The Wood Whisperer
He shies away from talking about it—the intensity of combat, the scars of war. But there’s a wise, gentle glimmer in Brett Bowden’s blue, blue eyes that suggest this decorated Marine has seen more than most of us could imagine.
“I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything. It was amazing, I’ve got no regrets,” says Bowden, who earned a Purple Heart and Bronze Star during his tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. After being honorably discharged in 2009, Bowden moved to Charleston to work for the Space and Naval Warfare Systems Command, and today puts combat-level intensity and military precision into making art, not war, through his custom furniture company, Knotty Woodcraft.
Dining tables, coffee tables, bar tops, shadow boxes, all those earthy, gorgeous slabs that come heaped with forage board bounty at Harold’s Cabin—there’s not much that Bowden and his colleague Rand Royster can’t fashion from an old tree.
“I love the challenge involved in making a unique piece,” Bowden says, noting that the wood often has a mind of its own. “A tree doesn’t always want to be a table,” he laughs. “The wood resists, it’s a medium that moves. Sometimes it’ll cooperate, and sometimes it won’t.”
But you’d hardly guess that from Bowden’s finished products— table tops gleaming with rich amber hues, or more rugged live-edge tables imprinted with growth rings and gnarled knots, the forest’s tell-all of hard winters or ideal summers.
“I love how each piece has a personality,” says Bowden, who works as much as possible with local South Carolina hard woods and reclaimed wood, including trees that fall on clients’ property which they ask him to salvage. “I look at a finished piece and I remember all the nuances of the wood. Every piece, every tree, tells a story.”
As a kid growing up in Texas and Delaware, Bowden would borrow his dad’s tools and tinker with making birdhouses and carving wood ducks. “I built a tree fort down by our creek, and of course, stepped on a nail,” he recalls. After discharge from the Marines, he decided, on a lark, to look into carpentry or woodworking classes, and found Sam Sprouse’s Charleston Woodworking School. “I learned stuff I didn’t know I didn’t know,” he says of Sprouse’s traditional curriculum. “Mostly I gained a respect for the history and purity of the craft.”
Bowden’s Knotty Woodcraft studio in West Ashley stays busy largely with word-of-mouth orders, all of it 100% custom, with clients involved throughout the design process. Bowden uses old school wood-on-wood joinery; no IKEA screws here, just mortise and tendon or half-blind dovetails or a dozen other terms you’ve never heard of, and neither had he when he started out.
“It’s a dying art,” he notes. But giving this dying art new life has also given this former Marine a new beginning, new purpose and passion.
“I can’t imagine guys like me working a corporate desk job,” the veteran says. “The solitude and independence of the woodshop, the purity of it, it’s kind of like therapy. At the end of the day, when you’re covered in sawdust and walk out of the shop, you’re proud of the work, you’re satisfied,” he adds. “That’s a good day.”