by: Joshua H. Balling
photography by: Nicole Harnishfeger
It’s not the first place you’d expect to find a busy woodworking shop, this quiet dirt road a few hundred yards from the water in Shimmo.
But tucked back amid the scrub brush is a two-story building where power saws, routers and hand-tools fill just about every square inch of space. A thin layer of sawdust coats the concrete floor and the smell of freshly-cut wood permeates the air. A pair of surfboards is suspended from the rafters and natural light fills the room.
In the corner is a kitchen cabinet of rough-hewn barn board sourced from an Amish community in Pennsylvania. It’s destined for a sprawling summer house overlooking Nantucket Sound, where brothers Nate and Beau Barber have been working for over a year, installing their custom-made cabinetry and hewing massive beams that accent the soaring cathedral ceilings.
The brothers, who grew up helping out in their parents’ construction company, founded their own woodworking business more than a decade ago after graduating from college. Today, both businesses employ about 10 men in the shop and on the job site.
There is something about a hand-crafted piece of furniture, a timeless elegance and ingrained attention to detail that can only come from hours of work and years of practice, that sets it apart from the mass-production available online and in chain stores. This kind of workmanship is a dying art.
“Some people are made to make things. Typical Americans, they are losing that sense. Some people get a profound joy out of doing something with their hands. That’s the way we are,” Beau, 40, said. “The ultimate goal is to make things that stand the test of time. For us, it’s about longevity, and how things last.”
Nate, 38, agreed. “Furniture bought online on Amazon, or at Ikea, it’s throwaway. It’s made out of composites, plywood, particle board. It turns into garbage, and doesn’t stand the test of time. Sure it’s convenient, but it’s also really cheap.”
Upstairs in the house overlooking the water, a highly-polished, trunk-like cabinet hand-built by Beau hides a largescreen television that rises from its interior with the push of a button. Nate points out the room’s exposed beams, explaining with no small amount of pride how long it took the crew to fit the lengthy pieces of wood together nearly 10 feet off the floor.
“It’s about the small details, matching up the ends of two 20-foot beams so they fit together perfectly, rather than just filling in the gaps with a bunch of calk. The guys work hard, and it’s something for them to be proud of, the amount of attention that gets paid to this stuff that some people might not even notice,” he said.
“So many houses today are the same. There’s a lot of white paint, the minimalist, contemporary-cottage design. It’s a different mindset, generationally speaking. We don’t have a problem with it, but it’s not what we do. We like the exposed wood, the more rustic look, the ornamental details.”
But some days, the job site has to wait. Nate and Beau are also both full-time firefighters, each working two 24-hour shifts a week going on ambulance runs and putting out the occasional fire.
Thanks to the fire-department’s around-theclock schedule, they’ve been able to balance the two jobs despite the long hours required of each.
“The schedule is helpful, but being a firefighter, you’re kind of on call all the time. Many times, we’ve had to stop what we’re doing and respond to a fire or an emergency call,” Nate said. “Depending on the time of year, we usually do 30-50 hours of carpentry a week on top of our firefighting duties. It’s very much two full-time jobs.”
They joined the department a little over a decade ago for purely practical reasons – the economic downtown of 2008 wasn’t exactly great news for their fledgling woodworking business – but the polar-opposite nature of the two jobs appeals to them.
“They’re both great jobs, but both very different jobs. It’s turned out to be a good mix. Often we are in the shop together all day, or all week, just the two of us, so it’s good to see other people, do other things,” said Nate, who started two years before his brother and has risen to the rank of captain.
“We’re able to get out into the community and help people. Obviously, there’s a huge reward in that, that’s different from the satisfaction we take in our business.”
Part of that community involvement has extended to the woodworking business. The brothers last year fashioned benches and tables for the new Nantucket Cottage Hospital from beech trees that used to stand outside the former building.
“The hospital benches and tables are my favorite piece of work right now. I loved the project and the finished product was satisfying but it also held an important meaning for me,” Nate said. “Nantucket Cottage Hospital is where my kids and I were born and where I have gone for all my healthcare needs. I find it special that the people who work there, and who have taken such great care of me, sit down for a break and eat at our tables.”
Best in the business
Growing up, the brothers used their father Mark’s tools and scrap lumber to build forts, boats and go-carts.
“We were always making stuff, carving. Dad had a shop in the basement. We used to go down there and tinker,” Nate said.
As teenagers, they started spending more time on the job site. It was like a master class in custom carpentry. Some of the best woodworkers on the island rotated through Mark Barber’s jobs, men like Brad Murray and Sam Hill, Sanford Boat graduates like Matt Rives and Chris Fraker, craftsmen who worked for Stephen Swift building furniture.
“We were always hanging around, always interested. We were around these great woodworkers, and they taught us. We were able to see their work, and how they worked,” Nate said. “There was real creative genius there, and they didn’t mind us asking questions.”
Nate and Beau had their minds set on going to college, though, and both attended Boston University. Nate enrolled in business school, and Beau studied liberal arts.
“I was very fortunate I got a management education. It’s always helped me run my business and manage people,” Nate said. “When I came back here, I primarily did some woodworking, and ran the business side. Beau has always been the creative one, the artist. I have the ability to step back and oversee things. Beau is able to focus on the complicated and creative tasks.”
After BU, Beau struck out for the West Coast to study 17th and 18th century English furnituremaking at The Masterpiece School in Fort Bragg, Calif. to further refine his craft.
“I’m a period furniture buff. It’s what I like,” Beau said with a smile.
The brothers truly began thinking about starting their own business when they helped build their parents’ home in Shimmo, across from where their shop sits today.
“Once we really got to working on it, we realized this is what we want to do. Then we had a big project in Surfside that came after we had graduated, and that’s really where it all fell into place. It was a ton of woodwork and furniture, very heavy on the detail, and that’s really where we got the shop in order and formed our own business aside from our parents,” Nate said.
The public also got a chance to see their work on a smaller scale at one of the early folk-art and artisan shows put on by the Small Friends earlychildhood center as a fundraiser. The brothers sold several hand-carved wooden bowls and other pieces, and word of mouth began to spread about the high quality of their work.
“The early days were exciting. We were venturing into something that was unknown and we knew was risky. Getting off the ground was hard but we told ourselves that whatever we build, if it’s of high quality, the work would speak for itself. We never really advertised, depending more on referrals from people who vouched for our work and work ethic,” Nate said.
“The Small Friends show was one of the biggest boosts to our business. The exposure to a great customer base as well as creating relationships with other artists was priceless. We sold some pieces there but we were also commissioned by a few people who attended the event. It really was a huge help to us and our business to get that type of local exposure.”
When looking to add members to their crew, the brothers don’t have a set type of worker in mind. They employ Nantucket High School students in the summer. Several young men recently arrived from the Dominican Republic are on the permanent crew. Ken Wagner is 70 years old, with more than 50 years of woodworking experience. Tim Hall is about the same age.
All they require is a willingness to work hard, and the same commitment to the craft they share.
“We have added a carpenter a year the last five years or so, to keep up with the demand. We can only train so many at a time, and one at a time seems to work. It’s good to have a background in woodworking, but we’re also interested in people who want to do this work, and are interested in working hard,” Nate said.
“It takes a long time to perfect your skills. You have to go through the motions every day. We have a particular standard. We are very detail-oriented. Sometimes it’s better to start with a blank slate,” Beau added with a laugh.
“There’s a sense of pride in what we accomplish. We’re all driven by that same sense. It’s the company culture, the pride that we’ve done the best we can.”
While period furniture is their preference, it’s
the simple, fundamental act of working with their hands and creating that most appeals to the brothers.
“We enjoy doing many different things. If we did the same project day in and day out, we’d get bored and complacent. We’ve built from all periods. We’ve built Asian, European and American style furniture from woods all over the world,” Nate said.
“The best part of this job, in my opinion, is the first look at a finished product. It gives a sense of completion and pride for what you have made. I think every carpenter probably enjoys that moment. It’s a rewarding profession in that regard because you get to see everything you did in a physical state. Not only is it a piece of art, but it also has a function, which I think makes it even that much more special.”
What the future holds
The brothers hope to continue building furniture, cabinets and the occasional house on Nantucket well into the future
“We want to grow at a pace that is sustainable and manageable. We are currently looking at expanding our footprint, but we’ve produced a considerable amount of work from our small shop and we’ve been fortunate to have it available to us since 2004,” Nate said.
They each have two young children, Beau a boy and a girl, and Nate two boys, and said they would be proud to see them continue their work, but it will be their decision.
“It’s still early for them, but if they are interested they will certainly have a great environment to learn the trade in. If anything, I want to show them the type of commitment it takes, the hours you have to invest, and the many skills you have to master to learn this trade,” Nate said.
“That way, if they want to do something else they know what kind of work they have to put in to make themselves competent in whatever profession they pursue. As someone who worked with his dad and loved it, I’d of course love to work with my kids one day.” ///
Joshua Balling is an associate editor of Nantucket Today and managing editor of The Inquirer and Mirror, Nantucket’s newspaper since 1821.