Clint Harp doesn’t know what the next chapter in his life will hold.
The furniture maker and owner of Harp Design Co. in Waco is known for turning Joanna Gaines’ ideas into farm tables and candlesticks on the HGTV show “Fixer Upper.” That show ended recently after five seasons, and Harp and wife, Kelly, launched a new show this spring. Now Harp is waiting for answers.
Will his show, “Wood Work” on DIY Network, be picked up for another season? If so, what new projects will await him?
Will his new book, “Handcrafted: A Woodworker’s Story,” be a success? The book tells his story from growing up poor in Georgia and North Carolina to ditching a six-figure job in Houston to pursue furniture making to a bit of behind-the-scenes of “Fixer Upper.” “Handcrafted” comes out Sept. 25.
When Harp was headed down the road to Austin in January 2016 to be part of the Austin Home & Garden Show, we talked to him about that middle part of his life: from quitting a medical sales job in Houston to starting Harp Design Co. in Waco.
The book goes even deeper into those days, but it also makes sense of how he got to be who he is — a faithful risk-taker — and it brings us to 18 months later, when Harp, 40, has grown his company to about 25 employees and can pay himself a wage. That didn’t happen until after the second season of “Fixer Upper,” which might surprise fans.
“We have our family, our business, which is growing,” Harp says, “We’re thankful for the TV thing and hope that it keeps going on,” but if it doesn’t, “we still have the opportunity to make our dreams come true and live the life we want to live.”
The not knowing, though, could get to you, which is why Harp has taken the last few weeks to concentrate on his family. They took a trip to the beach, and then they stayed for a week in his grandfather’s old house. It was a house his grandfather built but never really finished in Georgia. After Harp’s grandfather died, a family friend bought the house and finished many of the projects started by his grandfather and then rented it out as a vacation home.
“I’m in hog heaven,” Harp says of his stay in his grandfather’s old home.
His grandfather inspired him, teaching him the value of hard work and his beginning woodworking skills and giving him the money for his first set of tools before Harp really had the skills.
Like his grandfather’s house, the house where Harp once lived — the place where drug addicts congregated next to his shop in Waco and that was renovated for an episode of “Fixer Upper” — is now a home the Harps rent to others.
They lived there for a while — until the constant stream of “Fixer Upper” fans wanting to get a selfie with him interrupted time shooting hoops outside with his son or family dinner. They would boldly knock on the front door he designed just to say hi.
In the Harps’ new house, which is away from the public limelight, you might expect wall-to-wall Harp Design Co. furniture, but that’s not the case. “It’s like the painter’s house is never finished,” he says.
“We are slowly accruing some furniture in my house that I’ve made at Harp Design Co.,” he says. “I finally have a (farm) table in my house.”
Harp wanted to write a book of his life not to take the easy path: “I’m somebody. People know me. I’m going to write a book and take advantage of that,” he says. “That’s probably been done a few times.”
Instead, he says, “My heart behind writing the book was that I’ve been through things in my life. It’s not the hardest life in the world, but I have had it tough.”
In truth, he thought about writing this book 17 years ago. He and Kelly got their first tax refund and used it to buy a laptop. “The reason now is the same,” he says. “I believe in sharing stories. When we all share our stories … we learn we are not alone.”
The book is a personal look at a guy you might think has it all. “You might think, ‘He’s building for Joanna Gaines; he probably has it all together.’ Then you think, ‘Oh, wait he doesn’t have it all together; maybe I was wrong.’”
In his mind, he’s still that goofy kid in the too-tight hand-me-down red sweatpants who used humor to try to fit in every time his family moved as his stepfather tried to find enough work to support the family.
“I’m still so connected to that time in my life because it was a real experience,” he says. “It so affected me in so many ways.”
He remembers as a kid walking out to the family car and seeing a black garbage bag full of gently used clothes left there for his family. All the other kids had the cool new clothes with the logos on them, he says. “I’m thankful for those days,” he says. “They keep me grounded. Even though I had those days, it didn’t mean I couldn’t make something of my life.”
Those lessons built resiliency, something he wants his own three kids to have. “Challenge is what creates all the good stuff in our world,” he says. “If anything, I don’t want you guys to have a smooth life,” he says of his children.
What you didn’t know
Harp had many different careers before he became the founder of Harp Design Co.
A benevolent professor and some fast talking assured his graduation from Baylor University with a business degree even though he basically failed his last class. He headed off to Florida with guitar in hand to be a youth minister. He and Kelly then raised enough money through family friends and churches to be able to go to Europe to start new churches. After being broke and owing money to the IRS, they had to come back to the States and to Dallas.
He worked in mortgage licensing, he sold copiers — his lowest career point because no one wanted copiers — and he chased the promise of a six-figure salary in medical sales to Houston.
Harp was very good at that Houston job. He dressed in scrubs and got to know doctors and patients, but he didn’t like the idea that he saw a dollar sign in front of each encounter with a patient.
With two kids and a car payment, he quit that secure job and tried to pursue furniture making full time.
“My wife bravely stepped out into the unknown, and we did it,” he says.
They skirted the edge of real things such as bankruptcy and student loan defaults. They always knew that if those happened, they would have to pick themselves back up, but, he says, “we didn’t want to die and never go for our dreams.”
There were low points when they thought they might have to throw in the towel and get a “real” job, but success always was right in front of them like a carrot dangling.
They met Chip Gaines at a gas station after having left a voicemail that went unanswered.
Their family and the Gaineses had a spaghetti dinner at which Joanna Gaines talked about furniture ideas for a design party she was going to throw and asked Harp if he could make them.
Like he has always done, Harp said yes, even though he wasn’t sure how to go about making them and didn’t have a workshop or any wood. His tools were all in storage, and he didn’t own a lathe or know how to operate one to turn the legs of the table the way Gaines wanted the legs to look.
Within a few months of meeting the Gaineses, he secured a workshop through Habitat for Humanity, where he had been volunteering; he found wood at old construction sites and from grocery-store pallets; and he bought a $300 lathe and learned how to use it.
Harp describes in detail all the times it didn’t work, all the blisters and injuries to himself, all the frustrations, all the sleepless nights and uncertainty.
But he delivered those first pieces, and they all sold out of the Gaines house.
Shortly afterward, Joanna Gaines was contacted by producers about developing the show that would become “Fixer Upper.” She brought Harp along for the ride.
Still, there were multiple times when doubt was there. When they were shooting the pilot for “Fixer Upper,” Harp was checking his email to see if he had received any bites from the résumés he sent out to potential employers.
“It was years before we started drawing salaries,” Harp says of Harp Design Co. In fact, he hired his first employee and paid him $750 a month well before being able to afford a salary for himself.
While people think of Clint Harp as the woodworker for “Fixer Upper,” he never had any contract with the show. Joanna Gaines could have stopped calling him to turn her ideas into furniture at any point.
“We just went with what was handed to us,” he says of “Fixer Upper.” By the second season, it started turning around. He made a set of candlesticks with Gaines, and once that episode aired, overnight they started getting orders for candlesticks.
People couldn’t necessarily afford a farm table, but they could buy a set of candlesticks, he says. Now in addition to selling tables that they ship all over the country, Harp Design Co. tries to hire craftspeople to make small goods such as cutting boards.
“People want something that someone has put their hands on,” he says. They also want a piece of Harp Design Co.
In some ways, Harp Design Co. right now feels like the Gaineses’ Magnolia brand felt before “Fixer Upper” and during the early seasons, he says: just on the verge.
The end of ‘Fixer Upper’
Harp learned that ‘Fixer Upper’ was ending just like the rest of us, with a filmed online announcement.
“I was sad,” he says. “It was an amazing chapter in everyone’s life, but I’m so happy for them. They’ve worked so hard.”
He says he’s “thankful for every moment that I got to do it.”
His work with Joanna Gaines didn’t end with the show. He just built a 7-foot-by-7-foot table for the private dining area in Magnolia Table Restaurant.
He jokes that he has his phone set so that any time Joanna Gaines calls, the phone will slap him so he will take the call.
His business has changed in many ways with “Fixer Upper.”
Harp has been able to buy new tools, including a new lathe that cost 10 times as much as his first one. “We are in big-boy tools now,” he says.
And while he started with only reclaimed wood found in pallets and construction sites, he now also uses responsibly sourced wood or wood that someone else has preserved in a warehouse in Dallas to keep up with the demand for Harp Design Co. products.
“I just can’t just make it out of something I find in a garbage can anymore,” he says.
These days, he’s also doing more supervising of employees, but he’ll spend time behind a lathe working out a new design. They now office out of a larger warehouse they restored. It features a giant conference table they built.
He’s also toying with buying a new shop, away from the one people know, where he can quietly work for hours at a time without interruption, just like he used to do when he was a one-man operation with a dream.
“I wanted to build things,” he says. “I wanted to build furniture, but I also wanted to build a business, to be somebody that was contributing to this planet, to be living a life of adventure. It sounds cheesy, but it’s true.”
“Handcrafted” by Clint Harp
Available for preorder now, out Sept. 25
Harp Design Co.
on DIY Network
Watch a marathon from 6 a.m. to 8:30 a.m. July 22