A few weekends ago Wendy and I ventured out to the Eastern Shore of Maryland to stay with a good friend for the weekend on Tilghman island. We were there primarily as a means for a little fun and relaxation. It's sort of an ideal spot for us since we both love the area and really enjoy the eclectic mix of great people and places we get to experience along the way.
If you're not familiar with the area, the Easten Shore of Maryland represents the collection of islands and land mass that sits beyond the east bank of the Chesapeake Bay. While Tilghman Island, Kent Island, St. Michaels, and other popular destinations on the Chesapeake side are rather close to Washington DC (only about 40 miles as the crow flies), the drive ends up about 90-100 miles because the only way over the bay is via the Chesapeake Bay Bridge, a hulking 4.3 mile long and nearly 200 foot tall steel structure that can be a bit intimidating in bad weather. But this trip across the bridge is well worth it as it allows entrance to an area that operates at a slower pace with more pleasant personal interactions.
The particular island we stayed on, Tilghman Island, is about 30 miles beyond St. Michaels. This whole area is deeply rooted in the fishing, oyster, and crab industry, and Tilghman Island is still a small community largely made up of watermen (fisherman) with a small town attitude that feels a bit like you've stepped into a different era when you arrive.
On our trip we were fortunate to have a host who is quite familiar with the local hidden jewels and highlights that we absolutely needed to see while we were in town. We had a wonderful weekend (with a bit of drama when Wendy lost the diamond in her necklace, sadly it hasn't been found), but one stop in particular really stands out for me as a tremendous find and true highlight of the weekend.
As we ventured out on Saturday morning, our first stop of the day was at a small unassuming building in Wittman, Maryland that looked a bit like a barn. The name of the shop is McMartin & Beggins, and it has a large trunk of a tree laying on its side in front of the building. I had no idea what to expect as we entered, but I was told, "this stop is for Alex."
As soon as we walked through the showroom door, I knew this place was, in fact, for me. There was a handful of absolutely stunning pieces of beautifully finished and obviously carefully crafted wood furniture pieces situated around the perimeter of the room. But I'm not talking just any furniture outlet types of items, I'm talking about high quality and one of a kind pieces that looked like museum quality antiques.
From desks to dressers, and end tables to bed frames and cannopy posts, every piece was as nice as the last.
I later learned that this shop was the furniture builder responsible for the creation of the Maryland Governor's "Wye Oak Desk" from the 460 year old Maryland Wye Oak that fell in 2002. You can read more about the Wye Oak Desk here.
One of the shop's owners, Jim McMartin, came out to introduce himself. We talked with him a little bit about his shop and learned about the furniture he makes and process he follows, and the fact that they do a significant amount of antique restoration as well. The whole time I was eyeing the amazing wood shop just beyond the dividing glass. I think he saw me staring and invited me back to take a look. To be completely honest, what I saw made me unbelievably envious. I wanted, then and there, to be his best friend.
This was a shop to rival all other shops. I've worked in a few nice shops, and have walked through a few others, but few could hold a candle to the functionality and usefullness of what is going in at McMartin & Beggins. It was broken into two primary sections, one for hand tools, prep, and assembly, and one for larger (and presumably more dirty) power tool driven jobs like planers, sanders, and saws. There was also a staining/finish area in a separte building to keep all of the dust and particles away, a necessity for fine furniture finishing.
Just look at this amazing collection of clamps in the assembly area. This alone is drool-worthy.
I spent several minutes wandering around and dreaming about having a wood shop that wasn't in a rather small 15' x 20' basement space with 7' ceilings. I also think most of my time in the shop was spent with my mouth hanging open.
The hand tools and assembly portion of the shop was beautifully organized and full of rough sawn lumber stacks just waiting to be turned into a desk, cabinets, a dresser, or anything else.
This photo represents just one of the several stations full of great tools that help make what they do possible.
Right in the center of the shop were several pieces of crotch Chinese walnut (at least I think that's what he said, remember, I was too busy admiring the shop) from a tree a customer had taken down. These fine furniture makers were turning this beautiful wood into custom kitchen cabinets. To say this will be beautiful when complete is a pretty significant understatement. The figuring on the wood is spectacular and will look amazing once finished.
In addition to the wood that occupied the shop floor, a nearly complete desk project was waiting for its final drawer assembly in the adjacent portion of the shop. The desk was another custom order from a customer asking for a more delicate desk.
I talked with Jim some and shared some of my woodworking interests and projects that we had worked on. He was a great guy and obviously very knowledgeable about furniture building. I asked him a few questions about how they work with people to come up with designs. He pointed out a drawing on the wall of the shop and said that every project they do gets a scale drawing of the finished work. Take a look at how detailed the drawings are.
I told him how our napkin and scratch paper drawings are all we have to go on, but I can see how these detailed scale drawings might be slightly more effective.
I continued looking around at both the finished furniture pieces and the items they had set aside for future projects. Just look at this beautiful glass salvaged from a church, planned for a customer's front door.
This type of custom furniture and antique restoration shop is something I really wish was closer to Alexandria, and belonged to someone that I was very good friends with so I could drop by and use it frequently. I'd probably spend hours there every weekend working on whatever project needed a bit of craftsmanship. To say I was jealous of this shop doesn't even touch the tip of the iceberg.
We wrapped up our visit with a bit more gushing about the shop and work they do, and with me saying something like "this place is amazing, do you mind of I talk about you on the Internet?" I'm such a nerd.
If you every find yourself in the St. Michaels area, take a little drive down the road toward Wittman and look for McMartin & Beggins. They're on the left side of the road and are absolutely worth a stop, if only to drool over the wood shop and finished projects. This is the sort of place you don't see every day, and it seems to be a place that puts quality of workmanship as their #1 priority. You'd be hard pressed to find a furniture maker anywhere that does a nicer job.
Have you every stopped by their shop on an Easten Shore trip? Or do you have a local fine woodworking shop that you absolutely love? They're a rare breed these days, so count yourself lucky if you do.