The Craftsman Eric Hollenbeck On Making Big Projects Doable - Exclusive

"The Craftsman" is a Magnolia Network series featuring the restoration projects, and skills therein required, that find their way to Eric Hollenbeck's Blue Ox Millworks. In his hometown of Eureka, CA, a place resplendent with period Victorian architecture, Hollenbeck is the resident restorer as well as a longtime neighbor, colleague, and steward. 

We spoke with him about his approach to the work in an exclusive House Digest interview. Hollenbeck explained that his business and wood shop, started more than 40 years ago, and the ensuing endeavors, rarely evolved in a straight line. But that seems to be okay with him, as long as he's growing. 

"Blue Ox and Eric Hollenbeck have most assuredly grown together," he told us. " [My wife] Viviana in the late 1980s said, "We need a catalog to show what we do and get word out and get people to order." ... So I found an old print shop that ... had gone out of business and got the printing press and some type and started trying to figure out how to print a catalog from it. Of course, then the internet came along and catalogs went obsolete overnight," Hollenbeck remarked. 

He described an unexpected foray into producing ceramic tile. "The ceramic shop happened because we did a job for a Victorian. They said, "The contractors — when they were doing the demolition on the house and taking the stuff out, they broke six of these Victorian tiles. Could you remake the Victorian tiles along with the rest of the job?" I needed the rest of the job to stay alive, to keep dinner on the table, so I had to say, "Yeah, no problem." Then I had to figure out how you make tiles. So it's been a process. It's been absolutely organic."

He suggests you start making sawdust

Eric Hollenbeck is particularly engaged and inspired at the stages of a project where he's challenged to resolve something. It's not surprising then, that he allows himself the creative space for learning. He takes pleasure in the journey from beginning to completion; perhaps he sees it as a necessary function of the process. We asked Hollenbeck to share his strategies, whether he's designing a table for a former United States president, replicating the original doors of a historic church, or refurbishing the town trolly. 

"[For] every one of them, I have to learn the exact same first lesson all over again. When we did the hearse, I lost the first three weeks of the year that we had to do it trying to outthink the problem," Hollenbeck described his experience during a reproduction of the hearse that carried Abraham Lincoln. "You can't do that. You don't even know the questions to ask yet," he added. "What you have to do is start making sawdust, start cutting boards, knowing you're going to throw the first couple away because you were off on the wrong tangent." 

Just begin, he encourages — You'll figure it out. "Jump into it feet first and then solve every problem that comes up, because the problems will come up one at a time," he continued. "You can look at them, you can analyze them, and you can solve them one at a time. There's an old proverb that says, "Even a mouse can eat an elephant if it takes small enough bites." 

If you'd like to watch Hollenbeck chew on his next project, tune into "The Craftsman."

"The Craftsman" is now streaming on HBO Max, discovery+, and the Magnolia app.