Carving a Balance
Cincy, August 2007
When Matt Bantly talks about a table he’s built, he instinctively rubs the palm of his hand across the surface of the wood, over to a corner and then back in the opposite direction, feeling the top’s chamfer. He’s not showing off.

In fact, he’s talking about his weakness — finishing — even though his finishes look professional.

Bantly catches himself rubbing the wood and laughs. “My grandfather did the same thing,” he says. “I just love that squeak, the tactile feel of wax.”

Obsessive about precision, Bantly, who works in design management at Procter & Gamble, builds furniture with a deep desire to learn ancient craftsmen’s secrets. He says he’ll never sell his work or build something twice.

“As I progress in my career and find myself doing less and less design, and more for the management side, woodworking becomes a huge creative outlet,” he explains.

Bantly spent several years designing products in East Coast consulting firms after graduating from the Rhode Island School of Design in 1986. His only training in woodworking was a six-week elective course while in college and, during summer weekend visits as a child, watching his late grandfather, Edward Bantly, work in his shop.

He may be amateur craftsman, but many of the furniture pieces Bantly built for his home are meticulous. A good example is the mahogany console cabinet with walnut inlay in his living room, which features hand-carved ball-and-claw style feet. Bantly could have carved the feet so that the talons were flush with the ball. Instead, he challenged himself and carved open talons, which are true to traditional form, yet difficult to master.

Bantly inherited his grandfather’s wood collection and he incorporates at least one of his grandfather’s cherry, walnut or pine boards — along with some of his grandfather’s wisdom — into everything he builds.

Once, Bantly was building a jig that required a hole with threads. Wanting to know what size drill bit to use for a 1/4/20 tap (which would create the threads), he began digging through his grandfather’s tool chest, which he keeps in his basement woodworking shop. In the chest he found a tap chart. Written on the outside of the list, in his grandfather’s handwriting, was the exact information he needed to know. “It was really weird,” he admits.

Although he has an affinity for tables, Bantly also has built many other pieces for his Hyde Park home, which he shares with Beth Malone, creative director of beauty at LPK Design. These works include the front door, a two-sink Shaker cabinet for an upstairs bathroom, a fireplace screen, many small boxes and an elaborate pinewood derby car that won in a P&G employee competition.

Bantly's co-workers were so impressed with his derby car that they lined the race track, hands and arms serving as a human shield, to ensure the car wouldn't veer off the track and break.

"Matt brought this in to show me, and it's one of the most amazing pieces of woodworking I've seen in a long time," says Christopher Schwarz, editor of Popular Woodworking magazine. "Technically, it's flawless. And it's beautiful — it's a series of bent laminations. I think even the waving flag on the antennae is wood."

As for Bantly’s handcrafted furniture, it’s intermixed with contemporary pieces, including a Gucci-style coffee table and a Nelson bubble lamp. He says building antique-style pieces serves as a counterbalance to a career spent looking at designs for future products.

“It’s not so much eclectic as it is balance between the old and the new,” he remarks. “In my mind, those two things can exist in the same space.”