A close encounter with a table saw has left a visible reminder on one of Mark Perrott’s fingernails, but even the most experienced of woodworkers seldom leaves work without a scratch, splinter or souvenir of some kind. And Perrott wouldn’t have it any other way, despite being 4,000 miles away from his birthplace in Limerick, Ireland.
“I’m doing what I love to do,” he said, leaning back in one of the hand-crafted chairs he designed and built. Perrott and his wife, Helen, own Mississippi Farm Tables, an Aberdeen-based business that got its start about 18 months ago.
How Mark and Helen met is its own story. Beginning with a summer romance in 1978, when they were 17. Mark had traveled with his father, who was invited as a guest pastor at First Baptist Church in Tupelo.
It was love at first sight for Helen and Mark. But after summer ended, Mark went back to Ireland, promising to come back to the U.S. However, it wasn’t until more than 30 years later that they reconnected, on Facebook.
He later proposed to her at the Eiffel Tower, they married in Europe and the couple returned to Northeast Mississippi. Helen was a nurse, and Mark knew how to build furniture. Mississippi Farm Tables was born. As its name implies, the business specializes in farm tables – the large tables where families traditionally come together for meals, meetings and other gatherings.
The tables are generational pieces of furniture–they’re meant to be passed down from one family member to the next. Not that physically passing one down is easy–a table can weigh hundreds of pounds and take a half-dozen people to move.
“Everything we make is of solid wood,” Mark explained. “There’s none of that pressed wood. We only used hardwoods, like ash, walnut, oak.”
While the farm tables are the company’s claim to fame and are best sellers, Mark also builds chairs, benches, hutches, buffets, beds, sideboards, coffee tables and other custom-designed pieces of furniture.
“It’s old-style, simple-designed, all hand-made,” he said. The chairs are a particular point of pride for him. It’s not unusual to find other handmade tables accompanied by imported chairs. That simply is unacceptable for Mark, who’s been working with wood for more than 20 years. He’s made furniture in England, Scotland and France; he’s cut, shaped, sanded, built and polished European hardwoods that include oak, ash, walnut and beech.
“We like to build our own chairs,” he said, “using mortice and tenon jointing. … we love the variety that we can build.”
The majority of the company’s customers come looking to put hand-built furniture in their new homes, and Mark is happy to accommodate them. ”We’re getting more folks, whilst they’re coming to talk about a table, then they want a home office desk or some other bespoke product,” he said.
Customers sometimes bring in their own wood, but Mark prefers to buy his own.
“It’s a nice idea and it’s quite possible – we’ve done a nice sinker cypress table which a logger brought up from the south of the state,” he said. “But it’s got to be properly dried. If it’s reclaimed lumber, there’s a danger of nails and screws and so forth in it.”
He added that bringing in your own wood doesn’t guarantee the finished piece will be less expensive. “Bringing your own lumber often means more labor for us,” he said.
Getting the moisture content right is key to building furniture, and working with a “new” piece of wood is easier and faster. Still, if there’s an heirloom piece a customer wants him to design from a piece of wood, Mark will do his best to accommodate their request. Along those lines, Mark said more customers who are designing their own homes also are budgeting for custom-made furniture.
“We’re not the cheapest, but neither are we the most expensive,” Mark added. A bespoke–or custom-made–farm table, for example, will easily cost four figures. But what’s that saying? You get what you pay for. And building a piece of furniture might take weeks, perhaps a few months, from start to finish. A table takes about four weeks; a table with a set of chairs takes six to eight weeks.
“It also depends on the season,” Helen said. “For Thanksgiving and Christmas, business really picks up and it makes the turnout time a bit longer.”
Mark’s choice of wood is alder, a softer hardwood member of the birch family well-liked by woodworkers because it yields nicely to curves.
“It’s less expensive, easy to work with and finishes well,” he said. “We also work with red oak, white oak, maple, ash… I haven’t worked with pecan or hickory yet.”
With nearly 5,000 followers on Facebook, the company is attracting a variety of customers, many of whom are willing to wait for their order. They’ve ordered from Florida to Washington, California to New York. Slowly but surely, the quality of the craftsmanship is getting attention. The owner of an antebellum home in Vicksburg, for example, contacted MFT to build a high-end showpiece home office desk.
“A process like that, we’ll email back and forth, he’ll visit me, we’ll have a plan, we’ll talk … a detailed, particular piece like that from start to finish could take three to six months,” Mark said.
No two pieces of furniture are alike at Mississippi Farm Tables. Customers typically bring in a design or an idea for one, and Mark gets to work. A key part of the process–which takes quite a bit of time–is sanding all the wood once a piece has been put together, getting it as smooth as possible. On a black walnut coffee table he recently built, a coat of sanding sealer went on first, followed by a rubdown with 320 sponge paper. Finally, a topcoat of a clear lacquer is put on it. This process took several days.
“For some woods in particular, it’s almost a shame to put a stain on them, like cherry, walnut or mahogany,” he said. “It’s almost like, ‘why would you do that?’ But if that’s what they want to do, we’ll do it. The aim is simple: The customer is happy until they’re friends.”
And Helen usually adds a personal touch to a piece of furniture, hand-painting a shamrock on the underside of a table. Or perhaps on a drawer she’ll paint the Irish blessing: “May the road rise up to meet you. May the wind always be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face, and rains fall soft upon your fields. And until we meet again, May God hold you in the palm of His hand.”
It’s the perfect, personal touch they like to give their customers, and it’s also symbolic of Mark and Helen’s relationship. For Mark it’s also a reminder of where he’s from and where he’s going. “I’m very much Irish, but I also feel part Mississippian,” he said with a smile. “I’m content.”
Photos by Lauren Wood // Story by Dennis Seid