From physics and government work to the ‘rat race’ of commercial woodworking, Thad Pratt has finally settled on his true love
Published 2:51 pm Wednesday, December 23, 2015
The smell of fresh cut wood tickles the nose, and particles of sawdust hang in the air at Vicksburg Woodworks, the Walnut Street business Thad Pratt started in 1993.
The Vicksburg native said he decided to open the custom millwork shop to satisfy his aspirations to do something creative.
“I was eager to get back into construction, and my desire was initially to build furniture. I didn’t want to get back into homebuilding but wanted to do something that was more creative but yet small enough I could do it while still working at the government.”
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Following Pratt’s graduation from high school, he attended Millsaps College where he studied physics.
“It was the closest thing they had to engineering. I was in a three/two program to go to Georgia Tech in engineering, but I fell in love with the school (Millsaps) and didn’t want to leave, so I stayed and majored in physics.”
With his physics degree in hand, Pratt said he returned to Vicksburg with every intention of continuing in the construction business.
“When I got out of college, I didn’t really plan to work for anybody. I was just going to keep doing construction. I was fully happy to build houses and build buildings. I had a contractor’s license, and I could build anything I wanted to build.”
However, when a church friend called him up and suggested he interview at the “lab,” Pratt decided to follow-up on the suggestion, and he was offered a job.
“I said well I did go to school for this so I might as well try it out. So, I tried it out and started working with the coastal hydraulic lab.”
Pratt said he fell in love with what he was doing at the coastal hydraulic lab for the U.S. Engineer Research and Development Center. His job includes work geared toward supporting the troops and the different armed services, he said, and has remained there where he has been a physicist for 28 years.
However, after about five years of working at his job at the government, he said he got a little bored without having something to build, and that is when he started Vicksburg Woodworks.
Pratt said he got his first taste of the construction world when he was a youth.
“My mother raised three boys, and she had to keep us entertained and under control, so her idea of doing that was to buy-up a blighted area in town, and then all year long we would remodel that area until we got it completed. By the time I was 18 years old, I had remodeled over 70 buildings in the city of Vicksburg, Mississippi, from antebellum homes to multiunit apartment buildings to whole city blocks of homes. I can go around town and point to you a house and tell you exactly when I remodeled it and who I did it for and how much they spent on it.”
Since opening his company more than 10 years ago, Pratt said he has learned many lessons.
Even though his initial desire was to build furniture, which is what he said he really liked to do because it is creative and unique, he knew that there was not enough of that type of work to support a company. Therefore, he said he also got in the business of building cabinetry, case goods, floors and trim work which he supplied to large businesses and corporations.
“The commercial work basically consumed our time for the first 10 to 15 years of existence,” he said, adding contracts were for large multimillion-dollar jobs which supplied millwork goods to sites including schools and government buildings and multi-story office buildings.
“We did this for many years, but the rat race of trying to get paid by the general contractors and trying to make a living off a very slim profit margin because of the competitiveness of it and because the general rat race of the system — it was just not real satisfying,” Pratt said. “If I had all the money that I hadn’t been paid, I would retire now.”
Pratt discontinued doing business with large companies and now only does small jobs with contractors who are close friends.
“I still do commercial millwork, but I only do jobs I can do myself or with very few employees,” he said.
Pratt does custom homes, historical restoration work and custom furniture.
I still do very custom homes and we still build furniture which includes tables, beds and armoires.
Almost every antebellum home in Vicksburg has a piece of furniture built by Pratt, but he said his best pieces are in his own home.
“My wife gets all the best pieces. I made a china cabinet for her wedding present. I made it all out of walnut, and it was all made with hand tools. I spent about 150 to 160 hours building it by hand, which I could build the same piece of furniture now in less than 20 hours with machines.”
Other unique pieces of furniture Pratt said he has made for his wife, Wynn, include their dining room table which is a 10 foot solid African mahogany table that is book matched, all the wood came from the same tree with split pieces matching along the grain to mirror each other.
“It’s beautiful,” said Pratt.
In addition to building fine pieces for his wife, Pratt said some of the more unique jobs he has done included millwork for a man in Fulton who wanted a complete replica of Beauvoir for his personal home.
“I had to build mantels and trim, he wanted it exact. I had to hand turn every spindle that went around the porch. I made hundreds of these mahogany spindles for him.”
Another interesting job Pratt said he did was for a client in Carmichael, Calif. He said he had to build a whole house full of furniture made out of MacKay, a Brazilian cherry.
Even though Pratt will build furniture to a client’s specifications, he said his favorite was the Mission style, and he also admires the work of craftsman Thomas Moser.
Pratt’s family has lived in Vicksburg for four generations, and Vicksburg Woodworks is located in a building Captain Tom Morrissey, Pratt’s great-grandfather, built in 1903.
A portion of the upper level of the building was the office of the family plantation at Eagle Lake, and the lower level of the building was used as a garage to fix cars and the vehicles used at the family home.
Pratt has plans in the near future to expand his business, and in addition to continuing to supply goods to the local contractors, he will also focus on building furniture and decorator items. These items will be sold from a space located in the bottom of the building at 1200 Walnut St., which he will call Papa Tom’s Garage, and through the internet.