Step into Joe Duffy’s Ahwatukee garage, and you’re greeted not by cars but instead by a jumble of woodworking equipment. Expansive workbenches sit side-by-side with band saws, planers, routers and myriad other machines. The walls are lined with tools. Lumber is everywhere. “I build mostly everything right here on these tables,” Duffy says. “I was going to get a bigger space earlier this year, but I don’t want to rent something that’s going to give me a reason not to work. It’s nice to come out here whenever I want.”
By day, Duffy is a fireman for a busy South Phoenix station. While he enjoys fighting fires and helping people, it’s his pastime as a master craftsman that’s garnering him a loyal following of collectors and social media fans. Duffy is the creative mind behind The Handy Fireman, a maker of custom wood doors, tables, wall art and more.
Born in California and raised in Arizona’s Chino Valley, just north of Prescott, Duffy learned early on how to build things. “We moved out here when I was 10. My parents bought an RV trailer, and the plan was that my grandpa and dad were going to build our house,” he recalls. “I was able to help out and be part of the team. The project lasted almost year, and I learned all of the basics of construction — pouring concrete, laying a foundation, framing walls, putting up drywall and insulation.”
Following a stint in the Navy, during which time he trained as a firefighter, Duffy returned to the home remodeling industry, but he quickly tired of using his skills to realize other people’s visions. Fast forward five years and a career pivot to back firefighting, and Duffy’s hands began to get restless.
“I got bored and decided to start a side business. I thought ‘I’m just going to build stuff that I like and put it online,’” he says. “Soon, people began inquiring about my work and wanting me to make specific pieces for them.” In April 2018, he formed his creatively monikered LLC.
“Woodworking is so much more fascinating and precise than home remodeling,” Duffy explains. “It has been my channel for creativity.”
Initially, Duffy made small tables and charcuterie and cutting boards, and he often signed the wood to give it a burnt finish. “It was a lot of trial and error,” he says, with a laugh. “I was using a chintzy little table saw from a local big-box store.” As his work improved and demand for his creations grew, he was able to invest in better tools and higher-quality wood. Today, he is sponsored by JET Tools, which sends him top-of-the-line products to use and review on his social media channels.
Duffy now focuses on crafting large tables, barn doors, Murphy beds and even Murphy doors — that is, secret doors often hidden within bookshelves. “I enjoy building those because they’re challenging. A barn door just needs to be built big because it’s got to cover an opening. A Murphy door has to be precise.” He also continues to make one-of-a-kind art pieces.
Alternating slabs of light and dark woods, including redwood, African padauk, alder, mesquite, walnut and more are glued and joined together without screws or nails and then hand-carved into undulating forms that are velvety-smooth to the touch. His more popular items include personalized flags, which often include names, military mottos and first responder emblems.
“I try to build every single piece as though it’s an heirloom for my family,” Duffy remarks. “I think woodwork tells a story about its creator. You can see your work ethic and your attention to detail in every piece. I want my kids to be impressed, and I want to leave a legacy.
“I think the goal for everyone is to find their passion,” he concludes. “For me, it’s woodwork. I try to put everything I have into these pieces.”
The Handy Fireman