Local carpenter building a solid reputation

Wednesday, January 29, 2020 - 09:17
  • Michael Jones measures, and measures again, the dimensions needed to finish a specialty shower for the Arvidson family in Chugiak. The custom project required creativity to make the shower easier to use for Katy Arvidson, who uses a wheelchair. (Photo by Melissa DeVaughn)
  • Michael Jones consults with homeowners Katy and Josh Arvidson on a remodel project to make their new home accessible for Katy. (Photo by Melissa DeVaughn)
  • Michael Jones and his wife, Meghan, collaborate on projects that require artwork, such as this play castle he built and she painted at St. John’s Preschool. Their kids, Catherine, 7 (at top); Anastasia, 5; and Cecelia, 4; and Elliot, 1 (in Meghan’s lap), like it, too. (Photo by Melissa DeVaughn)
  • Marlon Funes-Irias is one of two full-time employees working for Jones. Funes-Irias grew up in Honduras and graduated from Chugiak High in 2018. He did most of the woodwork in the OConnor home, converting a game-processing garage into a guest bedroom. (Photo by Melissa DeVaughn)
  • Jones is working with homeowner Kelly O’Connor to remodel the entire inside of her home off Skyline Drive. This guest bedroom used to be a room used for processing game. (Photo by Melissa DeVaughn)

When Michael Jones was a kid growing up in New York, his favorite color was blue. He wore blue clothes, rode a blue bike and anything he painted or built would be blue.

He favored the color so much, his friends began calling him “Blue Jay,” the “J” representing his last name.

He also had a favorite pastime — building things.

“Literally, since I was 12 years old, I loved to build things,” he said. “My mom gave me a carpentry set when I was 7 or 8.

“I was also our family handyman, fixing loose cabinet doors and helping my mom hang pictures and secure the China cabinet to the wall,” he added. “I used those skills to set booby traps for my brothers, like a bucket of confetti that was connected by a string to the doorknob and would dump on their heads after they got inside a room.”

Fast forward to today, and Jones, 42, has turned those childhood memories into a budding career, building a business whose name plays on his past: Steller Jay Custom Carpentry.

“The Steller’s Jay is a good, tough Alaskan bird; it’s iconic,” he said of the company’s name. “And ‘stellar’ has a positive connotation, for really good work.”

Finally, he liked the nod to his old “Jay” nickname.

Steller Jay Custom Carpentry is one of many fine carpentry businesses in the Eagle River-Chugiak area, and Jones said he knows he is not the most talented or experienced of the lot. However, he said, he has found that customers have come to him particularly hungry for the unique and offbeat. While he happily will take on a kitchen or bathroom remodel, add on a small addition or really anything else a customer wants, he is most excited when a project calls for creativity. He has built everything from custom built-ins and ADA accessible bathrooms to rustic headboards and fairy castles. The more unique the request, the more interested he becomes, even collaborating with his wife, Meghan, for the projects that require an artist’s flair.

“I love for people’s houses to work for them, and helping them verbalize their own vision of what they want,” Jones said of his work. “There are a lot of good builders out there, but not many contractors will sit with a little girl and her dad over a cup of lemonade and talk about the fairy castle she wants.”

Made to order

On a recent subzero afternoon, Jones was working on a bathroom he’s remodeling for new homeowners Josh and Katy Arvidson. Katy uses a wheelchair, so Jones is focusing on creating an open space where she can navigate easily into and out of the shower.

“Katy spends most of her time at home, so we really want it to be a place she enjoys being in a lot of the time,” Jones said.

Katy said she is excited to see the end product, and she feels confident Jones truly understands how she will use the space.

“It has been hard for us to find contractors in the past who could do work like this,” she said. “He was really interested in hearing what we wanted and what our needs are.”

Josh Arvidson said Jones strategized a way to eliminate a lip between the bedroom floor and bathroom tile, knowing it could prove problematic with Katy’s wheelchair. He installed the open shower in such a way that a bench can help her with stability, and the wall behind the backer-board and tile can handle the addition of extra support bars as needed.

“I think he enjoys the process of making something the way somebody really wants it,” Josh added.

Later in the day, at St. John’s Preschool in Chugiak, Jones’ four children — Catherine, 7; Anastasia, 5; Cecelia, 4; and Elliot, 1 — descend on the castle Jones built for the playroom. It’s a simple two-story fort built along the existing wall, with a faux turret, a balcony, a ladder and an enclosed hiding space with a pass-through inside. Jones retrofitted the castle to meet the small room’s dimensions and accommodate a closet door that couldn’t be blocked. When it came time to hand-paint the structure, though, it was Meghan’s turn.

“We’re a good team,” she said of the project. “We checked out Pinterest, we got a pencil and ruler and eraser, and we just tried to start visualizing ideas.”

Jones has since built other play structures, and he said it’s fun to see a kid’s dreams come to fruition. In fact, that’s what gets him fired up about all of his projects, and why he is so careful at the beginning of a job, to make sure he understands his customer’s vision.

Quality over quantity

In a Jan. 8 article, HGTV writer Deanne Revel said one of the top home and decor trends in 2020 is to bring back the unique. Consumers don’t want their houses to look like every other house on the street and they want their décor to reflect that same individuality.

“The pendulum is swinging back to quality and attention to details,” she wrote.

Also making a comeback this year, according to Revel, is wood paneling – but not your grandparents’ faux-wood, flimsy stuff. Today’s paneling is lighter in tone, made of solid wood, and trimmed out with a craftsmen’s precision. It much resembles the garage-to-bedroom makeover Jones and his apprentice, 22-year-old Marlon Funes-Irias, helped build in Kelly O’Connor’s Skyline Drive home. O’Connor said she originally found Jones through Yelp reviews (“I love reviews and I read them”) and feels she now has a carpenter she can trust — which is vital, since she lives in California and communicates mostly via phone and text.

Jones is meticulously remodeling the entire upstairs interior of the O’Connor home, but he started with the downstairs last year, first with a laundry room, then turning the garage — once used for processing game meat — into an inviting guest room with a view of Denali.

O’Connor said she is extremely particular, and was impressed Jones was willing to listen to, and deliver, exactly what she wanted.

“I had a specific feel I wanted for the space,” she said of the bedroom. “What I really love about Michael is that he has this finish carpentry gift. If I say, ‘This is an old banister, I need it to look like this, but not be perfect,’ he gets it.”

Jones said with clients like the Arvidsons and O’Connor, no two days are the same, and that’s exactly what he loves best about his work; the more challenging the project, the more fulfilled he feels.

“I like the relationships that I create,” he said. “It’s a lot about who you work for. I’ll build a retaining wall for someone I like.”

Melissa DeVaughn is an Eagle River freelance writer and the former editor of the Alaska Star. In addition to being a freelance writer and editor, she also serves as the head track coach at Chugiak High.

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