For most of his life, every job Matt Swanson worked had a singular goal: to put money on the table and provide for his family.
He worked jobs that coincided with his interests, sure, but said he was easily bored and hadn’t found anything to stick. But after a layoff about seven years ago left him searching once again, he found himself in his own garage with a pile of wood, a secondhand planer a no idea he was about to stumble upon a career and a passion all rolled into one.
“It’s like everybody’s story — you make one piece and you give it away and another and another and someone asks if they can buy one and it just spirals out of control,” he said.
For Swanson, that first piece was a cutting board made out of six types of wood, all balanced against the neutral tone of maple to make the other colors pop. At the time, it was just one cutting board born out of an abundance of free time, but now that same board is labeled “The Original” and is a staple of what Swanson makes in his Scituate-based workshop for BirchBarn Designs, the small business he and his wife Shelley Swanson own.
“That pattern we still use in a lot of different boards, it’s a great display of all the species (of wood) out there,” he said.” And it’s a popular one, but we are constantly creating more types of boards and expanding the line and trying to keep people interested.”
Seven years after making that first cutting board, Matt and Shelley Swanson are now all in on BirchBarn Designs, a name inspired by the birch tree that sat outside Matt’s first garage studio. Now, they work together daily for a business that has grown to take up a 4,000-square-foot workspace and showroom in Scituate’s Greenbush area.
The shop shows off dozens of the pieces that make up the brand’s four main product lines: Chop, Serve, Drink and Live. Cutting boards, serving platters, bottle openers, six pack caddies, candle holders, wine charms and more are each made by hand and can be customized with text, monograms or company logos. Currently, the brand is working on expanding into wooden games and other home goods.
“We love to barbecue and eating and drinking and we wanted to create a product line for that,” Matt Swanson explained. “Then it morphed into way more than I’d imagined.”
“There are a million woodworkers out there making cutting boards and other things, but we have a product line and we have staples,” Shelley Swanson added. “You can come back to us again and again.”
These days, BirchBarn designs is churning out dozens of products per week or even day, but Swanson says there is enough variety to keep it from feeling mass produced — and to keep him from getting bored.
“It’s not one thing we have to make 5,000 of. We have a variety of products and people really engage with that,” Matt Swanson said. “Instead of focusing on speed and how fast we can make a product, it’s focusing on the process and making sure you aren’t making exceptions for quality. Even though you could be making the exact same thing, the process is always different and that’s where I thrive.”
In addition to products for the home, the Swansons also work with customers on larger projects like cabinetry and countertops. They don’t have an inventory for the big pieces, but instead work individually with each customer to make sure the product — and the process — is a good fit.
“Everything I make, I want,” Matt Swanson said. “Every piece is a little different and if I could store it all in a closet I would. If it’s not something I’d want, I don’t make it. “
BirchBarn Designs uses zebrawood, purple heart, mahogany, walnut, lacewood, maple, cherry and more for its products, which are sold at a variety of prices. The original cutting board is $100, a wall-mounted bottle opener with cap catch is $45 and large pastry boards start at $110.
Products are available online at birchbarndesigns.com or in the showroom, where one-off pieces and other items not on the website are sold, at 13 Ford Place in Scituate.
Photos in this post were taken by the wonderfully talented Greg Derr. They were originally published in The Patriot Ledger.