Local friends, entrepreneurs built their business by building handcrafted, custom furniture

The first time Gary Keener and Mark Schultz teamed up to build furniture, they were thousands of miles from home and about 16 years younger.

The Clark County men joined a mission trip organized by First Christian Church in Springfield and traveled to Honduras, where they spent 10 days building armoires for an orphanage. Schultz fell in love with woodworking on the trip, and the men formed a friendship that eventually became a business partnership when they founded Keener & Schultz Fine Woodworks at 2936 Liberty Road in New Carlisle.

After returning from Honduras, Keener hired Schultz in his woodworking shop and taught him everything he’d learned during a year-long apprenticeship with a furniture maker in Virginia. Schultz, a 1998 graduate of Northwestern High School and 2002 graduate of Wittenberg University, then left and launched his own woodworking business while studying to become a preacher. In 2017, the men once again teamed up, merging their individual woodworking businesses into Keener & Shultz.

The business is a “forest to furniture” operation that hand crafts custom pieces with a focus on quality and detail, Keener says. From cutting the logs to make the lumber all the way through the process of constructing a piece and delivering it in person – even hundreds of miles away – the duo oversees every detail from start to finish.

“If it’s made out of wood, we’ll do it,” Keener says. “The gamut is wide open to what we do.”

A 5,000-square-foot building houses their operation on Keener’s property. Lumber is prepped on site with their own sawmill and a kiln used to dry the wood. Customers and local residents frequently provide cherry, walnut and oak for their projects.

“We get into exotic woods, too. We’ll use African Bubinga and Wenge and all these crazy exotic woods. African Bubinga is a really hard, really dense, very red wood, but it has some really unique figure to it and a very distinct color,” Schultz says. “Wenge is really hard and dense, but it’s almost jet black.”

These pieces can cost thousands of dollars. Like the Amish, they build with quality hardwood, but Keener says his construction techniques stand apart because he is more often using traditional wood-on-wood joinery.

“We’re doing something that’s a little more intense, going to last a little longer, won’t fail over time,” he says.

Examples of their work will be on display during their fall open house from 3 to 6 p.m. Sept. 20. They also have a display at Springfield’s COhatch The Market at 101 S. Fountain Ave. Keener hopes this small show room will grow their share of customers locally. Currently, many of their customers come from big cities around the country in locations where they have exhibits at home shows.  

Besides bedroom and dining room sets, the men have undertaken a variety of other projects ranging from lamps to piano benches and, in one case, a large, intricate jewelry chest with multiple drawers and 5-foot-tall sliding panels. Smaller pieces include picture frames, kitchen cutting boards and flag boxes. In one repair job, they fixed a wooden canoe.

Often these projects put their imagination to work, like the “diploma paddle” Keener donated to the Global Impact STEM Academy in Springfield for its graduation ceremony this year. It had a handle attached to a long rod with a holder at the other end for the diplomas, allowing school officials to distribute the diplomas while staying 6 feet apart because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Among their more intense projects were some reproductions crafted for Frank Lloyd Wright’s Westcott House in Springfield when the home was being restored. They built an oak dining table that had posts with glass light fixtures built into the corners. Their design, which involved sliding leaves and legs on wheels, had to hide all that wiring.

“It was very complex and tedious to do, but we worked with a local electrician to design a way where the cords didn’t have to be laying on the floor of the house,” Keener says. “They ran through chases inside the table. They had fishing weights and pulleys that allowed for slack and movement.”

Some of their favorite pieces are the ones with sentimental value. Currently they are working with a Springfield couple who contacted them after a storm blew over a giant white oak tree in their backyard.

“The kids all grew up with this tree out back, and it’s where all the pictures were taken. They had camped out under that tree,” Keener says. “We’re talking about what things we could possibly make out of it. I know they want a kitchen table that sits at the window where they used to look out at the tree and maybe a bench that would go out back where the tree used to be, and something for the kids to each get.”

These are the projects they truly enjoy because they are not building just a piece of furniture. They are creating meaningful pieces that are more than the sum of their parts.

One customer hired them to make a fireplace mantle for her new house using walnut wood from her grandfather.

“When she saw it, she got teary eyed and gave us hugs,” Keener says.

That’s what makes Schultz love his work.

“It does tug at your heart,” he says. “Those are always the extra special, fun ones. Even in the process of building it, it feels a little different. You do kind of slow down and take a little extra time with everything.”

Read more articles by Gail Meadows.