Ty Pennington on Volunteering, Renovations, and Reclaimed Pianos

Ty Pennington at the Sears "Building Community Together" initiative.

Ty Pennington of Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Trading Spaces has got another new building project starting up. Partnered with Sears, the “Building Community Together” initiative has over 80 Sears Home Services volunteers helping to renovate three local homes in Tampa, Florida, along with the Tampa Heights Community Center. He spoke with us on the opening day of the initiative and with the buzz of work in the background, he enthusiastically gave us the rundown.

Ty: We’re knee deep in renovation. Have you heard what’s happening down here in Tampa?

You’re starting this new project, Building Community Together.

We’re working with Sears Home Services here in Tampa and we’re renovating a 100-year-old church and turning it into a community center. Giving the kids in the neighborhood a place they can go after school to learn skills and to have fun and keep them in a positive environment. We’re also renovating three other houses in the area.

Of course, the other cool thing is with Sears Home Services we’re employing over 1000 people nationwide, which is great. People are trying to bring jobs back to the community. It’s not just happening here in Tampa. We’re going to hit Chicago, Sacramento, Philadelphia, and we have the entire year to do other projects in the community. I’ve done things with Sears before - built a house for a family after Sandy up on the Jersey coast. I love doing what I can - giving back to the community. The impact I think will be pretty phenomenal. You have all kinds of people in the community all cheering. It’s sort of like an Extreme Makeover.

Ty Pennington on Volunteering, Renovations, and Reclaimed Pianos, community center

So with the church and community center, you’re expanding it to a whole neighborhood instead of just some homes?

Well that’s what’s really great. Here’s the thing I know about volunteering, especially from the show, what we do is build a house in a community and so many people in the community get to know each other, and through the project you’re working together and you’re sort of coming out of your shell and realizing there are other things you can do as well. What I think is really great about everybody coming out and really helping out with this project in Tampa is that you get people working together doing positive things - you get them interacting, having that positive impact. So even after we leave, next thing you know you build relationships and take on new projects. That is what’s kind of neat about having people volunteer. And one thing for sure is that experience you get from giving back, it’s such a weird thing, but I swear to you that you want to do it again after you’ve done it.

And I bet you’re leaving behind some younger people who might get interested in the trades that would have not done that otherwise.

Exactly, and some of the kids are going to learn those trades from being a part of this as well. It’s a constant snowball effect of good things.

Ty Pennington on Volunteering, Renovations, and Reclaimed Pianos, Sears, building community together

Almost every online profile for you boils down to this: “Male model, Trading Spaces, Extreme Home Makeover, and he was a carpenter or something...” So because the audience for this site would be most interested in that last bit, tell us about building and getting your hands dirty.

A lot of people don’t realize I was in the fashion industry, which is hilarious. I somehow got talked into it and I was like, “Wait a minute I get to travel? Sure.” I didn’t make money in that industry but I got to see the world. The one job you could always get when you came back from traveling was on a construction job. “You swing a hammer?” “Yeah absolutely.” “Okay man, here’s what we need, blah blah blah.” So I always fell back on that until eventually, as you can imagine in that industry, you are waiting on someone else to make a decision if you will work. I couldn’t handle that anymore so I went back to renovating houses – had my own business – knocking on doors.

Ty Pennington on Volunteering, Renovations, and Reclaimed Pianos

At the same time I was renovating a warehouse in downtown Atlanta, converting them in to lofts and doing some other cool stuff. I found a bunch of this tongue and groove flooring off an old porch. I numbered each of the boards and ended up running them vertically as a really cool wall. Anyway, I converted some lofts into some really cool spaces and we started doing a lot of unique furniture making out of all these pianos that were left in the building. There happened to be a second floor that was full of pianos.

I never wanted to be a carpenter. It was just a thing that paid my way through art school, but in the process I learned a lot of different trades because it was do-it-yourself from the bottom up. Now I’m actually building my own house that’s going to be for my mom. I’ve been doing it on TV for years and doing it in 7 days is one thing when you have thousands of people helping - doing it yourself, that’s a whole different 9 yards.

You mentioned you were making furniture out of pianos. Do you still do that kind of reclaiming and repurposing?

Yeah totally. The bridge of the piano is very interesting due to wood in that curve, but there are so many different pieces you can do. All these things have been damaged by water and I was like, “There is no way you’re throwing them out. I mean even the stools you can make custom guitars out of. There’s no way I’m letting you throw this stuff out.” But yeah I always try to create something that is unique but also somehow has a function. I still do quite a bit of that and every piece of furniture in my house is my own design and custom built.

When you first got into furniture was it because you needed a table so you built a table, or was it because you had a cool idea for a table?

I don’t know. I think what it is esthetically, you know I’m one of those guys who I think more in a Frank Lloyd Wright state of mind - if you need to find something that looks really unique that’s going to be in a room, you design the room it’s going to be in. One of the first places I looked was Japan - when you’re experiencing those cultures and their designs you’re like, “Wow, this is really amazing,” and that soaks in. So you really want to make some really cool pieces, even if they are one offs. And then once I got on Trading Spaces I had an outlet to create some beautiful furniture. So I got to step up my game even more. Let’s just say I really honed in on being able to do it on a really consistent level. I enjoy the process of sketch to finished piece.

Do you still have time now to get into your shop and do your own stuff?

Well for the last 10 years it’s been tough, but I have my own shop and I have a guy I’ve worked with since high school and we work together. Especially anything on the CNC router he’d put the program in and we’d do that piece it together. I’ve had the ability to work with some people I’ve known for quite some time who really know what they’re doing. On Extreme Makeover: Home Edition I was doing two houses at the same time, so I would have to leave after the third day to go to another state to surprise a new family and do that show. I would have to really stay on top - give people detailed drawn plans, because sometimes finishes are going on as you’re away and coming back to find a surprise is not the best thing when it comes to custom furniture.

I have one question that I ask everyone that has done the work. When you do renovations you always start with demolition and I want to know, what is the coolest thing you’ve ever found when you knocked down a wall?

That’s a good question. Let me see… Oh, you know what? We renovated this house in Virginia that was actually on a civil war historic area. I remember finding muskets and real history under this one section of the house, which was pretty mind boggling.

Most of the things you’d find when you tear down are not the things you’re happy to see. “Oh look the sewage line actually doesn’t go anywhere. Oh God, I’m going to puke.” I mean it’s interesting when you tear down a wall and you find old jackets or clothing people use to use to insulate; those are the surprises you find. Unless it’s a really old house it’s just the lack of things you find like, “Oh my God, there is no insulation. This house was just not built well.” Home building is so much better now than it used to be 20, 30, 40 years ago. That’s important.

Ty Pennington on Volunteering, Renovations, and Reclaimed Pianos

For more information on Ty’s work with Sears and the “Building Community Together” initiative visit Facebook.com/SearsHomeServices to track progress and view photos. And follow them on Twitter at @BlueServiceCrew or #BlueCrewCommunity.