Tim McClellan became a celebrity when he won the hearts of viewers on HGTV, a network that reaches 94 million households. His furniture design made him the winner of “Ellen’s Design Challenge”. It was the biggest moment of his life…until it was taken away.
Before we get to that, let’s go to where it all began.
His story is one of perseverance. Tim’s strength of character was forged in the Appalachian mountains of Charles Town, WV. It was here that his parents raised him and his six brothers and two sisters.
“My parents bought property on the Shenandoah River in West Virginia. It really was, as the John Denver song goes, ‘Almost Heaven.’ That’s where we were raised with pigs, cows and horses. They bought 100 acres for $100,000 and the house was thrown in for free because it needed so much work.
It was an 1889 five story mansion with no insulation. It was meant for summer living. My growing up years were spent rehabbing this giant house. We all had to work,” he said.
The camaraderie he shared with his six brothers and two sisters made the work fun. Tim commented, “I’m right in the middle of four older and four younger siblings. They are charismatic – brainy, comfortable in their own skin and brave. I wasn’t born with that, but they were good teachers.”
Hands On Learning
Another teacher he had was the shop teacher at the Charles Town Middle School. Tim commented, “He was extraordinary and challenging. He taught us fundamentals of creating and building. We learned how to sharpen the chisel for the whole week. We learned the basics and why they are important. It stuck with me.
I’m the #1 fan of education, but I never liked the classroom setting. I’m hands-on, so the shop class was an outlet for me,” he said. Tim’s family moved to Maryland and in 1987 graduated from Winston Churchill High School. He was accepted at the University of Maryland in an honors program. But after one walk around the campus at freshmen orientation, he realized college just wasn’t for him.
He remarked, “I asked my dad, Can you get your money back? He told me, ‘Yes’, and then he said, ‘Tim, follow your dream.’”
Building a Future
His true calling wouldn’t be discovered until he was 24 years old. That’s when Tim became an entrepreneur. He was living in Everett, Washington and had a business washing cars for auto dealers. He said, “There were 250 cars on each lot and I was paid a dollar a car. It was a dead end nightmare.”
Tim’s nightmare became an entrepreneurial dream came true when his girlfriend, at the time, was shopping for a bed and found one she liked for $1,300. Tim said to her, “I can build that!” and she replied, ‘You wash cars!’” He took that as a challenge and drove his 1964 Scout four wheel drive into the woods with a chain saw. He spent the day there and found old timber to build the bed.
When it was finished, a friend came over to see the bed and loved it. “She asked me to build a bed for her. It was 1990 and she paid $250. Her family was building a cottage on the ocean and commissioned me to build the furniture. That’s when Western Heritage Furniture was born. I never made any money, but it’s fair to say I got a master’s degree in design and building.
Ten years later I was invited to be a part of “Western Design Challenge” in Cody, Wyoming. I didn’t win but got a spread in “Cowboys and Indians” magazine and it featured a desk I made. After that, my business partner got a call and asked me if I would sell that desk. I told him, ‘no’. He came back to me with the news he sold it. I said, ‘I told you I didn’t want to sell it! He said, ‘I sold it for $25,000!’”
By then, Western Heritage Furniture was operating in Jerome, Arizona. Tim said, “It’s a crazy little mining town with 400 people. When I look back over the past 20 years, it was the hardest place to build a company. There were limited resources and labor was scarce.”
It was a family bond that brought Tim to Jerome and his pioneer spirit that kept him there. “My sister was opening a sandwich shop and the family came together to help her.” He remained in Jerome as well as his parents and all but one of his siblings moved there too.
Tim said, “It was a blessing to grow up with these six brothers and two sisters. I was a bit of a “softy” and not fully engaged in the human drama, but my family wouldn’t allow me to remain that way. We are all dynamic. We pushed each other. Failure was not an option,” he said.
This drive to succeed helped him to grow Western Heritage Furniture into an international company with a talented and dedicated crew. Their creations are in 100 stores throughout 48 states and in three Canadian provinces as well as Belgium and Panama.
They are one-of-a-kind pieces with fine rustic charm. Tim’s passion is to bring form and function together to create heirloom quality furniture for the home and office. He works with reclaimed wood which comes from old barns and buildings.
Tim said, “I always wanted to be a co-creator; take things made by the Creator and transform them with my hands; manipulate the materials around me and be part of a creation.”
He finds his peace in each piece he makes.
He said, “Reclaimed wood was the cheapest material I could get. If we can recycle it and make it another product that’s better – it’s smart.”
Tim McClellan sees a story every time he takes century old wood from a barn and brings it back to life. His furniture craftsmanship was mastered long before he competed on “Ellen’s Design Challenge.”
When Tim was invited by the show’s producers to be part of the competition, he was retired from furniture building and was on to his next career – Extreme Reclamation. “I was into restoring a 1940 Ford pick-up truck and turning it into a four wheel drive. I told them I was retired and not interested,” he said.
The producers weren’t so willing to give up. They explained that Ellen had seen his work on YouTube and wanted him to interview for the show. Over the next few months, they continued to contact him. Finally, it was the urging of his biggest fan, 17 year old daughter, Riley, that turned it around.
Tim commented, “She told me, ‘Dad, it’s Ellen. You’re going to do it!’” Reluctantly, the only contestant to be recruited and the only one without a formal education, made his way onto the show.
Paired with carpenters, the six contestants designed and created original pieces of furniture. At the end of each design challenge, they faced a judging panel and elimination over the course of six weeks. Tim’s carpenter was HGTV’s “Elbow Room” host, Chip Wade. “When I think about those pieces, it should have taken longer for us to create them. They were divinely inspired. The hand of God was with us,” he said.
Tim’s strong character and his masterful creations became the story that attracted a whole new fan base.
In one episode, after picking out the best wood for his design challenge, Tim’s competitor wanted it too and he willingly gave it her. And when his work was done, he stepped in to help the other contestants finish their pieces. He said, “We’re craftsman. We help each other. It’s what we do.”
Fade to Black
Both Tim and Katie Stout made it to the finale’ and were tasked to create a multi-functional piece. At the end of the recorded episode, Tim was named the winner of “Ellen’s Design Challenge”. His prize was $100,000 and a spread in HGTV Magazine. Confetti flew. Tim’s life changed in that instant. Then the screen faded to black with the words, “One Week Later.”
That’s when it was announced that Tim had been disqualified because his design was too similar to another piece already made. In the last couple minutes of the show, viewers watched as Katie was brought onto an empty set with Ellen and the host gave her the news of Tim’s disqualification and her new title as the winner.
“It was the worst night of my life. They told me I was disqualified,” he said. Tim was devastated and worried about his reputation. He went to bed that night in agony.
A New Day
The next day dawned with a whole new light.
“I started reading the outpouring on social media. One post was from eight year old Gracie from New Freedom, PA. She wrote, ‘My mom and I watched every episode. We cried when you won and cried so much when you lost. You are a winner.’ That was worth so much more than the money.
My fans went to bat for me. I went radio silent. When I couldn’t speak, my fans and friends spoke for me. It was the best thing that ever happened to me,” he said.
Ellen, who is a fan of Tim and his work, invited him onto her NBC show to break that silence and to share what happened with her viewers.
A New Story
“After being disqualified, I went to bed thinking there is no silver lining – that this is all bad. But it was a blessing in disguise. The outpouring of support made it the best thing that has happened to me outside of having my daughter,” he said.
What’s next for Tim? “One of the things I discovered after 25 years is that I’m a designer, builder, and story teller. It’s taken this long to realize that the drawing and construction is as important as the story. My next career is to design and build the furniture while telling its history through the medium of television,” he said.
Like his creations, Tim has weathered the elements and proven that character is built over time.
His story is just beginning.