Finicky to the Finish
by Joshua Bodwell
Photography Irvin Serrano
How one woodworker built an old soul
On a rain-whipped morning in late November, Ezra Howell is right where those who know him would expect to find him: the spray booth at the back of his shop, E.H. Fortner Woodworking. Masked and clutching a paint gun, Howell raises his index finger to signal I’ll be with you in a minute.
Moments later, he exits the painting booth. “This is the one thing I’m still struggling to let go of,” admits the lanky 35-year-old. “I don’t even really love being in the spray booth, but it’s the final step and I really like to have my hands on it.” Capable of handling nearly every task in the wood shop, Howell is assiduous about the quality of every piece that leaves his shop.
Ezra Howell’s passion for fine woodworking runs deep—five generations deep. By his early teens, Howell was already putting in hours at his father’s woodworking shop in Southern California. “I was sweeping floors and filling glue bottles,” he remembers with a laugh, “but I was starting to learn, too.”
At 17, Howell realized that high school was not offering the education he craved, so he promptly dropped out. “After a summer of goofing off,” he shakes his head, “I landed in a cabinetry shop in Asheville, North Carolina, because wood is what I knew.”
In North Carolina, Howell came under the tutelage of several master carpenters he remembers as “very old school.” “I was like a sponge around them,” he says. Howell absorbed their traditional techniques and insistence on perfection. By the age of 18, he was already running a small cabinetry shop. Over the next decade, Howell honed his skills in every phase of woodworking, from design and construction to finish work and installation.
In late 2001, Howell relocated to Maine, his wife Anne’s home state. After a few years with the respected shops of Tidewater Millwork and Sheepscot Woodworking, he felt a familiar longing: “I always knew that eventually I’d want my own shop up here.”
When Howell finally ventured out on his own, he started by renting a small space that, within three years, he had outgrown. “At the end, there were four of us crammed into maybe 2,000 square feet!” he recalls. In 2006, Howell bought and renovated a building three times the size of his first shop.
Located in Washington, a small town nestled among the rolling farm fields just west of Camden, E.H. Fortner Woodworking—a name Howell created by combining his initials with his old family surname steeped in five generations of woodworking—comfortably houses half a dozen employees within its 6,000 square feet. “But we’re still growing,” says Howell. “I’d already like to expand here, and I think my ideal–sized crew is around ten.”
Today, the bulk of the E.H. Fortner’s work is cabinetry, all of which displays the kind of meticulous attention to detail you would expect from a craftsman who considers his vocation a form of high art. “For my sake, and especially for my guys, I try to get in a real mix of work,” he says. “Doing that also reminds people that this is a shop that can handle just about anything.” That “anything” includes furniture, doors, room paneling, millwork, kitchens, and custom wine cellars and home bars.
But no matter what the project is or where it’s going, Howell insists every diverse piece of woodworking that leaves E.H. Fortner shares a common characteristic: quality. It’s something that Howell demands of himself perhaps even more than anyone else—hence his near compulsive desire to handle the finish work on each project.
“My expectations are almost too high for myself,” admits the woodworker. “Look, my wife will attest to this: running a business like this is an emotional rollercoaster—sometimes I’m top of the world and sometimes I’m rock bottom.” He looks out at the puddle-filled parking lot and considers his words, which he enunciates with the deliberate, measured cadence of a Yankee twice his age. “I think you need to have an ego to be a good woodworker, I know that, but when you can keep that in check, well, the more level the rollercoaster will be.”
Howell’s approach can often be more instinctual than technical, and he is known for having a natural eye and feel for finding a piece’s proper proportions. There are almost no complex shop drawings on the workbenches at E.H. Fortner—just full-scale drawings on large pieces of cardboard—yet Howell is unafraid to re-create elaborate pieces of woodworking from nothing more than a single photograph. He relishes the give and take of ideas during the design process, both with his crew and with his clients. “Whoever I’m working for has the vision,” Howell says, “and I’m trying to draw that vision from them and then create the physical object.”
A prime example of how Howell’s enthusiastic input can dramatically affect a project is the kitchen of Lincolnville’s Morton Hill Farm, which he built in 2008. The homeowners thought they would build a simple white kitchen. “I said, ‘White?,’” remembers Howell. “And then I told them, ‘You don’t want white!’” In the end, after drawing more information out of the homeowners, the kitchen became the antithesis of vanilla. First, Howell distressed planks of yellow pine for the cabinetry, then finished them with a rich yellow milk paint, which he antiqued by further distressing and sanding the wood. The results were inspiring.
“I’m really surprised when people in other shops don’t take some ownership over a project and just do whatever they’re handed without at least offering some input,” muses Howell. He praises his crew, too, when it comes to helping a project evolve: “My guys really take ownership, and the more heads you have, the better a project will usually turn out.”
Howell often discusses projects during “debriefing” sessions with his crew after the work has left the shop. Recently, an employee confessed that a particular project had taken him longer than anticipated. But then he went on to say how much he learned during the process and how he could not only get it done quicker but better next time. “That’s pretty much the best thing he ever could have said to me,” Howell says with a broad smile.
It is, undoubtedly, the sort of thing that the 18-year-old Howell might have said himself to one of the old masters he apprenticed under. Howell is a craftsman who insists on action, a man who believes in doing rather than deliberating.
For more information, see Resources on page 88.