Life in our Foothills August 2021 – 19th Century Custom Woodworks
“Doing work the hard way”
19th Century Custom Woodworks
Story & Photos by Mark Levin
Robert Turner was nine years old the last time I saw him. Well, maybe there was this one other time a few years back. But what I remember was the Robert from the late 1980s as a fourth-grade student of mine at O.P. Earle Elementary School in Landrum.
There was no way I would have guessed back then that I would one day be sitting down and talking with this “kid” about his own successful business. Was he my best student? To be honest, I can’t remember that kind of detail. I can confirm that he was inquisitive, friendly, hardworking, always smiling and knew how to build things. He’s no kid anymore. He’s married and the father of two daughters.
It was a coincidence that a former student would be the subject of one of my stories. I was always intrigued by the wooden moose on the corner of Rutherford Street and North Poplar Avenue in Landrum. And I noticed the sign for the business, 19th Century Custom Woodworks. It was the combination of those two things that motivated my interest in getting the story.
If I had been a fortune teller back in the 1980s, maybe I could have seen his career shaping up. His family has owned the Quonset-looking building on Thrift Circle since 1981. It was in that location where Robert’s dad based his business as a contractor. His parents, Richard and Marie, raised two boys, Richard and Robert, in the apartment attached to that building. Robert grew up learning how to build things by watching and then helping his dad. At some point his dad started acquiring machinery built in the 1800s and started turning out custom cabinetry.
Back in the 19th Century, the machinery was powered by a steam engine outside running a belt inside with various woodworking machines using that to power up. But electricity is a lot easier to work with and the equipment has long since been converted to power that way.
Robert honed his skills by first helping his dad doing carpentry work and then working with other local builders. Robert’s dad was nearing retirement and it was a natural move to have Robert take over the building and figure out where to go next. After all, Robert was a fourth-generation carpenter. The equipment was there, the skills were there, and the need for what Robert could do was there. So about ten years ago Robert started 19th Century Custom Woodworks. It wasn’t long before customers were seeking out his work.
Today, 19th Century Custom Woodworks is the go-to place for high quality custom work. Robert says his specialty is probably cabinetry and they are beauties. He also builds furniture such as tables, chairs, beds, dressers, tack boxes…you name it. Nearly all of the work is completed in the building and then installed at the owner’s location. Robert occasionally repairs furniture for people if he has the time to fit it in. But there’s not much time to squeeze in repairs when he’s got orders several months out. Quality takes time and Robert doesn’t rush his work.
You can drop by the shop on Thrift Circle and possibly get some time with Robert to discuss your ideas. You won’t find items that he’s built filling floor space waiting to be bought. Everything in the shop is work being custom built for an ever-growing list of customers. When he builds something, he does it all – the doors, the drawer boxes, the finishes. He uses reclaimed barn wood if people want that and specialty woods when requested. He really likes working with maple, and isn’t particularly fond of pine. Robert says it looks nice, but it gums up his equipment.
Robert doesn’t make hinges and other hardware used in some of his products, but he does have a collection of old pieces and parts a customer can choose from if they really want to look old school.
Robert Turner hasn’t really had to bother with the marketing aspect of his business. He doesn’t have a website. He has no need. Word-of-mouth has given Robert the luxury of a steady line of customers clamoring for his work. Some of his projects have been huge such as building the cabinetry for entire homes or custom bookshelves and reading tables for someone’s private library. Other projects might be a little smaller such as building a custom table or a special vanity in a bathroom. There are several local equestrians sporting one of his custom tack boxes.
Robert takes a customer’s ideas and visions and translates them into a finished product. When you open a drawer built by 19th Century Custom Woodworks you can feel the quality. It’s solid. You’ll see the dovetail notches if that’s what you want, feel the custom finish, and take pleasure in knowing that this piece of art will be here for generations. I didn’t ask Robert if he signs his pieces, but he should.
The best way to reach Robert and 19th Century Custom Woodworks is by phone at 828/ 817-5684. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org but he doesn’t spend a lot of time on the computer. And you can drop by and perhaps catch Robert or one of his helpers busy at work at 100 Thrift Circle in Landrum, SC. The entrepreneurial mindset runs in the family. Older brother Richard Turner operates Southern Machine Services & Turner Automation in the back of the same building.
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