Weaving past thickets of forest and oak-lined drives leading to come-hither houses on the waterfront about 90 miles from Washington, D.C., little would you think that you are about to arrive at one of the country’s most highly regarded furniture studios. But it’s here in a shake-shingled barn at the corner of the irresistibly named Pot Pie Road that McMartin & Beggins Furniture Makers has set up shop.
Jim McMartin and Jim Beggins have been working together in rural Maryland for almost 20 years, handcrafting furniture in a time-honored way. From milling to finishing, everything is done in-house by the two of them and one assistant.
While they work on commissions of all kinds, their specialty is pieces that reflect the classical lines of the Federal period, paying close attention to detail, like hand-cut dovetails for drawers.
A wall of books lines their office, stocked with everything from The Windsor Style in America to a Bunny Williams decorating book to a guide on Swedish woodworking. “We find inspiration everywhere,” said McMartin, who does the bulk of the design work. “That’s what keeps things interesting.”
The pair is keen on sustainability, and they work mostly with local woods, typically from trees that have fallen. “We have some of the most beautiful wood in the world in this area: walnut, cherry, white oak,” noted McMartin. Oftentimes customers come to them when an important tree has died on their property, asking that McMartin and Beggins create a piece of furniture from the wood. (See the desk in a brochure.)
A fallen tree is precisely what spurred the governor of Maryland to commission a desk when the oldest tree in America, a 96-foot white oak known as the Wye Oak, fell after standing for more than 460 years. The massive desk, designed and built by McMartin and Beggins, spans 74 inches long and 42 inches wide and is today the prominent feature in the governor’s office.
The duo also does furniture restoration work. The sawdust-strewn workshop reveals projects as disparate as an early 18th-century desk that has drawers being fortified to a chinoiserie footstool in need of an inlay repair.
“We blend artistry with engineering,” said Beggins, who started his woodworking career as a boatbuilder. “It’s that combination that ensures the furniture we make will be here long after we’re gone.”
Texas-size spunk plus Texas-size talent equals the inimitable Wendy Allen, one of the leading saddle makers in the world. Her saddles are both functional and beautiful, and her highly coveted style is notable for its restraint. “I like color, but I’m also a minimalist,” she said. “My saddles are the Ferraris of the horse world.”
From a classic Western hand-tooled floral design to a silver medallion inlay to a unique basket weave, Allen’s saddles – from roping to bronc saddles – are sought after by the competitive riding community. Her handcrafted saddles are customized to fit each horse and each rider. “I create something that looks good, but most importantly that functions well and is going to last for generations,” she explained.
Allen started working on her first saddle when she was seven years old. “I am an idiot savant or something because I just immediately understood the human and the equine forms,” she said. “Everyone’s anatomy is unique. Sometimes as little as a quarter of an inch will make the difference in whether or not the rider feels the horse twitch.”
Each Wendy Allen saddle takes about four years to make from conception to finished product. That's largely because she still works solo, despite her success, in her studio in Dublin, west of Waco on the long, hot drive to Abilene. “I just haven’t found anybody else who understands my vision and who will take the care I do,” she said. “That’s OK. My customers know if they want a Wendy Allen saddle, they’re going to wait for it. They know that I will make their saddle perfectly.”
In addition to saddle making, Allen is also an inventor and toolmaker, a sideline profession that was born of necessity. “My mind is always working. How can I improve this? What if I used that?” Today, Allen’s stamping and cutting tools are among the most highly regarded among leather workers.
In the end, Allen credits her drive and passion for the ability to sustain her creative spirit and business for more than 30 years. “I’m blessed to be able come into my studio,” she said. “Every day I step through that door and know I’m going to have some fun and make something special.”