Austin's Refitted Factory: A Woodshop Tour

Austin's Refitted Factory: A Woodshop Tour

Johnny Williams
Nov 9, 2009

When furniture maker Austin Kane Matheson set up shop, he had to be near the sea. The former boat-builder and captain had always found his way in the waves — an early passion for West Indian furniture emerged during voyages to and from the Caribbean islands. Once on dry land, he settled in Rockland, Maine, and assembled a workshop in an old metalworking factory just steps from the harbor.

The 3000-square-foot factory was once used to manufacture stone-cutting tools for Maine's granite industry, a source for the high-class stone used in Grand Central Terminal and the U.S. Treasury Building. It's even likely the granite in these iconic structures was cut with tools made in Matheson's factory. But that's ancient history now — with all the fine furniture produced in the area, the town might consider renaming itself Woodland.

Matheson moved into the ramshackle building a year ago, weatherizing the chilly space and filling it with industrial woodworking equipment. For those curious readers, the machines pictured above are a Hitachi resaw, a Powermatic tablesaw, a Delta lathe, a Laguna bandsaw and a Powermatic thickness planer. In keeping with the historic character of the building, Matheson collects antique woodworking machines, including a 19th-century steam-powered thickness planer.

Today, he shares the shop with a rotating cast of woodworkers, both building furniture and teaching at the nearby Center for Furniture Craftsmanship. I had the chance to ask the busy man a few questions:

Why woodworking?
I chose woodworking (and more specifically furniture making) because of the truly practical nature of the craft. At the end of the day, you need a chair to sit on and a bed to sleep in. This utilitarian object can be embellished upon, but it still performs a function. Furniture making is an art form that's not purely for art's sake.

How would you describe your style as a furniture maker?
I was trained in 18th century reproductions at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. I'm drawn to Colonial West Indian furniture of that time — a style that weds European designs with West African and Caribbean motifs. But given the opportunity to build a piece on spec, I can go in any direction or style. Arts and Crafts and Art Deco inspire me, but I've had the most fun revisiting Post-Modern furniture. I grew up with that style and never thought much of it until now. I just built a retro TV set that holds a digital picture frame, and it was great to face a new design challenge.

Which furniture maker inspires you the most?
I don't have a specific favorite maker. I've been greatly inspired by 18th century West Indian makers. They were predominantly African slaves that worked anonymously. Their high style mahogany furniture rivaled the best (and most recognized) names in America and Europe during the same period.

What's your favorite type of wood to work?
It all depends on the style of furniture. I've been using a lot of walnut this year – its color is unbeatable.

What's your favorite machine in the shop?
I love my jointer. It is a 50's vintage 16" wide Newman jointer with a helical head. My last shop had a 8" hobby-grade jointer that fought me every step of the way — I promised myself when I set up my own shop I would buy the biggest and best jointer I could find. This is it.

What would you be doing if you weren't a woodworker?
I'd be working on boats. I haven't worked on one for over 10 years, but I keep my captain's license current as a contingency plan. There's always a boat headed south.

Images: Johnny Williams

Johnny is currently blogging his experience as a student and amateur woodworker. You can keep track of his projects on his blog, Woodlearner.

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