Self-taught woodworker Richard Eberle is a throwback to artisans of old.
The 35-year-old furniture maker and small business owner completes every aspect of a job himself — with an occasional tweak from his wife’s eye for design — from finding the wood and sawmilling to cutting and finishing.
No CNC machine; all sourced, designed and crafted by hand. It’s the foundation on which he built his business, Richard Eberle Furniture & Design of Conway. And while he’s not in the business of giving his work away, Eberle goes about it with a singular focus: creating pieces of furniture that become treasured heirlooms.
His goal is to create furniture that customers will want to hand down to their kids and could even be passed down for generations. That’s the standard he sets for himself. His is no quick-fix, fill-a-need shop.
And people are drawn to this anti-IKEA approach, a return to the pre-mass production days of creating something of true quality, built to last, even if the process takes longer. Because of this approach, Eberle’s custom-made, Arkansas hardwood pieces are drawing attention from across the state and, in this digital age, beyond.
Besides, what Arkansan wouldn’t be immediately drawn to a handcrafted coffee table in the shape of a Razorback, or one in the shape of the state itself?
For Eberle, profit takes a back seat to perfection. The satisfaction he receives from completing a job is reward enough. That Eberle taught himself the craft at age 26 makes that satisfaction especially rewarding.
“Since I didn’t go to school for this, it’s just been a journey of learning and failure and trying again and getting back up. It brings me a lot of joy to see somebody kind of gasp when they see the beauty of the wood that’s not been stained, but it’s using the natural hardwoods and the beauty of that.
“It always brings me a lot of joy to see somebody appreciate good work in a day and age where everybody loves something that looks beautiful, and they want to manufacture it really fast, but it’s cheap and it doesn’t last.”
Eberle has no showroom for customers to browse. His is a process lent specifically to craftsmanship, and his business model is strictly custom-order. He creates all makes of furniture as well as countertops, built-ins and bookshelves, and backs up each piece with a lifetime warranty for the original owner covering any fault in craftsmanship or defect in the wood.
And it all starts with a conversation. This isn’t an order of nuggets at Chick-Fil-A, after all. As his company tagline makes clear, this is handcrafted furniture built for a lifetime. Eberle said his lead times can last from six to 12 weeks.
“When someone reaches out to me, we get a little bit of an initial design, and I try to feel them out because I do have a lot of tire kickers,” he said. “When someone reaches out and says they’re very serious about buying a piece, some have an idea of what they want. Some people have no clue. And so, it really just begins a conversation. And that’s what I love about being highly custom. I’m not just put in a box. I really want to help people discover really what they want and what they’re looking for. And sometimes they don’t even know it.”
Eberle is one of the few who see the inner beauty in the wood he crafts. He gets his wood where he can find it, be that friends in the tree service business or even scouring his own property. He also sources wood from local sawmills and suppliers. And when he was still in Fayetteville, Eberle sourced wood from old buildings and houses when the home renovation/flipping craze was at its peak.
But he doesn’t take living trees that otherwise don’t need to be cut.
“I don’t want to cut down a tree to cut down a tree. I’m just not one to do that,” he said. “I have some people who say, ‘Hey, you just want to come cut this tree out and take the wood?’ And I’m like, ‘No, not really.’ If this tree is healthy and still alive, leave it, and let it be and grow. But if it has to come down for some reason, I do love to be able to take it and give it a second life, so it’s not taken to the dump or burned as firewood when there’s a great inner beauty inside of it that can be turned into something.”
Eberle’s woodworking journey started those nine years ago in Fayetteville with a hammer, a hand saw, a drill and a pry bar. Then living in Fayetteville with his wife, current UCA chemistry professor Julie — she of the company design department — in graduate school, Eberle started to “piddle” with reclaimed wood, as his father, Mike Eberle, describes it.
“His skill just continued to develop,” Mike said. “His focus was always more artsy, but he had never really used it.”
Richard, a youth pastor with a degree in social work before the woodwork bug bit, didn’t inherit his craftsman bent from his dad, but he did inherit a family aptitude for entrepreneurship. Mike launched and owns his own insurance agency in Sherwood, Eberle Insurance, and his grandfathers on either side, as well as his paternal great grandfather, were small business owners.
“He took a big leap of faith,” Mike said. “This is his ministry now.”
Much of Eberle’s style and approach was learned from a Conway physical therapist who happened to sell him a Hitachi router through an online marketplace. Rick DeRouge is an accomplished woodworker in his own right. But instead of selling his pieces, he makes them for friends and family and even created each piece of furniture in his house.
DeRouge made a big impression when Eberle went to pick up the router.
“I’d never met somebody who made the level of the quality of work that he had,” Eberle said. “And I just remember asking him, ‘Do you sell your stuff?’ And he said, ‘No, I build for legacy. I have a job, and I do what I love. This is what I do for fun.’”
And thus Eberle was inspired to take a new look at how he approached his craft.
“That next day I actually shut down my business. I didn’t really take a lot of orders from people and just really focused on learning and continuing to push myself in really high-end fine woodworking. Just had him mentor me and take some time. Instead of producing a lot of stuff, I took several years to say, ‘You know what, if it takes me six months to make something, it takes me six months, because I want to just make it as best as I can.’”
And DeRouge said Eberle has excelled with this approach.
“I may have sparked in him that feeling of working hard and doing something at a high level that means something. And he’s taken it to a very high level. He appreciates that there’s something about making something that as a society we’ve lost a little bit. That feeling of honest labor working with your hands.”
Appreciation for the craftsmanship notwithstanding, launching his own business indeed was a leap of faith for Eberle, especially as a woodworker with no formal training. Walking a “razor’s edge of success or failure” will motivate a person, especially a husband and a father, he said. And it’s been a self-described journey of learning and failure, of trying again and getting back up.
“This isn’t a big, lucrative thing I’m doing; it’s not something that everybody’s running out to do,” he said. “It’s a lot of hard work, and it’s a big risk because, you know, is there a market for it in Arkansas? And then too, the time. It’s not really something you can do on the side to provide for a family. You’ve gotta fully throw yourself into it.
“It brings me a lot of satisfaction that I’m getting to do what I want to do, even though there are days it’s scary, when you wonder when the next piece or project or paycheck is going to come in. There’s also deep satisfaction that I’m kind of on this adventure of kind of paving my own way and setting an example for my family. And even that, you know, there is the risk of failure. But again, life’s too short to be scared of failing.”
Eberle wants to expand, but never to the point where he’s anywhere close to mass production. His business model will remain decidedly retro. As a one-man shop, Eberle relies on family and friends both for the ethereal and the tangible — from Julie’s design suggestions and presence with him “in the trenches” to friends helping move, install, even brainstorm.
This help affords Eberle the opportunity to focus on the craft.
“I always want to do very high custom work and focus on the quality of the craft,” he said. “And I would love to have some apprentices one day who want to come in and continue to learn a skill that takes time to develop. I look back at those artisans, knowing that they put in the time. And that’s the thing. It’s just not something where you’re going to be able to go out and buy a bunch of tools and say, ‘Oh, I can build this whatever.’
“It’s just deeply satisfying to work with your hands and take something that’s raw like wood and make it into a very functional and beautiful piece that families are going to use and enjoy for a lifetime, and hopefully, past that lifetime.”