Bits & Pieces
David Mason and Jay Crowell never anticipated that a friendship formed in the shop of Douglas Cabinet Company would lead to a business partnership. Six years later, the duo – along with Ella Guy, are turning out beautiful and expertly crafted woodworks through their company, Rabbet Run.
Article by April Clark Honaker and photography by Brad Arender
When David Mason and Jay Crowell started working at Douglas Cabinet Company in the same month over six years ago, they had no intention of making friends there, much less starting a business together. Today, Jay said, “I’m 50, and David is the only person I truly trust.” Similarly, David said he considers Jay one of only two close friends that he’s made in the last five years, the second being his girlfriend, Ella Guy. All three—David, Jay and Ella—were important to the creation of Rabbet Run Woodworks, a custom woodworking business, specializing in functional goods. In addition to working regular hours at Douglas Cabinet, David and Jay do projects for Rabbet Run on the weekends, and when they set up for Rabbet Run at events like the Ruston Makers Fair, Ella is their merchandiser. At these events, they always display their first official project, a table they made for her.
According to David, Jay is the talent behind Rabbet Run. Not only is he the shop foreman at Douglas Cabinet. He is a third-generation carpenter and has been around carpentry, cabinetry and woodworking his whole life. He has the experience necessary to ensure Rabbet Run’s products are of the highest quality. David, on the other hand, found his way to woodworking after stints at a lumber yard and a hardwood supplier. Although his current job in sales and estimation at Douglas Cabinet doesn’t involve much contact with wood, it has prepared him to handle the business side of Rabbet Run.
As the voice of Rabbet Run, David handles the marketing. Since posting a photo of their first project on Instagram in April of 2015, the business has accrued over 400 followers, and they have filled some large orders in Ruston, including 150 cutting boards for First National Bank and 40 serving boards for Bradley Walker, the owner of Parish Press coffee shop. Some of their pieces are also available in downtown Ruston’s Better Living Market and in Main Street Exchange, a curated shop that donates a portion of proceeds to charity.
In less than two years, Rabbet Run has achieved notable success, but it didn’t happen all at once. According to David, the business came together in “bits and pieces,” much like the cutting boards they make. Their first project, a kitchen table for Ella, was actually created out of necessity. Hers had broken, so she needed a new one and asked David if he could make it. Not sure how to approach the project on his own, David sought Jay’s help, and together, they designed and built the new table from reclaimed heart pine. David said that before they made the table, he had only a passing interest in woodworking, but afterward, his interest sparked.
Once Ella’s table was complete, David and Jay started making their first pieces for customers. Ella was able to connect them with people interested in their work through her job at Sundown Tavern. One of their most memorable early pieces was a 24×30 inch, end-grain butcher’s block they created for Luke Kinmon, the Kitchen Manager at Sundown. David called the piece “behemothic” and said it’s really too big for everyday use, so Sundown serves cheese and other foods on it at parties. Another Sundown customer was Bob Thames, who has since become the Tasting Room Manager at Great Raft Brewing in Shreveport. Reflecting on Rabbet Run’s beginnings, David and Jay both agree that everything started at Sundown.
In addition to the early pieces they created for Sundown’s staff, they made a cedar soap deck for David around the same time, simply because he needed one. After making the soap deck, David asked Bonnie Ferguson of Pastry Moon if she would consider selling them in her shop. At the time, Bonnie was putting together an art exhibition, called “Empty Vessels,” that consisted mostly of pottery, but she thought Rabbet Run would make a nice addition. To oblige, David and Jay put together a small collection of pieces, including an end-grain block, an edge-grain board, a face-grain paddle and several cedar soap decks.
On the night of the exhibition opening, Rabbet Run made its first official sale when Frank Hamrick, an Associate Professor of photography at Louisiana Tech, bought the face-grain paddle. Frank has since become a repeat customer, which also makes him one of David’s favorite customers. David said, “I like it when people love what they buy so much that they come back and buy more, because they want someone else to have it.”
Another pivotal moment in Rabbet Run’s beginnings was the night David and Ella attended a talk by Aaron Draplin on Louisiana Tech University’s campus. Draplin had built a successful career as a graphic designer, working with several iconic brands, such as Nike, Red Wing, Field Notes, Esquire and Ford Motor Company. In addition, his wry sense of humor meshed well with David’s, and many of the things he spoke about rang true. For example, Draplin encouraged listeners to do only one thing and be good at it. He also called attention to the ampersand epidemic in business names, such as Peg & Awl. At the time, David thought, “He’s right. Let’s not be as common as everyone else.” After hearing Draplin speak, David felt inspired and came up with the name Rabbet Run.
He said Rabbet Run’s name was inspired by two things. The first was a novel by John Updike called Rabbit Run, which tells the story of a former high school basketball star who is disillusioned with his adult life. The second was woodworking terminology. When he started working at the lumber yard, David heard terms like rabbet run and monkey tail that were completely new to him. “I was just moon-eyed,” he said, “because I had no idea what they were talking about.” Eventually, he learned that when someone said “rabbet run” they were talking about cutting a rabbet joint, which is simply an open-sided, rectangular recess along the edge or end of a board. Interestingly, the word around Ruston is that the name Rabbet Run also fits because David himself is hard to run down, kind of like a rabbit.
Confident in the name and with a few customers under their belt, David wrote Rabbet Run’s artist statement. Even though David describes himself as a contrarian and isn’t totally comfortable being called an artist, he felt the statement was needed. It begins with a quote by Rick Rubin: “Everything happens kind of the way it’s supposed to happen, and we just watch it unfold. And you can’t control it. Looking back, you can’t say, ‘I should’ve…’ You didn’t, and had you, the outcome would have been different.”
Immediately after quoting Rubin, Rabbet Run claims to have no idea what Rubin meant, maintaining that they included the quote only because they “really like Rubin’s work with LL Cool J, Run-D.M.C. and Johnny Cash” and because they wanted to “open strong.” The irony is that these guys do know what the quote means. It perfectly describes how Rabbet Run came to be, but challenging our expectations is part of who Rabbet Run is. In this case, they’ve done it by adding a little self-deprecating humor to an artist statement that doesn’t read at all like most artist statements.
Their artist statement also downplays the work involved in their process. “What we do,” it reads, “is take large pieces of wood, cut them into smaller pieces of wood, then apply tons of glue and pressure to make them back into big pieces of wood.” While this summary is accurate in a sense, it doesn’t capture the time spent agonizing over material selection, the careful shaping of edges and corners, the five stages of sanding or the careful polishing, which is done with a proprietary blend of mineral oil and locally sourced beeswax from Jennings Apiaries. The work is intense and thoughtful, but making light of it is part of Rabbet Run’s shtick. “We don’t take ourselves too seriously,” Jay said. The humor is both natural and calculated—to a degree. “We want to generate interest,” David said, “but we try not to take it too far,” something he admits they don’t always get right. According to David, “The nuts and bolts of marketing are difficult, but somebody has to do it. Otherwise, we’re out in Douglas, Louisiana, making boards in the dark, and no one will ever see them.”
When they get it right, people follow them on Instagram, people buy their work, and when they get it really right, people buy more of their work. In addition to building a following on Instagram and spreading news of what they do by word-of-mouth, Rabbet Run has built their fan base through a lot of community support. Two of their earliest supporters were Jake Dugard and Cassidy Keim. “Through their Makers Union,” David said, “they helped us immensely. We kept a small stock of items there, pretty constantly, and Jake and Cassidy were always available for beer or advice.” Participating in the bi-annual Ruston Makers Fair has also allowed Rabbet Run to reach more customers and spread the word about what they do. According to Jay, that process has even changed his perspective a bit. “It’s cool to be thought of as an artist,” he said, “and to be appreciated for the quality of the work.”
Another Rabbet Run supporter, Townsend House Gifts in Ruston, will host them on-site for NCLAC’s annual Holiday Arts Tour on December 2-3. Townsend House also stocks Rabbet Run’s “Make Ruston Weird” bumper stickers year round. Although not woodworks, the stickers capture the spirit of Rabbet Run’s movement to expand Ruston’s horizons–to not only accept but also to embrace more weirdness. According to David, the stickers have been successful, and he has noticed a change in Ruston’s openness to a broader range of artists and musicians over the past few years.
In addition to having community support on the sales side, Rabbet Run has support on the production side as well. For example, they regularly use Henry McCoy’s laser at Fine Line Supply Company to engrave their work with the Rabbet Run logo and with other custom features, such as monograms. David said, “There’s a lot of community in what we do. They probably don’t realize it, but a lot of people help us get to the finish line.” He and Jay also agree that Rabbet Run would not be possible without the support of Sandra Hancock, owner of Douglas Cabinet, and Pete Hancock, Sandra’s son and General Manager of Douglas Cabinet. From the beginning, David and Jay have been careful to avoid doing work that overlaps with Douglas Cabinet, and the Hancocks have allowed David and Jay to spend time in the cabinet shop outside of normal work hours. As a result, Rabbet Run has access to equipment they wouldn’t be able to afford on their own. Jay said, “We very much appreciate their support and are loyal to them. They’re an integral part of our business.”
Another benefit of their relationship with Douglas Cabinet is that David and Jay are able to salvage wood that wouldn’t be suitable for cabinets and use it for their projects. For example, one of their favorite types of wood is figured maple, also known as flame maple. In this type of maple, distortion of the wood fibers during growth causes a wavy, textured look that doesn’t work well for cabinets but works beautifully for Rabbet Run projects. In fact, the wood works so well that Jay said, “At least 95% of the people that come by their booth at the Ruston Makers Fair can’t resist touching our work.” It looks textured, but “they’re amazed by the smoothness,” he said.
One thing that Rabbet Run is adamant about is ensuring the quality and functionality of their work. David said that if their boards are properly cared for—hand-washed with soap, not soaked, dried vertically, and polished with mineral and beeswax regularly—they should last forever. A complete list of care instructions, including how to remove stains and lingering smells, accompanies their boards and blocks. Rabbet Run aims to create things that are beautiful enough to display but durable enough to stand up to everyday use and still look good. David said, “We can create something that does what a John Boos block does, but it looks better and lasts as long.” According to David, Boos is one of the leading manufacturers of butcher blocks and cutting boards, but David challenges anyone to compare the look of a Boos block to a Rabbet Run block. “The look of what we do is in the wood itself,” Jay said. Rabbet Run doesn’t use any dyes, stains or scents, and they take care to hand-select each piece of wood, unlike Boos and other mass manufacturers whose boards all look the same.
David said, “If it was the same thing over and over, we wouldn’t do it,” and Jay added, “We don’t want to be everywhere and be generic.” Plus, Rabbet Run cares deeply about the way things look. According to David, they try different patterns and arrangements for the wood until they both agree. Even then, they occasionally discard the final product if it doesn’t turn out as well as expected. The whole process from wood selection to sanding and polishing takes time and keeps the operation small, but Rabbet Run is not interested in mass production.
Both men are motivated by the idea of making something themselves and by the end product. “My grandfather was a postmaster and farmer,” David said, “and my dad built trucks for General Motors. They both produced something with their hands, and being able to do that too—to create something that could potentially last a lifetime—is satisfying.” Similarly, Jay said, “What drives me is building something I’m proud of. I love it when you put that much work in, and people like what you do enough to buy it and tell others about it.” The importance of hard work is something both men learned from their fathers. “We’re not breaking the mold,” David said, “but we’re doing something really nice. We hope the things we make can help make a mundane activity more pleasant.”