Out of the Woods

For designer and craftsman Topher Blackburn, his work is about much more than creating a custom table or bench out of hard wood. It’s about regeneration.

“My passion is taking a resource like wood and giving a second life to this once living thing that served us all,” he says. “That 150-year-old tree has been here a lot longer than any of us, and we can create a legacy with it.”

As owner of Good Wood by Topher, 37-year-old Blackburn constructs 100-percent handmade tables, mantles, cutting boards, and island tops out of his Charlotte shop on Mt. Holly Road. He specializes in what’s called “live edge wood”—slabs of wood that include the outer rings of the tree, the natural edge. After it’s cut, only the bark is removed, which allows the piece to remain in its most natural—or raw—state.

This distinction that has helped Blackburn carve out a corner of the luxury home furnishing market locally. This year, Good Wood by Topher debuted at Karen Saks, a high-end showroom catering to interior designers in the Carolinas.

“This area hasn’t seen a lot of live edge stuff, but the higher my market has gone, the more my client wants unique live edge furniture,” Blackburn says.

The design industry is taking notice of this trend as well. For Meg Consolino, co-owner of M Squared Interiors, it’s these custom woodworking details that make a client’s space feel special. “For one of our projects in Grandfather Country Club, we are installing a custom live edge walnut bar in the dining room,” says Consolino. “The artisan used gold epoxy to fill in gaps and notches in the wood. The result is stunning and definitely one of a kind.”

The medium of wood has always intrigued Blackburn—at age 13, he built his mom a garden bench so tall, they had to cut down the legs. He later built his sister’s dog a “house” so heavy they could hardly move it. But he’d never considered forging a career out of woodworking. Before launching his business in early 2016, he worked a number of jobs in finance, advertising, and sales to support his four young children. By late 2015, however, he found himself between jobs, so he began woodworking to pay the bills.

“My wife posted photos online of a farm table desk and cutting board I’d made, and people began asking for custom orders,” he says. “After that, she convinced me to apply to the Mt. Holly Farmer’s Market.”

They decided to focus exclusively on his cutting boards—which ranged in price from $75 to 100—and began with just eight pieces. But by the end of the 10-week stint, Blackburn had crafted 72 cutting boards and had orders for more.

“We’d get the kids together and have a ‘creative committee’ and name each cutting board,” he says. “Then we’d all sit on the ground and butter the boards.” He now sells “Topher’s Good Wood Butter,” a special formula he came up with to condition and protect his cutting boards and wood utensils, on his website.

Today, Blackburn’s portfolio includes furniture, shelves, wall art, and more, and each of his creations is the result of tireless focus and attention to detail. He specializes in hard woods from North Carolina and often spends hours driving around, searching for the perfect piece. Sometimes he’ll go to mills and hunt through the burn pile. The goal: to find the piece of wood that tells the best story for the client.

And once he’s found the piece, he’ll spend between several hours and 100 hours on a given project. “Craftsmanship will get stagnant if you quit paying attention to what you’re doing,” he says. “You have to take the time to learn how to perfect an item—slow down and grind away at something for hours and see how it does in that environment.”

Because most of his furniture is built custom, orders can take months to complete. A piece of wood could often need six months to air dry, then an additional two months to dry in the kiln before Blackburn can get to work on it. But in hiring Blackburn, clients are also supporting the local artisans, blacksmiths, and metal fabricators he works with on projects.

While he admits that he’s never put more time into any other job he’s had, Blackburn says he’s never had more freedom to do what he loves. “I no longer say ‘I’m going to work,’ when my kids ask,” he says. “I tell them I’m going to the shop. …I love opening the shop door, smelling the wood and knowing I’m going to make something special.” goodwoodbytopher.com

Photos by Dustin Peck and Michael Harrison