Brian Holcombe and expert cabinetry: Off the Ground

In Episode 2 of Off the Ground, New Jersey-based artisan Brian Holcombe described the lessons he learned in developing a satisfying woodworking and cabinetry studio.

Listen to my episode Brian Holcombe and expert cabinetry: Off the Ground here.

I met Brian when he was a freshman at the College of New Jersey, where I was teaching Rhetoric. The theme behind my class was start-ups, and the term project was for small groups of a few students a business plan. Brian was one of a couple of students who actually started businesses of their own after the class ended. His was a machine shop, building chassis for a ’67 racing Camaro, as well as other structural components for racing cars.

Having seen his work come to fruition and race at drag strips throughout the region, he sold his interest in racing components and turned his attention to woodworking. A new set of lessons to be learned. You can hear directly from Brian about this by listening to the show, but I will summarize here.

“It’s been a bit of a long and winding road to get from there to… interior furniture and cabinetry,” Brian says. He extended his education through two years of architecture classes at Mercer County Community College and “learning as I go.” A balance of book-smarts and street-smarts, with concentration on the history of design, from which he gave himself a context to help him see where to go next.

“There was a famous Japanese furniture-maker near me (Ru Amagasu), in New Jersey, and I fell upon his shop at the time my interest in furniture was growing. He had a bunch of designs in his shop and they were fantastic.” Brian’s own first design – created about 15 years ago – grew from what he saw in the Japanese shop.

“I worked in an automotive machine shop – just me and the owner – and I took a lot from that experience, and I continue to lean on that.” In both automotive and furniture, you have to gain skill in machining parts, and in making parts in such a way as to result in solid connections. “If a table doesn’t hold anything up then (to matter how it looks), it is useless.” The items you make must be both attractive and functional.

  • Collecting tools – Brian started with traditional hand-tools, concentrating on multi-purpose tools, and added machine tools as he could afford them.
  • Acting as a sales rep – It is true in most small businesses – you don’t start out with a lot of money. Brian ultimately gained a patron through his previous automotive and experience.
  • Refining your process – As you perform simple jobs, or make simple components, your experience grows and enables you to do more.

Brian’s first and most important project was a workbench. He wanted a traditional design, but wider and deeper than most, and this is not a small project. It’s also somewhat demanding.

He learned of failure in making the workbench surface. It needed to be flat yet did not start out that way. “We have to know how to deal with failure because we run into it often.” And if a job takes longer than originally planned, that in itself is a failure. But he could except early failure because “I was setting myself up for future success.” 🙂

What Dr. Ron learns – we must know the forms failure may take, and prepare for them, or we could miss success that walks right in front of us.


Find Brian’s Kitchen Series here.

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