BirchBarn Designs offers custom-made hardwood pieces for every occasionBy Jennifer H. McInerney • Photography by Rosemary Tufankjian
Each time Matt Swanson walks from the back door of his house to the front door of his workshop, he’s prepared for one absolute certainty: sawdust. And lots of it.
For over a year now, Swanson has been building his Scituate-based business, BirchBarn Designs, from his original 12-by-23-inch hardwood cutting board to now nearly 30 different handcrafted creations, including his top-selling craft beer caddies. And the sawdust hasn’t settled since.
“I’ve always loved woodworking, but if you had told me a year ago that I’d be standing here in my own workshop, I wouldn’t have believed you,” says Swanson.
Indeed, the somewhat splintered path to his current career in Scituate started at Ohio State University, where Swanson earned his bachelor’s degree in Recreation Administration, which then led to a master’s degree in Sports and Leisure Recreation Management from Texas State University. He took a job with Patagonia, but soon realized that he wanted to pursue home renovation.
That was 2008—the year that changed everything. Swanson landed a job with a home construction company in Massachusetts, got married, bought a foreclosure home in Somerville, and then got laid off.
“It was a stressful time but, looking back, it was a blessing in disguise,” he reflects.
Swanson applied his home-renovation skills to the Somerville house, converting it into two brand-new condos that sold quickly. Soon after, he and his wife found themselves standing outside their dream home in Scituate—which conveniently had a detached garage.
“We fell in love with this house, and I was excited to turn the garage into my woodworking workshop,” he recalls.
Anticipating many hours “behind the barn doors next to the birch trees,” Swanson decided to name his business BirchBarn Designs.
Building the Business
Swanson gutted the garage down to its studs and transformed the 300-square-foot space, arranging his supplies and equipment in distinct areas. Uncut pieces of wood wait in one section; a shelving unit holds completed boards; a table in the center serves as an assembly area; a CNC (computer numerical control) machine for precision cutting sits by the far wall; and a counter/workstation lines the adjacent wall. In addition, he’s equipped his workshop with a TV, computer, and a small fridge, enabling him to work continuously for extended periods of time. Which is exactly what he does.
Swanson’s creations are not ordinary, mass-produced, one-wood-fits-all products. He makes each one by hand, using a variety of hardwoods, including Padauk, cherry, walnut, purple heart, mahogany and Jatoba. He often works with maple, for its durability and appealing appearance.
Once he’s gathered all the materials he needs for a particular piece, the production of a single cutting board takes about two hours.
The first board he ever made—aptly named the Original—measures 12×23 inches and features a striped pattern of different colored woods. That board became so popular that he decided to add a similarly striped companion piece, the 10×10-inch Short Round, named for Indiana Jones’ 11-year-old-sidekick in the 1984 movie “Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.”
“I named it the Short Round, even though it’s square, because it’s a sidekick to the Original,” Swanson explains.
Among the wide selection of BirchBarn Designs boards, a relative newcomer called the Sand Hills board has caught on quickly, especially with Scituate residents who frequent the Sand Hills beach. Inspired by the “sandy strip of narrow beach left at high tide,” this 12×16-inch board with curved sides and optional “catch grooves” can serve as both a cutting board and a serving tray. Its standard pattern is cherry, maple, and walnut, and it may be personalized with an engraved monogram or other custom text.
To make the production process slightly less laborious—without losing that handcrafted quality—Swanson will often cut and assemble components of a set of products in small batches.
For example, in the weeks leading up to the holiday season, fulfilling orders of his six-bottle beer caddy became all-consuming. As preparation, he cut a series of side panels, bases, mid-pieces, handles, and bottle cut-outs, sanded them, and stacked them on his workbench.
“It’s much more efficient to make multiple products at one time, especially the beer caddies,” he observes. “They are the most time-consuming, and the most popular, so I make a lot of those.”
He assembled 20 beer caddies in two days, not including customization, which is an extra step that requires individualized attention and additional time. The side panel or handle of the caddy can be personalized with engraved monograms, names and even small pictures, such as shamrocks, surfboards and other designs of choice. One work-in-progress revealed a side panel engraving of the four members of The Beatles crossing the street, a nod to the iconic “Abbey Road” album cover.
“I can do just about any design a client wants, thanks to the CNC machine,” he says. “Once I get going, the sawdust really flies!”
Customers Coming Out of the Woodwork
“The farmers’ markets have been a huge boost for the business,” he notes. “So many people come over to look at the boards up close and they have a chance to pick them up and hold them in their hands.”
Though the majority of vendors are selling produce, bread, desserts and other food items, BirchBarn Designs—with its related boards and trays—has become a natural complement at the markets.
“People recognize that these are simple, functional, high-end gifts for any occasion,” he continues. “And if they want to add their own design to it, then it becomes a very personal, unique gift.”
While many shoppers buy boards on the spot, others like to chat about the personalization possibilities—which Swanson embraces. He regards his role as “providing a canvas for people to put their mark on,” and relishes the opportunity to bring each client’s vision to fruition.
Participating in farmers’ markets has generated word-of-mouth referrals, resulting in orders from throughout the region as well as nationwide.
“It’s not just about selling the boards; it’s about meeting people and collaborating on a particular design,” he adds. “And it’s about forming relationships that lead to more relationships that help the business grow.”
Farmers’ markets and craft fairs aren’t the only places BirchBarn Designs’ handcrafted creations can be found. Swanson’s website provides a one-stop shopping experience with the capability to place orders online and input customized text for engraved gifts.
The BirchBarn Designs line of products extends well beyond the kitchen and dining room. Also available are tablet stands for iPads and similar electronic devices and signs for the “New Baby on the Block,” engraved with essential birth stats (date, time and weight, etc.) of a newborn baby. Swanson also offers countertop, tabletop and butcherblock designs for retail, office and residential environments.
Even with a catalogue of nearly 30 items, Swanson is eager to develop new product designs. In the shed where he stores his lumber, he points to a large piece of light-colored wood accented by darker Zebra-like stripes.
“I just got this Zebrawood and I can’t wait to experiment with it.”
No sign of the sawdust settling anytime soon.
For more information about BirchBarn Designs and to view items for sale, visit www.birchbarndesigns.com.
Solid Solutions for Wooden Products
Once BirchBarn Designs products are out of Swanson’s hands, he advises his clients to follow specific care instructions to ensure the longevity of their purchases. In addition, a BirchBarn Designs “Survival Kit” is available, with BBD Love Mineral Oil and BBD Love Board Cream.
- Never place wooden boards in the dishwasher.
- Do not submerge your board in water.
- Hand wash with soap and water, and allow board to air dry.
- Periodically sanitize your wooden cutting board with a solution of one part vinegar to five parts water.
- Remove any odors by rubbing the board with table or kosher salt and scrubbing with half a lemon. Let sit for a few minutes and then wipe clean with a damp cloth. Air dry.
Periodically wipe your board with food-grade mineral oil to kee