the wood, is “the prettiest piece we’ve made so far,” says Tucker.
That bench, and another larger sycamore bench, seven feet long with inlay mussel shells and “toenail” shells, are among the items that have been delivered to an up-Island gallery that a friend of Tucker’s will be opening in the spring. Although tight-lipped about the details of the upcoming gallery project, Brad says that the opportunity to place a standing collection of work in the gallery “was actually the main motivating force, the final kick in the ass” that prompted him to get serious about making as many projects as possible over the winter. Although they will be for sale, Tucker and Ragone’s larger pieces will also serve as display space for their cutting boards, as well as varied smaller items, including glass works and lures, from other Island artists. “The entire waist-down level of the gallery is my domain,” Tucker says.
Brad, who recently spent a seven-year stint in Nashville, working as a touring musician with groups such as Billy Strings and Pat Reedy and the Longtime Goners, returned to Martha’s Vineyard about a year and a half ago, worn out from the road life, homesick for the ocean, and eager to find time and space to pursue his developing love for woodworking, which had been sparked the first few years he was in Tennessee.
Although his intention upon moving to Nashville was to focus solely on music, Brad got into woodworking when he lived for a time with an arborist and wood turner from Virginia named Bond Hinson, who had a shop at the house. “He worked with a lathe, building lots of bowls and stuff,” Tucker says. “He did tree work, so he’d have all this crazy wood laying around, and he’d just salvage everything he could get. I just kind of started asking him if I could use some of his junk to build stuff.
“I wanted to build myself a bench for playing guitar, like a picking bench,” Tucker says. “He gave me this big, ratty old piece of silver maple that just looked horrid, and [said] ‘There’s some good wood underneath that, go to town on it. And sure enough … it’s the one thing I’ll never get rid of. It’s the one thing I’ll never sell.”
When Hinson moved out, Brad took over the shop. He was on the road a lot, but when he’d return to Nashville, he couldn’t wait to get back in the shop. “I was actually trying to clean up the yard,” he says, “and instead of burning all the stuff, I would just start sanding it down, chiseling away at it, chopping it up.” Although he originally planned to just make things for the house, people started asking about the pieces, and he realized he could sell them.
It was circumstance, and that same house in Nashville, that led Brad to start playing the upright bass. A friend, Skip Frontz Jr., had left a bass at Tucker’s house, so he started tinkering with it, and loved the way it sounded. “I always wanted to play one, I just never had a chance,” he says.
A while later, his friend Pat Reedy moved into the house, and not long after that, asked Brad to come out on the road with his band. Tucker assumed he’d meant playing guitar, but Reedy had meant the bass. “I said, ‘I can’t play the bass, man,’” Brad recalls. “’I’m no good, I stink. I can’t do it.’” Reedy wouldn’t take no for an answer. “He [said], ‘Well, if I’m gonna be living here, you’re gonna be playing that goddamn bass, man.’” Learning Reedy’s tunes, straightforward blues and country songs, was a good way for Brad to practice and strengthen his hands, and soon he started getting gigs with other groups in the area.
Tucker was hired to play bass with Billy Strings, a touring bluegrass act out of Nashville, and went on the road again. He spent about two years on the road with Billy Strings before realizing after a short visit to Martha’s Vineyard that he was ready to come home. “It was just too much,” he says. “I wouldn’t trade it for anything in the world, but it just started to not be right for me.”
What does feel right, for both Brad and Liz, is what they’re doing now. Through an old friend of Brad’s, Ben Stafford, the two found a shop space that they rent near the airport. Finding space to work in had been a struggle in the past, and Brad says, “It was the craziest blessing that Ben approached me … and said ‘Hey, I’ve got a space.’”
Tucker and Ragone split their time between working on larger projects in the shop, smaller projects at home, and beach walks to collect shells, wampum, sea glass, and other small things to put in the resin inlays that have become a signature aspect of their work. It’s a learning experience for both of them, as they experiment with different kinds of epoxy (they’ve tried at least six), structure, and design. One design challenge they recall was an eight-foot poplar table, which they’d made into a river (the term for slicing a live-edge slab down the middle and inverting the pieces so the live edge is on the inside and the space is filled with resin). Epoxy is expensive, so they wanted to find something to take up space in the gap; they settled on circular slices of cedar. “Liz was outside with a handsaw, just hacking off limbs [of a fallen tree] and bringing them in, and I was chopping them up,” Brad says.
They’ve done several commissions, including a kitchen island countertop for Carl and Jen Woods of West Tisbury, which was a collaborative effort with the Woods’ two young children, about 4 and 5. “Carl and Jen brought the kids over with a bunch of stones and shells and all kinds of debris, a couple fishing lures, and the kids put all the stuff in place, I just got it prepped for them,” Tucker says. “Now when people come over and see it, they’re gonna ask, where’d you get this, who made this for you? And both the kids can chime in and say, ‘We did.’”
In the spring, Liz will return to work full-time as a bartender at the Lookout, and Brad will return to a pretty full music schedule, playing bass with the Pickpocket Bluegrass Band, David Saw, Mike Benjamin, Philly D, and others. For now, however, the two are more than content to spend their time collecting materials and making as many pieces as they can in anticipation of the summer season. “Working with her is so copacetic, so easy,” Tucker says. “We’ll buzz around for half an hour, and then all of a sudden without even realizing it, we’ll just be standing at something, looking at it, like what the hell should we do with this? And then between the two of us, somehow we come up with the right idea.”
They hope to vend at the Chilmark Flea market, and possibly other summer markets, and have been working on smaller pieces to sell at those shows, including resin paperweights and coasters, which they fill with stones, shells, wampum, flowers, and anything they can find. “Our rule is we have 10 of these [molds], and we can’t go to bed until we’ve poured 10,” Liz says.
Mill and Mason is accepting commissions, both large and small, and Tucker and Ragone encourage people to contact them with wood or old iron they may have lying around, or sentimental objects (including photographs) they may want to have cast permanently in epoxy, small or large. For example, “You could commission a coffee table,” Ragone says, “and [use] all your things that you think are cool, or funny, or beautiful.”
Brad is also looking for a new baby shoe to use as a foot on his bass.
For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org and visit them on instagram at #millandmason.