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Matthew W. Buell

Career built out of passion by LARA HIGHTOWER NWA Democrat-Gazette | July 31, 2016 at 4:00 a.m.
“The first two years, I took two days off, and that’s it. And I was in that shop [for] eight- to 16-hour days. Most people thought I was going insane. I called that shop my Walden Pond.” — Matthew Buell in his woodworking workshop in Fayetteville

The story of how Matthew Buell came to be the woodworker and furniture designer behind m. buell design is one of redemption, of traveling a twisting, turning road through a dense forest to finally find his passion.

"My wife [Alexandra] grew up across the street from me," Matt Buell says. "We knew each other. Then I left, she left."

SELF-PORTRAIT

Date and place of Birth: August 21, 1980, Fayetteville, Arkansas

Fantasy dinner guests (can choose up to 5: famous or not, living or not): John C. Riley, Kendrick Lamar, Georgia O’keefe, Mark Twain, Roller Wilson.

My favorite woodworkers: Craig Young, George Nakashima, Sam Maloof, Ib Kofod-Larsen, Tim LaTourette

If I were marooned on a desert island, I’d have to have: A large pack of pencils and paper.

A word or two to sum me up: Intense and driven.

My favorite saying: Nothing is permanent but change.

My favorite place on earth: New Mexico.

If I’ve learned one thing in life, it’s: If I stop learning, I stop growing as a person.

One goal I haven’t achieved yet: Too many to mention, but I have always wanted to learn how to juggle.

Something you may be surprised to learn about me: I am actually an introvert.

A self indulgence of mine: Collecting silver age comic books, especially ones drawn by John Romita, Sr.

The two reconnected as adults when Buell called Alexandra to inquire about renting a workshop from her family when he was first starting out in woodworking.

"I spent years running around trying to find what I thought I needed, and all I found was misery and sadness.

"Sometimes I think the best thing we can do is stop looking."

Buell was 30 when, searching for something to keep his hands and mind busy, he picked up an electric guitar and decided to turn it into something it wasn't.

"I used to collect old guitars. I didn't even know how to sand stuff, but I thought, 'I'll sand off the old paint so the tone can breathe.'" He laughs. "I got so into building this guitar shop in the carport that I never finished the guitar!"

The hobby, which was to soon turn into a career, gave him the needed outlet from the stressful job he had at the time.

"I was working in a jail as a substance abuse counselor. That's a hard job. There were some really beautiful people in there going through a lot of pain. It was really difficult because I was probably really immature in a lot of ways, and it was difficult for me to separate."

Buell liked the job, but he didn't feel like it was something he could do for the rest of his life. "Really, I just had no path. I was kind of ... adrift at sea in a boat, not really knowing what land looked like."

That changed almost the instant he started experimenting with woodworking.

"I would come home [from work], get out there, work until 1 a.m., then go to sleep, get up, go to work, and I couldn't wait to get back out there."

Timely tools

At the time, Buell was living in a small house on the grounds of his father's farm, which he had helped out on when he was growing up.

"I grew up doing pretty heavy farm work -- hauling hay, painting fences, mucking out stalls, putting up barbed wire fence. Hard work."

Yet he had never picked up a power tool before this sudden foray into woodworking. "Six years ago this month was the first time I'd ever used a power tool in my life," he says. "I hadn't even used a drill."

As far as previous experience in woodworking, he had absolutely none.

"Even though I couldn't even build a box, I had to figure it out," he says. "I had a little cash here and there, and I would use it to buy a used tool. I didn't even know what the tools were. I was, like, literally reading woodworking magazines as if they were The Odyssey."

He remembers the tool purchase that was the turning point.

"I bought a router, and I remember hooking it up ... and it was a disaster. But it was awesome. This feeling I had ... there was nothing else that I wanted to do anymore. This was all I wanted to do. For some reason, something about the noise, the chaos, just what it would do ... I couldn't wield that tool at all, but I understood."

Six years later, it's obvious that Buell has mastered the art of the router. Front and center in his spacious, 2,000-square-foot plus workshop is a gorgeous walnut console sanded to a velvety finish. Buell obsessively hand sands his furniture for hours, using sandpaper with graduated grit. He often inspects the results with his eyes closed, feeling for rough spots.

"If anyone's going to get a splinter from what I build, it needs to be me," he says.

The console's doors, carved in an intricate pattern by his favorite tool, the router, are hung with Blum soft close inset hinges and close with a whisper-soft sound no matter how much force you put behind them. Buell is particular about the details on his pieces.

"There are little things that I think give it that extra something that make it high end, like really nice hardware," he says. "I'm contemplating developing a way that people can change out the backing on a piece, you know, with colors."

Mentored growth

Six years may not seem like a lot of time to go from novice to professional woodworker, but when Buell talks about those early days in the workshop, it's obvious that he packed a lot of blood, sweat and tears into those years.

"I don't have any traditional technical teaching," he says. "I'm self-taught." He taught himself with a combination of books, magazines, YouTube videos and frequent phone calls to a man Buell describes as his mentor.

"About two to three years in, I met a woodworker who I love more than anything. He's one of my favorite people in the world. His name is Craig Young, but I call him 'Obi Wan Kenobi.'"

Buell remembers calling Young often and worrying that he was going to bother him. "But I'm a firm believer of when I don't have questions and think I have all the answers, that's when I'm in trouble. And so I would always call Craig, and he was always willing to be helpful."

Young, one of the most accomplished and renowned woodworking artists in the area, humbly brushes off the idea that he's a mentor, instead saying, "I just answer his questions. I don't claim credit for the stuff that he's doing because he has his own pathway. He has his own ideas about design.

"He's a formidable character when it comes to work ethic -- such an energetic individual. He's taking large pieces of wood and sculpting it and that takes a lot."

Buell's work ethic is something that comes up frequently when talking to those who know him well, and it's a trait that Buell acknowledges can leave him with tunnel vision.

"The first two years, I took two days off, and that's it," he remembers. "And I was in that shop [for] eight- to sixteen-hour days. Most people thought I was going insane. I called that shop my Walden Pond."

Hot designs

Buell's current workshop is well-appointed and cooled by two window units. When he first started out, though, he was making do with rented or donated spaces that were much more rudimentary to build in. He winces as he recounts the physical toll taken by his intense work ethic in one of these spaces.

"In a woodworking shop, humidity is evil, so I refused to open the windows, and I didn't have an AC. I had a lot of fans, but all they were doing was circulating hot air. And I get into what I'm doing. I've just learned over the years to tell myself, 'go numb, go numb, you have work to do.' I remember feeling sick and sweating profusely, and I remember thinking, 'Something just isn't right.' My sweat was ice cold on the drive home, and then I realized I had just stopped sweating completely."

It took him days to recover, and he didn't realize why until later when a firefighter friend listened to his symptoms and said, "You realize you had a heat stroke, don't you?"

"And so I went and spent some money I didn't have on air conditioners," Buell says, laughing.

"It's really physical," he says of the job. "I think most people think I come in here and say, 'I'm going to do something artistic today,' and I just shake my head and say no. I'd say 80 percent of this job is milling lumber, which is very physical, and sanding. That's the bulk of it, and those are pretty hard on your body."

Today, he's hand carving a large section of a conference table he's creating for the Fayetteville Fire Department. The table is intricately made, comprising more than 250 narrow strips of walnut that are painstakingly arranged to make the most of the wood's contrasting patterns. The table section with the carving is too large to allow him access if placed on a work table, so he's completing the task on the floor, using hand chisels. He acknowledges that he'll be feeling this floor work the next day.

"I started doing this when I was 30, and I'll be 36 next month. The physical difference between 30 and 36? I am feeling it. But I can still go into what my friends call 'conqueror mode'. For the last six years of my life, I've kept two sets of clothes -- one that fits me properly and one that's too big. Because my back will swell up, my feet will swell, so if I'm into 21 days without a day off, I'm usually into that second set of clothes."

The fire department commission came after Buell was hired to contribute his woodworking skills to the recent Fayetteville City Council Chambers upgrade. Buell's complex, hand-carved design can now be seen in the podium and City Council desk, which stretches nearly the width of the huge room.

The City Council Chamber job was, he says, probably the biggest job he's had "in terms of scope."

"We probably worked on that for three-and-a-half solid months, every day. Easily."

Buell built it in pieces so that he and his apprentice could re-assemble it once it had been moved to the Chamber. The screws holding the pieces together are the only ones found in the structure. Everything else is connected with mortise and tenon joints -- a difficult furniture construction method that is thousands of years old and considered one of the strongest ways to join two pieces of wood. Buell estimates he put about 12 hours into developing sketches for design proposals.

"They described [the look they wanted] as timeless but contemporary and organic. There was one sketch that they were like 'that one!' right away."

The city appears to be a happy customer. Don Marr, chief of staff to the mayor, says, "His high quality furniture-making truly leaves me speechless. He creates an art form that clearly shows the Ozarks' long history of high quality, hand built furniture, while adding creative modern design elements that keep it fresh, relevant yet timeless. I'm glad to claim Matt as one of the best furniture makers there is, and, more importantly, as one of our city's best accomplished woodworker and furniture maker artists."

Buell says he felt honored to have been chosen for the job.

"I'm from here, and I love this place and to be able to do something that's going to sit there for a hundred years in the most prestigious room in the city ... ." He trails off as he clasps both hands to his heart.

Building balance

Buell's recognition is starting to stretch beyond the parameters of Northwest Arkansas, too. Earlier this month, he was named to Woodworking Networks's list of "Wood Industry 40 Under 40."

"I am grateful and relieved to have been recognized for the heavy and hard hours I dedicate to my profession," Buell says of the award. "It is extremely validating, especially this early on in my career. An acknowledgment like this motivates me more to keep pushing as hard as I can to always get better."

Buell's star is certainly on the rise, but he isn't slowing down to bask in the success. He still spends long days, every day, out in his workshop, but now he is careful to maintain a work/life balance that includes his wife, Alex, and his 3-year-old daughter, Phoenix.

"Home by 6, that's the goal," he says. While he admits it doesn't always happen, he says that, more often than not, he manages to lock up the workshop in time to help put Phoenix to bed. Phoenix also makes frequent visits to the shop to see what her dad is up to.

"She loves to turn on the machines," laughs Buell. "She loves the noise."

"Our little girl loves going to the shop," agrees Alex. "In the house, she's always picking up everything that's made of wood and asking, 'Did Daddy make that?'"

Alex acknowledges that there are pros and cons to being married to someone who owns his own business. "He makes his own time, but that's tough, too, because he really does work all the time. But I get to be involved. I get to get excited for him, or get mad with him -- I'm along for the ride. It makes it interesting."

About eight months ago, Buell took on an apprentice to help manage the workload caused by his blossoming business. Loren Young met Buell through his job in a shoe store at the mall.

"He was going through shoes so quickly!" Young laughs.

The two struck up a friendship, and when Young expressed interest in Buell's woodworking, Buell offered to let him work in the workshop a "couple of days a week."

"The first few times I worked with him, I literally was just sanding for about eight hours at a time," Young says. "I had done that kind of work before, but not for that amount of time. He said, 'You didn't complain once!' He was kind of surprised."

Young now works about six days a week in Buell's workshop, depending on what project the duo is working on.

"I didn't think I would fall into something like this," says Young. "But the more I'm out there, the more he involves me in it, the more I'm intrigued by his design process. I wonder, 'Where did those ideas come from?'"

Like others, Young is amazed at Buell's commitment to his work.

"With Matt, the best way I can describe it is organized chaos. He has an extreme work ethic that took a little bit to get used to ... but it's all worth it because he puts out amazing stuff and having a hand in it is kind of fun."

Buell answers the question "What's next for you?" with a glint in his eye.

"The future is open," he says with a grin. "I'm exploring my options."

Those options, he says, may include designing and producing his own furniture line, but he is quick to add, "The pieces won't be mass produced. They will be exclusives."

"He's learning forever," says Young. "He still wants to learn. He's always hungry for new steps and new avenues on how to put things together."

"It's not about money," Alex says. "He really wants to leave a legacy. He wants to leave something that people will remember him by, that means something to them."

NAN Profiles on 07/31/2016

Print Headline: Matthew W. Buell

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