Wooden It Be Nice
Creating future heirlooms
by Heleigh Bostwick
Brian Jones was following his muse when, in 1982, he left his construction job to open Brian Jones Woodworking. In his workshop a few steps from his house in Williston, Jones makes and repairs all styles and manner of objects from wood, such as this in-the-works sideboard of claro walnut from California.
When Utica, N.Y., native Brian Jones graduated from high school in Binghamton in the early ’70s, he wasn’t quite sure what he wanted to do. So he did what plenty of other young people were doing back then: He grabbed his backpack and hit the road.
“I was one of those nomadic hippies, traveling around the country on my motorcycle and working a lot of different jobs,” recalls Jones, now sole proprietor of Brian Jones Woodworking in Williston.
“I spent a lot of that time in California working for Ford spray-painting finishes on vehicles. In my spare time I built a few pieces of furniture and eventually decided woodworking was what I was really interested in.”
When it was time to head back east, Jones decided to settle in Burlington, whose scenic beauty during an earlier visit had made an impression on him. It was now 1976 and Jones was 23 years old.
For several years, he worked at Pizzagalli Construction Co. (now PC Construction), first as a laborer and then as a carpenter. He used the money he made to buy equipment in anticipation of the day he would have his own woodworking shop.
“I started off buying small pieces because they were more affordable and traded up as time went on,” he says.
His own company became a reality in 1982, the same year he married Vermont native Zoe Breiner.
Jones rented a space and mostly did repair work. Although he worked full time on his business, he also took part-time assignments at other woodworking shops around town — places like the Shelburne Shipyard, Design Craft, Wheel and Peg Woodworking, and Vermont Folk Furnishings (now Vermont Folk Rocker).
“There was a small woodworking community on Pine Street where Speeder & Earl’s is now,” Jones reminisces. “There were a lot of us starting out in the business at that time — lots of interesting conversations and sharing of information.”
Jones also spent a lot of time learning about traditional construction techniques and reading technical woodworking books, including a publication that The Taunton Press had just debuted called Fine Woodworking. He still has that first edition, he says.
In the summer of 1987, Jones moved the shop to Highlands Drive in Williston. Although it’s just minutes from the hustle and bustle of the big box stores on Vermont 2A, the setting is more enchanted woodland than suburbia.
Jones and his wife enlisted the help of local architect Rolf Kielman, who designed the exterior facade and laid out the floor plans of their Victorian-style cottage home. Jones hired Mike Welch, a contractor friend from his construction days, to help build the house.
Just steps away from the cottage is the 1,200-square-foot workshop that Jones built by himself during his “off hours.”
The shop is large enough to hold all the traditional tools of his trade, including a table saw and joiner shaper, used to make moldings, millwork, and joinery. There’s also a small office space where Jones can get away from the shop noise if he needs to take a quick phone call, but his real office is inside the house, where he does the estimating and has his computer set up.
An early riser, Jones likes to start the day off thinking about what he needs to do that day. “I’m a custom woodworker so I don’t work on a set [product] line,” he says. On any given day he might be working on an estimate, making a drawing, doing finish work, or collaborating with an upholsterer or interior designer on a new project.
Cecilia Redmond, owner of Redmond Interior Design in Burlington, is one such interior designer. “Brian is my ‘go-to’ guy when it comes to anything made of wood,” she says. “The first time I met him was on a kitchen remodel project doing custom cabinetry. I was really struck by how he well he was able to make my vision a reality.”
Since then the pair have collaborated on a number of fine furniture pieces, from custom dining chairs to paneled headboards featuring built-in lamps to cabinetry for kitchens and mudrooms. “We’ve been working together for years now and I haven’t stumped him yet,” she says.
Jones uses traditional construction techniques such as dovetail and mortise and tenon joinery. It’s the best way to build things,” he says with conviction, adding that he started his business to produce high-quality furniture.
He also considers his woodworking business to be a “green” business. Not only does he source his lumber from local mills such as A. Johnson Co. and Lathrop Forest Products, both in Bristol, but, as he explains it, “All my pieces are made for a lifetime. That keeps them out of the landfill and it’s what I consider the best use of our resources.”
His work hasn’t gone unnoticed. Jones was picked as one of a select group of craftsmen from the United States and Canada who were featured in the book The Custom Furniture Sourcebook: A Guide to 125 Craftsmen (The Taunton Press, 2001).
Jones is careful to point out that custom doesn’t always mean high-end, but it does always mean high quality.
“I work for people that might not have much money, but want a nice coffee table and who also want to support local craftsmen.,” he says. “I can do a job like that for less than a thousand dollars and they get a custom handmade piece in their house. I’m willing to work with the client to figure out what they want at a price they can afford.”
Some of his business involves helping people. Jones, who considers this his “community service,” says, “Someone might come to me with a chair that was their mother’s and needs fixing. It’s not the most lucrative work, but I can do it and it makes them happy.”
Most days, Jones works alone in his shop, but occasionally he subcontracts work to fellow woodworkers. “I have four woodworkers that I sub work out to. That gives me the ability to expand what I can do,” he says.
“Two of the guys have worked in my shop quite a bit doing subcontract work over the years. They each have their own shop, but I have more equipment than they do, so they sometimes rent my equipment. Another guy has more equipment than I do, so I go to his shop to do things I can’t do here. When I need a really large sanding machine or a computer-controlled router he’s the one I go to.”
Trading services is fairly commonplace among woodworkers in the state, says Jones, who’s a member of Vermont WoodNet.
“There are about 100 or 120 woodworkers that belong to this organization and we share information, subcontractors, and education about the woodworking business.” He also belongs to the Vermont Manufacturers Association.
Despite the economic downturn in recent years, work has been steady, he says, mainly because his work is so diverse. “I never seem to be lacking for work, whether I’m making new furniture, built-ins, and cabinetry or doing repairs.”
Jones has a specialty that not many other woodworkers have: chairs. “Chairs are not something a lot of woodworkers know,” he says. “There are specific angles and joints that need to be just right in order for the chair to be comfortable, functional, and attractive.”
He’s quick to add that chairs are only a part of his business, which extends through many styles — from Queen Anne to Shaker to modern — and products — from cabinets to furniture to repairs.
Although he is a self-proclaimed workaholic, he has recently made a point of taking up golf. He snowshoes and hikes when he can find time, and he still has a motorcycle. He and Breiner (whose role is chief navigator) take at least one motorcycle vacation every year. This year they plan to head south along the coast through North Carolina and into Alabama.
At 59, most people would be looking toward slowing down, but Jones doesn’t see that happening any time soon.
“This business has been a good thing in my life,” he says. “It’s given me a lot of rewards, and I’ve met a very diverse group of wonderful people. I will likely semi-retire in a few years, but I’ll probably never give it up.” •