West Barnstable woodworker has crafted a niche making custom stairways and bannisters
When was the last time you really thought about a stairway you were descending, the feel of the handrail and the steps beneath you? It’s easy to overlook a permanent architectural fixture like stairs, and many people do. Matthew Kennedy is not one of those people.
A West Barnstable resident, Kennedy has been designing and building specialty stairs and handrails for most of his life. He began apprenticing at his father’s stairway company at the age of 10. Today, 20 years later, he’s making a name for himself with his own business, M.C. Kennedy Woodworking, which he started in 2009.
Building a business
Kennedy says the craft of woodworking is in his genes. His father, Michael, was a stair builder, and his great-grandfather was a woodworker and custom home builder. From a young age, Kennedy knew he needed to do something creative for his profession, and he always enjoyed working at his dad’s shop.
“I loved working with my hands, and I knew stairs could be a creative outlet for me,” Kennedy says. “At night I would stay and make things on my own; I made a table for myself, and I made a shelf that I ended up giving to a friend who hung it in his glass shop in downtown Hyannis.”
In 2004 Kennedy’s father bought a vacation house in Florida. When he spent time there, he left his son in charge of the business. Though he had been in the industry for only eight years at that point, Kennedy had already developed a passion for woodworking, and he kept the business operating smoothly. Within a few years, the elder Kennedy decided to sell the business and move to Florida full time. He offered to sell his son the shop, but because of the recession in 2008, Kennedy, in the interest of staying out of debt, opted to build his own business from the ground up. He purchased a few necessary tools and, at 23, started M.C. Kennedy Woodworking out of a small shop on his mother’s property in Marstons Mills.
“My dad gave me his contacts, and I started picking up clients on my own,” Kennedy says. “Some job sites, some builders, they had seen my work when my dad was in Florida. But some didn’t see that side of me, so I had to earn their respect. That was challenging.”
One convert is Gary Souza, president and owner of Rogers & Marney, Inc., an Osterville-based building company. “I really consider Matt an artist,” Souza says. “Some of the work he does is more sculptural than anything else. He received good training with his dad, but I think he’s taken it to another level.”
From his father’s client list of mostly contractors and builders, Kennedy says he has branched out and developed a niche working for homeowners. These jobs have turned out to be his favorites because he gets to design each stairway himself and work closely with clients to craft perfect layouts that they’ll love.
“I’m always working with homeowners to make the design really special and perfect,” he says. “I pick the client’s brain as much as possible. I like working with builders, too. Sometimes they don’t even know that I’m going to throw in some little detail, but I like doing it.”
Don’t rush the creative process
A peek inside Kennedy’s brain might very well look like one of those endless stairway illusion illustrations by M.C. Escher. That’s because he’s constantly envisioning and designing stairways in his head.
“When I take on a complicated project, it’s 24/7 for me,” Kennedy says. “I’m going home and thinking about what’s next, laying it out to see if it’s going to work. When someone presents a project and I know it can be done, the challenge is figuring out how. I get so obsessed.”
Kennedy has become known for his specialty handrail fittings, or how the handrail flows along the stairs. While there are many ways to achieve different handrail styles, Kennedy says he has mastered a rare technique that opens many doors for his designs. The technique, a tangent handrail system, dates back to the 1700s and uses trigonometry and oblique planes to help craftsmen carve a wreathing, or curving, handrail from a solid piece of wood.
“It is a lost art,” Kennedy says. “There are very few people that can do it and do it efficiently. Code says your hand cannot leave the handrail per flight of stairs. If there’s a landing, typically you would come up with a gooseneck and it’d be mitered, then make a 90-degree angle. That can feel awkward. But with the wreathing, it’s a smooth and flowing handrail.”
Osterville residents Michael and Trudy Sullivan commissioned Kennedy to build for their home a Chinese Chippendale railing, an English design that dates back to the 18th century. “Matt was intrigued by the design, and he came back with a drawing of his own with only minor changes from the original design,” Michael Sullivan says. “His workmanship is superb. He is world class—he could take this anywhere in the world.”
Liz Jones, who hired Kennedy to design the stairway in her East Orleans home, agrees. “He’s an unbelievable craftsman, especially in an age when that sort of work and art is being lost.”
When he gets home from a day at the shop or build site, Kennedy still has stairs on the brain. From perfecting a layout to poring over books about everything from architecture to the techniques used by 18th-century craftsmen, he’s consumed with his craft. He believes this dedication sets him apart from others in the industry, and also propels him forward by providing endless problems to solve.
“Not everybody does what I do,” Kennedy says. “I don’t think they’re going home thinking about work. When I’m lying in bed, in my head I’m watching myself cut a piece of wood or something. When I come across a new design, I’ll grab one of my books and re-read that section. I am always learning and thinking about this stuff.”
At 30, Kennedy loves his craft more than ever. He’s continually drawing inspiration from new books and antique handrail pieces he finds at architectural salvage stores. He is happy with the organic growth of his company, and he never wants to have so many projects that he can’t work on them himself. He’s currently designing a new shop, which will sit 100 feet from his house on six acres in West Barnstable. With the groundbreaking slated for spring, he says the new shop will be a strategic upgrade from his current setup and a definite mark of his success.
Kennedy says he measures success by the satisfaction he feels looking at his own craftsmanship, the lasting connections he makes with clients, and his continuing hunger for the work.
“To become successful, being productive is key,” he says. “It’s not the money. I have had success—not 100 percent—but I’m still going. I’ve found a root (reason) why I’m standing here today. It’s because I always walk out of a room smarter than when I walked in. I ask questions—and I listen.”
For more information on Matt Kennedy’s work, visit kennedystairways.com, or call 508-326-2986.
A resident of Boston and Cape Cod, Ashley Owen manages public relations and media for a nonprofit in Boston.