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Made in Maryland: Giving trees a second life

Executive BranchDiseases and IllnessesHurricane Irene (2011)

Jim McMartin and Jim Beggins make their living creating beautiful pieces of furniture from the wood Mother Nature leaves behind, and she was particularly careless with her trees this fall.

Hurricane Irene rolled through the woods on Maryland's Eastern Shore like a giant bowling ball in August, and now the enormous kindling that she left — tree trunks as thick as a man is tall — lies in the grass behind their lumber yard near Easton, waiting for the hand-tooled magic that will turn the wood into heirloom pieces of furniture.

"We don't cut down trees," said Beggins. "That's not what we do."

Some of the trees have succumbed to disease or age. Others are felled by lightning, and others still are in the way of construction. Sometimes homeowners lose a beloved tree and want to see it put to a beautiful purpose.

"We are recyclers," said McMartin, with a laugh. But that doesn't do their craftsmanship justice.

Business partners for two decades, the men work as seamlessly as the inlays on their Federal-style furniture. "I tell Jim how it should look," said McMartin, "and he tells me how it should be built."

Together, they have created furniture for the vice president's home on Observatory Hill in Washington. And they crafted a desk for the Maryland governor's office out of the historic Wye Oak, felled by lightning a decade ago.

In between, they have made one-of-a-kind pieces — a dresser, a desk, a breakfront, a sideboard — for the historic homes inhabited by the wealthy who come to Talbot County to weekend or retire.

"There are lots of long driveways that end on the water around here," said Beggins. "These are historic houses that lend themselves to what we do," said McMartin. "This is a good county for this craft."

The two men are recovering boat builders, who love the feel of wood under a hand-held tool but not the feel of the boat business.

"Boats are about big men and big egos," said McMartin, a native Annapolitan who left boat building behind when he returned, disappointed, from Maine, where he liked the life but not the work. So he set up business in an old St. Michaels grist mill, refurbishing antiques.

Beggins had been building wooden boats on Long Island. His resume made him a smart hire when he walked into McMartin's shop in 1994 and asked for a job.

They polished the skills they learned creating boats and, using traditional construction techniques, began building furniture. Working in the Federal style, with its clean lines and its symmetry and the lack of ornate carving, allows them to showcase the grain of wood, which is what they love.

"I am a wood guy," said McMartin. "And the Federal style is a great way to display wood."

They moved their work from the old grist mill in St. Michaels to this lumberyard in Wittman, where they built the kind of shop that would allow them to explore the Old World techniques that make each piece a treasure.

The sheds and the shop are piled with white oak, red cedar, walnut, cherry, maple, poplar and other local woods, which is just how early American craftsmen worked — they used what was at hand.

"We feel a certain spiritual connection with the craftsmen of a bygone era by using these local woods," the partners say in their mission statement.

The giant trunks that they salvage from storms or construction sites are sliced lengthwise, like huge blocks of cheese, and between each slice separators are inserted to allow the wood to dry. That phase alone might take a year or more.

"People look at the wood, and all they can see is the disease and the rot, and sometimes there is a lot of it," said McMartin. "But we can see the furniture in there."

Their customers are necessarily patient people. A piece of furniture can take eight weeks to four months to finish and might consume 300 man-hours. A highboy dresser, with delicately inlaid drawer fronts, might cost $20,000

"This is not jewels or shoes," said McMartin. "You have to have room. The piece has to suit a need. There has to be a place for it. And, just as important, it isn't a disruption not to have the piece. So they can wait."

"Our customers don't begrudge the price," said Beggins. "They know they are making an investment in something that will be handed down."

In the late 1700s, when American furniture makers began to copy the French Empire style from which the Federal style is derived, the well-to-do displayed their wealth through their furnishings. There were no yachts. No cars.

"Your home was where you showed your wealth and your taste," said McMartin.

In a sense, McMartin and Beggins have taken this business full circle. Many county homes are historic and perfect settings for their craftsmanship. Every piece is custom designed in consultation with the purchasers.

"Each one has its own story," said McMartin.

Just like the trees.

McMartin & Beggins

The partners: Jim McMartin, a native of Annapolis, returned from Maine and gave up boat building to begin restoring and, eventually, creating furniture in St. Michaels in 1988. He designs each piece in consultation with the clients.

Jim Beggins arrived in St. Michaels — by boat — from Long Island, where he, too, had been building boats by hand, in 1994. He walked into McMartin's shop and asked for a job. The men became partners in 1999. Beggins brings an innate engineering sensibility to the team.

Most notable project: The desk in the Maryland governor's office, made from the famed Wye Oak. Those who knew of the partners thought they would be the right craftsmen to create something out of that ancient tree, 460 years old and the tallest white oak in the United States when lightning felled it in 2002. But neither was interested in the political wrangling required to get the commission. Only when philanthropist Henry Rosenberg Jr. donated private money and McMartin and Beggins were given a free hand did they take the job. The desk was finished in 2007.

Where to buy: The partners took over an old lumber yard in Wittman, built a shop and a small showroom where a handful of pieces are on display. Other pieces can be seen in an online photo gallery and in the company's archives.

Location: 9027 Tilghman Island Road, Wittman

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Friday. Weekends by appointment.

Contact: 410-745-5715 or go to mcmartinbeggins.com

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