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Meet the Maker: Jesse Kemp

Jesse Kemp, owner of Kemp Fine Woodworking, is evolving his business to meet his passions: crafting custom, quality pieces and traveling.

By Peyson Sheilds

Jul 2018

Jesse Kemp of Kemp Fine Woodworking
Photo by Brandon AlmsJesse Kemp has built a decades-old career creating custom-built furniture of the highest quality, and now his business is evolving. Purchase Photo

Walk through a double-story garage door near downtown Springfield and your eyes immediately land on a sea-foam green wood planer from the ’80s standing almost as tall as the garage door itself. Although the machinery and layers of two-by-fours make it obvious this is a woodworking shop, powdery sawdust is nowhere to be seen. Tabletops are littered with cardboard for notes and measurements. Small cubby holes are meticulously organized with supplies. An oblong gallery wall dons saws, hammers and a variety of other necessary tools, some of which have spanned Jesse Kemp’s 25 years in and out of woodworking.

A self-proclaimed recovering perfectionist, Kemp stayed busy as a kid using a pocketknife to whittle wood into bows and arrows, but his paid gigs really started with an adjustable plant stand Kemp made for his grandmother—an item she still has—at just 12 years old. “From a young age, my parents and grandparents supported me in what I loved doing,” says Kemp, who specializes in custom woodworking, including furniture and cabinets. 

Kemp served in the U.S. Navy, studied sociology at Missouri State University and worked at different shops, but he always came back to woodworking and continued to hone his craft. In 2007, he opened Kemp Fine Woodworking in the same workshop as a custom chair maker. Now, Kemp shares the same space with his mentor who taught him how to make doors. As the sole employee, he focuses on quality and customization. It’s the true mission statement of a perfectionist. “I use locally sourced materials whenever possible,” Kemp says. “Including my own sawmill operation milling urban reclaimed timber.”

“Being good at something and working as an employee is completely different than starting a business in that same field.”
Photo by Brandon Alms

"[Traveling] bettered me mentally and personally and put into perspective what’s really important—and working 365 days a year wasn’t one of them."

Photo by Brandon Alms

The sea-foam green wood planer is hard to miss inside Jesse Kemp's woodworking studio where he crafts one-of-a-kind furniture.

Photo by Brandon Alms

"I'm a big fan of local walnut. I think it's the prettiest [wood] and has great workability."

Although woodworking and an eye for detail come naturally to Kemp, the administration side of things isn’t the same story. “The biggest challenge by far is the ‘business’ part,” he says. “Being good at something and working as an employee is completely different than starting a business in that same field. My biggest advice to anyone, including my younger self, is to read anything you can get your hands on.” He especially recommends The E-Myth by Michael E. Gerber.

Beyond his passion for crafting lasting pieces, Kemp loves to disconnect and spend time traveling. That balance has inspired his 2018 business goal: Work half the year and spend the other half traveling. “I’ve always enjoyed doing different things,” he says. “Traveling is one of them. About three years ago, I took an entire year off. While it didn’t get me ahead financially, it bettered me mentally and personally and put into perspective what’s really important—and working 365 days a year wasn’t one of them.”

Cutting back on working days isn’t an overnight decision. Kemp outlined a business plan and crunched the numbers because, as he says, they never lie. Luckily, Kemp’s minimalistic style of living has made it easier to evolve his business. A simple style of living helps to make his goals a reality. This year, he has work lined up until September and then is planning to spend the last few months of 2018 out of the shop and following the open road.