From flat broke to HGTV’s 'Fixer Upper' for furniture maker Clint Harp

Owner of Harp Design Co. in Waco will be at Austin Home & Garden Show

Clint Harp gave up a six-figure job in medical sales in Houston to pursue a dream of making his own furniture. Now, less than five years later, Harp has been seen making tables, bar stools and candlesticks for HGTV’s “Fixer Upper” as well as having his own house in a “Fixer Upper” episode in the first season.

He and his wife, Kelly, also own Harp Design Co. store in Waco, which is a mix of furniture Clint Harp has made and home decor goods that Kelly Harp has curated.

Clint Harp will be at the Austin Home & Garden Show on Saturday to talk about “Fixer Upper” and his love of making furniture.

Going for the dream

Clint Harp had been building furniture out of his garage using a chop saw, a circular saw and a drill, but that was about it. In 2007, he showed one piece to his grandfather, who encouraged him by giving him money to buy a few more tools: a table saw and a drill press.

At one point, his wife looked at an early table and told him what was missing was more refined legs. He had to have a lathe to be able to shape the wood.

So, Harp took his children down to Harbor Freight Tools in Houston and bought a lathe for $279 without knowing how to use one.

He watched YouTube videos to teach himself how to use it.

Harp would go to construction sites and behind stores and ask for extra lumber, such as that used in the pallets that hold goods or building scaffolding. His work centered around reclaimed wood.

“There is the beauty of this idea, of something being left for dead and brought back to life,” he says. “It had a deeper meaning. I felt that way about myself. I was living my life one way doing the sales thing, which was fine, but I didn’t feel like myself. For me, I’m kind of reclaimed as well.”

At the beginning of 2011, Harp wasn’t happy. He quit his medical sales job to pursue building furniture full time. His wife was a stay-at-home mom who had a small children’s clothing line, but that didn’t pay the bills.

“I really wanted to do something that I have a passion for,” he says.

“The only way it was going to happen is if I completely went for it,” he says. “I quit my job and jumped off a cliff.”

He and his wife talked about things like the possibility of bankruptcy, how they would be able to pay the mortgage and the car payments, and how long they could live off savings.

That summer, Kelly Harp also decided she wanted to go to graduate school for American studies. Again, the Harps would decide to jump off the cliff — selling their house and moving to Waco so that she could get her master’s degree. They would live off of a small stipend she received, while Clint Harp tried to give this furniture business a chance.

“I wanted to do something that meant something to me and my wife,” he says. “I wanted to wake up in the morning and feel like we were truly being ourselves.”

A harsh reality

When they moved to Waco, the Harps lived in a small apartment with their two children. The family would soon welcome a third child . Clint Harp’s few tools were in storage.

He volunteered full time for Habitat for Humanity, which had been dear to his grandmother’s heart. She worked for President Jimmy Carter as a receptionist and planner in his presidential library in Atlanta.

One night over dinner, friends mentioned Chip Gaines, a builder from Waco who owned Magnolia Homes and got Harp Gaines’ phone number. Harp called that December but never heard back. He was looking to start picking up work building furniture and a connection who might know where he could rent a woodworking shop.

A few months passed and financially things were getting more tense.

“I’m feeling like an idiot,” he says. “What did I do?”

That day, Kelly Harp encouraged him to have a family outing at a park in the middle of the day. After the park, they were low on gas and stopped at a gas station. Silent and depressed and not even sure if they could afford the gas, he saw a truck with Magnolia Homes on the side.

He introduced himself to the driver and asked if the driver knew Chip Gaines. It turned out the driver was Gaines, and when Clint Harp explained what he wanted to do, Gaines invited him to hang out that afternoon.

Gaines and Harp spent three hours driving around Waco, and then Gaines invited the Harps for dinner a few nights later. There, the Harps met Chip Gaines’ wife, Joanna, who was selling some home-decor pieces out of her home and looking to add more, including furniture.

Now Clint Harp had a reason to build, but he still needed a shop. It turns out Habitat for Humanity was phasing out its original cabinet-making shop. The director agreed to rent it to him for $25 a month.

Suddenly, Harp had a shop and a client. He brought all of his consumer-grade tools out of storage, put them in this huge, mostly empty shop, and began building.

From dream to reality

Within months of meeting the Gaineses, “Fixer Upper” started to happen. A friend of Joanna Gaines had taken some pictures of the Gaines home and posted it on the Design Mom blog.

Someone who worked at High Noon Entertainment production company saw the blog and passed it to a producer, who then contacted the Gaineses.

“One day, I was building things for her and she said, ‘Things are crazy right now. A guy contacted me to develop this show idea,’ ” Clint Harp says. “Outwardly, I’m really cool. On the inside, ‘What? That’s insane!’ I’m going crazy.”

“I met Chip at a gas station in February or March of 2012 and by October or November, we’re filming a pilot for HGTV,” he says.

While the Gaineses are filming all the time, Harp’s part, aside from the show that was about his house, is usually a couple of hours of filming an episode. He gets introduced to the design for the house, and Joanna Gaines makes a sketch. And then they agree: “Sounds good, let’s do it.”

“It really does happen that way,” he says.

Most of the time, Harp gets what she’s looking for the first time. Once, on the finale of season two, she ended up painting the legs of a table a different color.

“She knows what she wants,” he says. “She’s so freakishly gifted at seeing a design in her head … You can look back to the picture she drew, and it’s a mirror image.”

There are other times when Gaines will tell him what she basically wants and then let him put his spin on it, Harp says.

Reality 10 fold

“This whole thing has been such an amazing job,” Harp says about his new career.

His role in “Fixer Upper” has allowed him and Kelly to open the store, to hire people, including an accountant, and to buy commercial-grade tools including a planer.

In October, the Harps finished shooting a pilot for their own HGTV show. They renovated two backyards, created new decks and a structure for kids to play in. They even used old fence wood to make something for the family.

“We got to put our spin on it, which is really cool,” he says.

Harp is also speaking at places around the country including Fargo, N.D.; Phoenix; Memphis; Bakersfield, Calif.; San Antonio; Midland and Dallas.

“It’s just insane,” he says. “Just a few years ago, I was sitting at a gas station wondering what’s going to happen.”

He now owns the former Habitat for Humanity shop. And the run-down house the Harps renovated for “Fixer Upper” for their family to live in is now their offices. The family has a new fixer-upper, but it won’t be on the show. They recognize the need for some privacy and for all of America to not recognize their house.

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