Hard work and an appreciation of old things are two themes which started early in Malachi Milbourn’s life. As a child he shared the Goshen, Indiana home of his maternal grandfather, a retired state trooper. “He’s the type of guy who didn’t let me have a break on the weekends,” Malachi remembers fondly. “He set up a lawn chair and watched me prune the trees.”
His grandfather’s attention paid off. Now, as a self-employed wood artist, he puts in eight to ten hour days. And he still uses his grandfather’s tools.
Malachi’s two older brothers are also artists, but Malachi was the one most drawn to carpentry. He recalls that as his grandfather got older, he said of his precious tools, some of which had been passed down from his own father, “I want you to take care of these.”
Not that Malachi built barns like his great-grandfather. An avid skateboarder as a child, some of his early carpentry projects were ramps.
As a teenager, Malachi and his mother moved to Phoenix, where he learned to blow glass. He expected to continue with glass when he arrived in Portland in 2007, but found the glass art market saturated.
“I fell in love with the wood out here,” he said. “Especially the trees.” He already had the tools, so decided to try his hand at building furniture. This eventually grew into his current business, Against the Grain Studio.
Malachi loves old growth wood, but doesn’t believe it’s right to cut down ancient trees. He’s found the perfect solution in reusing Douglas fir from old barns which have been razed. He loves working with wood from trees which were cut down 100 years ago, and were several hundred years old at the time. His decision to use old lumber is based on aesthetics, not economics. The wood is full of heavy square-headed nails. “When you factor in the time it takes to pull out the old nails,” Malachi says, “it costs more than new wood.”
His work is big, mostly Mission style, with clean lines. “I really like simple,” he says. His techniques are decidedly old fashioned, featuring hand sanding and hand-rubbed organic finishes. Most of his work is sold locally, as it would be awfully heavy to ship.
Malachi got a surprise recently when he saw one of his tables and a bench on the cover of Oregon Home magazine. The cover story was about the kitchen remodel of one of his clients, a woman he met at the Urban Art Network Street Gallery. The Street Gallery has been an important way for him to make connections. He encourages aspiring artists to test the waters by showing on the street. “The Street Gallery gives people the outlet to give it a try,” he says. “So if you’re inspired by those artists doing their thing, put yourself out there. If people like something you’re doing, work more at doing that.”
In the future, Malachi would like to do more large-scale commercial work, projects like cafes, bars and hotels. Eventually he would like to build his own house out of reclaimed barn wood. He also hopes to invest in reclaimed wood from historical structures and re-mill it into perfect new lumber.
Malachi has a way with growing things, as evidenced by his well-tended backyard garden. Since working with wood, he has also developed a special feeling for trees. “I appreciate trees totally differently now, especially the large ones,” he says. He likes to wander in forests near the coast. “You can see the battles,” he says. “Cedar fighting the Sitka spruce, two trees growing out of a fallen tree, fighting for the most light.” Beyond the thrill of tree warfare, Malachi enjoys the feeling of all the roots together beneath his feet. “You can see the web of roots,” he says. “All the trees are connected.
See Malachi’s work at the First Thursday Street Gallery. Check out his website at againstthegrainpdx.com. You can also make an appointment to see his work at his North Portland showroom.
—by Teresa Bergen
Visit Malachi’s Profile Page where you can view more images of his work and read his Artist's Statement.