Growing up with tools instead of toys shapes Victoria man's life
Jan. 20, 2011 at midnight
Updated Jan. 19, 2011 at 7:20 p.m.
Things were a little different for David Clifton than for many of his friends while growing up in Victoria.
"My dad didn't buy us too many toys, but he always had tools around," Clifton said. "He'd rather buy tools and let the boys be boys."
While some may have come away from that experience feeling deprived, Clifton said he thinks it turned out to be a blessing. It led to a nearly life-long pursuit he has no plans to end soon.
Clifton, 56, owns the Texana Furniture Co., with a store in downtown Victoria and a showroom in Goliad. He makes high-end, custom furniture.
But it's not just "any" furniture. He specializes in creating and restoring everything from armoires and staircases to tables and chairs dating to the 18th and 19th centuries.
He's made about 2,500 custom pieces over the past 20 years, some of which are displayed everywhere from the hallowed Alamo to the Smithsonian Institution. Clifton's customers come from all over the United States.
And if there's any question about the quality and reputation of his work, just ask his customers what they think.
"He does beautiful work all the way around and he's a fun guy to work with," said Torin Bales, owner of a Victoria jewelry store. "But woodwork is where he really excels."
Bales said he had always heard about Clifton's work and hired him to work on a cottage on West Commercial Street. Clifton was charged with building mesquite kitchen cabinets, redoing a staircase in longleaf pine and building a wooden door in the front.
"When you walk in and see the cabinets, you can tell they are Clifton cabinets," Bales said.
Clifton said the most unusual pieces he recalls making were the Gothic benches for the Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library.
His most expensive piece was a table and chairs he sold to an Austin attorney for $22,000.
Clifton's burning interest in woodworking was fanned by what he called the school district's wonderful woodworking and metal art classes at Crain Middle School and Victoria High School.
"But you know, I put it all behind me when I got out of high school," Clifton said. "I really didn't mess with woodworking that much up until about 27 years ago when I really started getting serious with it."
He began building houses and making his custom pieces when buildings designed by the likes of famed architect Jules Leffland were being razed. He started harvesting the wood from the old structures to use for his projects.
When a downturn in the economy in the 1980s took its toll on his business, he got back into remodeling to make ends meet. "Not too many people were buying a whole lot of stuff."
About 15 years ago, he started doing what he really wanted to do: blending his love of Texas history with woodworking to create early Germanic pieces of Texas. He began to study it and adopted the style of the 18th and 19th centuries.
"It was a blast," said the six-foot-seven-inch, soft-spoken Clifton, whose family settled Texas in 1792 in Nacogdoches.
Clifton said he saw the most recent hit to the economy coming and once again had to diversify by working on lots of little houses and doing staircases, doors and cabinets to fill the gap.
So where does Clifton get his ideas for designs for his custom pieces?
"I just close my eyes and start thinking about it," he said. "I come up with about 20 or 30 different looks and try to narrow it down to two."
He then shows those ideas to the customers before the work begins so they can offer their own design ideas and feel the work is also a part of them.
"What's so much fun about all this is everything is always different," he said. "Nothing is ever the same."
The style is always moving and always changing and he said he's still got thousands of ideas that should carry him at least through the next 20 years.
Clifton said he prefers using longleaf pine and mesquite wood because those were the native woods used by early settlers.
"That has a special little historical meaning for me," he said. "It kind of stays true to early Texas furniture."
The mesquite wood requires drying, cutting and then incorporating it into the project.
Longleaf pine is harvested from such old structures as houses and barns. The nails are removed, the paint scraped off, and the wood is planed, edged and straighten.
While Clifton said the number of old structures is thinning in central Victoria, there is still a good source of old lumber around the perimeter for his supply of quality wood.
"It's much better wood," he said. "It's old-growth trees 600 to 1,200 years old."
Clifton said he's been at it so long, he can tell when the wood he's taken from the old structures belonged to houses moved from Indianola after an 1886 hurricane devastated the city. It was abandoned and some of those buildings were moved as far inland as Victoria and Cuero.
Clifton said he plans to continue what he's doing until he goes "home," which he doesn't anticipate happening soon. "All my uncles worked until they went home and they all lived to be a very old age."