I generally avoid superlatives. They’re overused, and meaningless without qualification. But I have no hesitation in calling Daniel O’Grady my best employee ever. He had all the attributes that make for excellence: intelligence, punctuality, a broad base of skills combined with an aptitude for learning more, modesty, and admirable self-discipline. He genuinely cared about the work, whether the job involved hand-cut dovetails in figured cherry or biscuit joints in poplar plywood. He found the ideal balance between efficient and meticulous as readily as water finds the lowest spot, was principled and courageous, polite and gracious with customers, and possessed a sick sense of humor made all the more wicked by his flair for mimicry, which ensured that I got a daily abdominal workout while he was in my employ.
After leaving my shop in 2007, Daniel went on to other work adventures. Most recently he was foreman, shop manager, and designer for a high-end custom woodworking shop in Memphis known for southern vernacular furniture made with reclaimed wood. When that business closed in late 2019, Daniel decided it was time to start his own, O’Grady Custom.
I first met Daniel toward the end of 2004, when he helped carry a back-breakingly heavy cast-iron tub into the bathroom of the house I was working on with a view to inhabiting. Not long after, I took the plunge and hired him in my business. A couple of anecdotes from before we met will do a better job of conveying Daniel’s character better than I can.
Around the year 2000, when he was 24, Daniel went on a bike ride with a friend. No ordinary bike ride, this; they cycled from their home in Wisconsin to San Francisco. Via Canada. The ride took about two months; they camped in a tent almost every night. On such an extensive trip, with minimal kit and powered by muscles alone, most people would want to have a phone—you know, in case of emergency (or, less dire, just basic emotional/dietary desperation). Not Daniel. “Its presence will change the experience,” he told his friend. Go full-existential or go home.
In 2001, Daniel was well into a degree in anthropology at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee when he decided to leave academe and work full-time. He had a longstanding interest in woodworking, so he took some classes at the Milwaukee Area Technical College. Eager to learn more, he decided to do a 12-week intensive at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. Of course, that would cost money—big money. So he spent that summer and fall painting houses in his spare time until he’d saved enough.
When Daniel moved back to Milwaukee in 2007, he returned to college and completed a bachelor’s degree with majors in anthropology, religious studies, and architecture while running his own custom woodworking business. He employed a helper part-time. “Employing someone gave me more sympathy to what it must have been like for you to have to deal with me on a daily basis,” he reflects. If I had my druthers, everyone would have the experience of being an employer, as well as an employee. In a culture that celebrates self-employment (too often without acknowledging its downsides) and generally undervalues the particular kinds of discipline and ego-checking you have to cultivate as an employee, I’ve always been impressed by Daniel’s appreciation that there are good sides to working for someone else–and that when you’re the employer, you are working for your employees as much as they are for you.
“Running my own business in Milwaukee made me keenly aware of the difficulty to make money as a cabinetmaker,” he says. “I was fine becoming an employee at Palladio [in Memphis] because I didn’t need to always take my work home with me—though I often did, at least mentally. Also, the steady-paycheck phenomenon provided me with stability, which I lacked in Milwaukee.
Mainly, I think being able to turn off woodworking [when you are] an employee is a value that can’t be overstated.”
While working for Palladio, Daniel took as many classes as he could at Marc Adams School of Woodworking, expanding his already-impressive repertoire through courses such as bending wood with Michael Fortune, Federal furniture with Steve Latta, hand-tool joinery with Garrett Hack, and veneering with Marc Adams. In his new business he brings together techniques learned in educational and professional settings over 20 years with the qualities of character that have long made him one of my favorite people.