Ryan Hollingsworth is as Missoula as they come, meaning he’s done it all. It isn’t uncommon in this city for a person to love and respect the work they do and then, moments later, come to find that they have several other gigs or hobbies. It leaves the rest of us wondering—how do they do it all?
Ryan is the proud owner of Missoula Bench Builder, a business he started about five years ago, unofficially. It began with a simple bench he made of scraps from the Missoula Helitack base, where he worked as a wildland firefighter and for whom he had recently helped his crew construct an addition. Ryan was also a construction worker in the off season, and he logged up highway 12, just a few miles from where he now lives and does all of his woodworking and furniture building.
In a very Missoula-mysterious way, all paths either kept or drove Ryan to working with wood in some capacity. When it came to those off seasons, and paying bills, Ryan always came back to woodworking, commissioning a few benches for a woman who used them to display her goods at the Missoula Farmer’s Market, and then a vanity for a different customer. His business was generated mainly from Craigslist advertisements and word of mouth until Facebook Marketplace reached more people whose interest was piqued by his reclaimed material and aesthetic.
Officially, the company started a little over a year ago, when Ryan was able to stray from his various seasonal jobs and land at home, in his shop, with the reclaimed lumber he continually retrieves from Heritage Timber. It was a risk to ignore the other avenues that steadily paid the bills and go in the direction of making Missoula Bench Builder a legitimate business, but Ryan was determined to go all in.
He remembered where it all began.
“I grew up in Columbus, Montana and Rick Flemming was our neighbor and he had two boys that were right around my age, my best friends,” said Ryan. “He always told me to come up to the land to build stuff. I remember my mom picking me up a chainsaw for like twelve bucks at a yard sale.”
As he reflects back to childhood and his first days of running saw, he slices through another reclaimed piece that is imperfect in all the perfect ways. It’s blonde and gray and grainy and a little bowed. There’s a charm about it. The piece he’s cut is going to fit like a puzzle piece into the dog crate that he’s building for a customer. It’s unlike anything you’ll see at a department store or even a furniture maker’s shop. And that’s kind of Ryan’s style.
“I always get asked to do unlikely projects,” said Ryan. He jokes that it’s his specialty. And in the next moment we’re standing next to a piece he’s just finished, complete with upholstery. It’s a Minbar—a pulpit in a mosque where a prayer leader sits or stands to deliver sermons—and it’s home to the members of the Missoula Islamic Society.
He’s thrilled with the final product and loves when that excitement is matched by his customers, but that reciprocation didn’t come as easily in the beginning.
“I've had stuff come back at me,” Ryan said. “I was making this jeweler’s bench and I used ball bearing drawer slides because that’s what I did for drawers…When I delivered it, he said something like, ‘No, that’s not what I want’ and I basically went back to the drawing board to get it right.”
Ryan winces when he remembered these early lessons, but he couldn’t be more thankful for them, and for the customers who pushed him to be the craftsman he is today.
“I’m a whole different woodworker now, even from just a year ago,” said Ryan.
And he’s right. Before leaving his quiet shop at the foot of a mountain, his little bench—the original—is brought to light from the barn. It is just as charming in its physical state as compared to Ryan’s narrative of it in those humbling beginning days of his craft.
“People will always need furniture,” said Ryan. And he intends on meeting that demand with thoughtful, stunning pieces that are sure to please anyone who is looking to pay tribute to wood with a story.