Fine furniture is made the old-fashioned way in Wittman

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A gorgeous collector’s chest made of walnut and ebony is on display in the center of McMartin & Beggins Furniture Makers’ showroom in Wittman. It has a multitude of finely made hand-built drawers with dovetail joints.  Around each drawer front is slightly protruding ebony cockbeading, adding a nice detail as well as providing protection for the walnut veneer.

All of the fine pieces created by owners Jim McMartin and Jim Beggins and craftsman Marc Stockley are built in the Federal period (1785-1810) style, using traditional construction techniques.

Marc Stockley, Jim McMartin and Jim Beggins in their Wittman shop.

McMartin, the founder of the company, originally began as a furniture restorer in Annapolis, where he also worked as a boat builder.  In 1994, he hired Jim Beggins, also a fellow boat builder, when Beggins walked into his shop and said he was looking for a job. Beggins had moved to the area from Long Island where he had built wooden boats and McMartin knew right away that he had the skills required and would be capable of learning furniture making.  Beggins became a partner in 1999.   The craftsmen have some machinery, but there isn’t a surface of any piece that leaves their shop that hasn’t been run over by a hand plane. A more likable group of artisans one would be hard pressed to find.

When McMartin made the switch from boat work to furniture, he began by restoring antiques and that is how he got started in making furniture.  He realized that he gravitated toward the Federal Period because of the clean lines and, unlike the carved furniture from earlier periods, the wood is the focal point of the piece.  The Federal Period, McMartin noted, also “had all of the furniture forms that a more modern household would have – the sideboard didn’t really appear until the Federal Period.” There is a beautiful sideboard in the showroom for sale; the price tag is $13,000, delivery included.

For the first 18 years, McMartin & Beggins worked out of a shop in St. Michaels, in the Old Mill complex off Talbot Street, but eventually they needed more space and purchased the former lumber yard in Wittman where they have been since 2005.  While still working at their St. Michael’s location, they did a major renovation to the main building of their current shop, which is well-organized and spacious. Next to their shop, they have studio space which they rent out to other artisans.

Arguably their highest profile commission to date is the Maryland Governor’s Desk, which they crafted from wood from the historic Wye Oak.  That desk is now a permanent part of the State House in the Governor’s office. They built it when Gov. Robert Ehrlich was in office.  A number of logs from the Wye Oak were made available to them, and they got their pick of the best pieces. McMartin described the wood as “exceptional, because the tree got to be 460 years old before it fell. The slow growth made for a very dense wood, and in this case the tree had many, many crotches because it was so huge. All of the wood was cut from the crotch portions of the tree because of the remarkable grain that results from the juncture of the two branches.”

Several years later they were commissioned to make a matching podium to go with the desk.  Beggins built the cabinet portion of the podium, and McMartin created the State Seal out of exotic woods.  He milled thick veneers and then cut out the pieces, much like a jigsaw puzzle, with a jeweler’s saw.  He pointed out details such as “sand shading” where a piece of the veneer is dipped in hot sand, thereby scorching it and giving the piece a dimensional quality.  He referred to this as “an old technique, very subtle, but perfect to create dimension.” Some of woods in the seal include ebony, boxwood, and pink ivory, along with some South American hardwoods, cherry, oak, and whatever was needed for the proper color.

Other commissions have included a set of side tables for the Vice President’s official residence in Washington, D.C., commissioned by Mrs. Dick Cheney.  McMartin said the Vice President’s residence “didn’t have a full complement of furniture, because the house has only been the official residence since 1975, which in the scheme of things is not that long to equip an entire mansion with fine furniture.” Much of the furniture was on loan from the State Department.  The tables that they made are five-feet long, crafted from mahogany and have eagle inlays.  McMartin noted that a pair of similar antique tables could sell for $100,000.

There are several outbuildings on the property where equipment is stored along with wood in various stages of processing and milling.  There was an enormous limb from an oak tree that a customer called wanting to have something made out of.  The wood has to dry at least a year, depending on the thickness.  Also in the yard are some massive white oak logs that will need to be hand-split into four pieces. They have begun the process by placing wedges in strategic places. Those logs came from a construction site in Easton. Once it became clear that the 140- year-old trees would have to be taken down, the owners offered them to McMartin & Beggins.

McMartin hand draws all of the working drawings for each piece they make.  He comes from a long line of artists, and a watercolor by his mother graces the wall over his drawing table.  Almost everything they build is from local lumber that is milled and dried at their shop.  They also make their own veneers.  It’s not unusual for a customer to call to say they have a tree that they want something made out of.  McMartin said, “from a practical standpoint, we get to control the whole process of the milling and the quality – we get matched lumber all from the same lot.”

There are catalpa logs on the grounds as well, which McMartin refers to as “a remarkable wood” which they use for secondary wood, for example, the interior parts of drawers. They like catalpa because, “it is easy to work with, it looks nice, and has a unique smell.” In fact, in the McMartin & Beggins showroom there is a beautiful stained glass transom window, created by one of their tenants, which prominently features catalpa leaves and blossoms.

Prices for a piece of  McMartin & Beggins furniture range from $1,500 for a single-drawer stand, to $45,000 for a stunning veneered and inlaid breakfront china cabinet. The shop has at least a half a dozen commission pieces on order and also restores antiques.

On Oct. 29, McMartin & Beggins Furniture Makers will be hosting an event to celebrate local wood, in the form of art, food cooked, baked and smoked with wood, and local beer and wine at their shop, 9027 Tilghman Island Road, from 1 to 5 p.m.  There will be live demonstrations of wood turning, joinery, and inlay techniques, as well as someone making an acoustic guitar.  Local decoy carving and woodcut printmaking are going to be demonstrated, and local musicians will be playing acoustic music on wood instruments. A  $10 donation is encouraged.  Net proceeds benefit the Talbot Humane Society.

Spy Photos by Liz Richards Janega

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About Liz Richards Janega

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