Bringing the islands to Down East

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Maine furniture maker with a lifelong connection to the water honed his skills building and restoring boats

Maine furniture maker with a lifelong connection to the water honed his skills building and restoring boats

It was only natural that Austin Kane Matheson would end up building and restoring boats. But choosing a career building Caribbean furniture? Well, that took a more circuitous route.

A Maine woodworker who sells the Island-style furniture mainly to boaters, Matheson, 30, started off working on the water.

From his childhood days to the present, Matheson has always been around the water. He grew up in Miami and developed an interest in woodworking, wooden boatbuilding and restoration during a summer at his uncle’s shop in North Carolina.

Following high school, Matheson returned to the ocean for his last two years of college when he studied marine ecology on the mainland side of Mexico’s Sea of Cortez (Gulf of California). After college, he bolstered his boatbuilding skills for two summers at the Apprentice Shop in Rockland, Maine, where he worked on a number of small wooden boats.

He sailed aboard the 125-foot schooner, Westward, with the Sea Education Association (SEA) out of Woods Hole, Mass., and served as first mate for one season aboard the 78-foot schooner Mercantile, part of the Maine Windjammers Association.

He obtained his U.S. Coast Guard-approved 100-ton Master license and co-captained a 55-foot dive boat in the Caribbean. It was this time when he discovered and fell in love with the beauty and culture of the islands — and where he received his first glance at the French-, Spanish-, Dutch- and English-inspired furniture.

By then Matheson was tiring of the transient lifestyle. “I did that for four years up here in Maine, and in Florida and the Bahamas. I did seasonal back-and-forth trips and then realized that the transient life — although fun at the time — I knew I had to start thinking of some other direction to go where I could support myself.”

He and his girlfriend (now wife) were looking to put down roots. He chose woodworking because a one-man shop is more manageable than a small boatyard.

Matheson says if you can successfully work on boat interiors, you can build almost anything.

“There’s no right angle, there’s no reference point; everything is scribed,” he says.

Matheson left the southern waters for Boston’s North Bennet Street School, where he enrolled in its two-year Cabinet and Furniture Making program. The curriculum required him to produce three pieces, and Matheson obliged by building six.

Matheson left Boston and settled in the seaside community of Camden. He lined up a few jobs before he left school and found a new shop where he could share space. Within a few months he was working in the shop alone, which was filled with machinery and tools. And the images of West Indian furniture continued to capture his eye.

“It was really at the North Bennett Street School where I had this kind of revelation about West Indian furniture and found it after digging for information.”

There isn’t a lot of literature on the 18th- and early 19th-century furniture built in the West Indies, Matheson says, and he searched libraries, museums and the Internet, slowly picking up bits and pieces of information.

Because the Caribbean was colonized by numerous countries, all the styles of furniture that initially came over were directly influenced by that country. Over time it started to evolve, with motifs that you only find in the islands. “There would be some wild snakes, cabbage palms in carvings and crests of waves,” he says.

The makers were mainly slaves trained by cabinetmakers who came to the islands from Europe. When the slaves became free, they continued to build most of the furniture.

Despite being relatively unknown and working with a style of furniture that few are familiar with, Matheson has managed to keep busy since starting up his business. He has to mix in some 18th-century American furniture in order to pay the bills, but the majority of his work is West Indian. Most of the jobs have come by word of mouth, but he exhibits at the Maine Boats and Harbor Show in Rockport, Maine.

Many of his buyers are boaters. “People, whether they just travel to the islands or have houses there, that’s a huge market that I haven’t really figured out how to get into.”

He still gets out on the water, either aboard his 18-foot Cape Cod daysailer or his 18-foot Eastern runabout with 50-hp Honda outboard. But his voyages these days always end up with him back at home, sleeping in his own bed.www.finehandmadefurniture.com