A few years ago, just before the recession, Matt Castilleja was an architecture student.

“When I noticed my friends and colleagues either struggle to find work or lose jobs, I decided to finish a B.A. in college in lieu of a Masters of Architecture so that I could pursue welding and fabrication at a local community college,” he said.

“This switch put me in contact with some high-end metal fabricators after some time, and I began working in the sheet metal industry. The shops I worked for had very high standards of precision in their work, so when I found David Polivka's shop, the transition was fairly smooth.

David Polivka had made high-quality custom furniture in Kansas City for many years after working for another commercial woodworking company.

View of the shop owned by David Polivka for more than 20 years and now operated by Matt Castilleja.

Polivka’s shop was located in the River Market area just north of downtown Kansas City, Missouri. The shop is in the first floor of the old Wells Fargo Stagecoach Building, where they used to check in passengers who were headed west from the Missouri River.

Castilleja said that the David and Michele Polivka first came to this space in 1993 and began building out the shop one machine at a time. Today, there are panel saws, a shaper, widebelt sander, multiple table saws, milling machines and hardware specific drills/ boring machines.

“These are an essential part of the shop, for sure, but the collection of hand tools that are used on a daily basis is what I was most impressed by,” Castilleja said. “If it can be done by hand, we prefer to do it that way. It's all about muscle memory and repetition.”

Castilleja arrived at Polivka’s shop four years ago, looking for an internship to help him learn more about woodworking. When Castilleja began working as an unpaid intern for Polivka, he had to start from square one. Polivka wasn’t easy on the graduate school artist. For Castilleja, the experience was difficult but worthwhile.

“I basically had to unlearn everything that I thought I had learned on my own about woodworking.” Castilleja said. “There's just so much to learn and most of it isn't about the final product, but the process.”

To start, David and Michele Polivka allowed Castilleja to run his own artistic woodworking business and studio apart from theirs in the same building -- on the condition that all work was overseen and worked over with them.

“They would not allow something to leave this shop that did not have their approval in terms of design or fabrication quality,” Castilleja said. “I also worked nights bartending around town. This allowed me to keep normal hours in the shop during the day, then work at night on weekends.

“I started out just sweeping the floors for some time. Just watching him work and sweeping. Then, I began to work on small projects. Eventually, I was handling the majority of the furniture fabrication that came into the shop, while David handled other larger casework projects. Soon, my business began to take off and the transition just fit. Right place, right time, you might say. But, it was not without a lot of work and sacrifice.

Kitchen table by Matt Castilleja

After learning more about woodworking, Polivka taught Castilleja about working with designers, bidding and other business skills

Late last year, David Polivka turned the shop over to Castilleja, including all the shop equipment, all free. The transfer became official in January.

“I was terrified at first,” Castilleja said. “(It was) a tremendous honor for sure, and I just didn't want to let them down. There's a lot of pressure to continue to carry the torch, but this is what I love to do. To have a shop like this at 29 years old is a dream come true. I am very fortunate, so the only thing I can do is to work very hard to produce quality work and try to make my family and the Polivkas proud.

Castilleja said that the biggest challenge in actually running the shop has been to keep up with many different responsibilities. “So many hats to wear, so little time,” he said.

“I work quite closely with various interior designers and architects here in town and abroad. I do not do very much marketing at the moment. Much of the client base is connected by word of mouth. The Polivkas built a sterling reputation of doing the highest quality work in town, so many of my customers used to work with David.”

“(Polivka) has another business in a different field now that takes up the majority of his time,” Castilleja said. “I think he's enjoying a break from the constant grind that is necessary in running a production wood shop.

Polivka’s business, Growpito Technologies LLC (growpito.com), is involved in hydroponic indoor gardening systems and plant cultivation, and shares the building with the woodshop.

Castilleja is now in the process of developing several furniture lines which will be shown at the International Contemporary Furniture Fair show in 2017. He plans to display several pieces such as a dining table, chairs, and accessories.

“(Today) I am currently handling custom furniture and cabinetry jobs, as well as developing lines of furniture to be produced here in the shop,” he said. “As the lines take off, we'll move more in the direction of producing signature pieces of furniture, while accepting custom commissions on a case by case basis.

“I am getting back into doing more sculptural work on the side, much of which I keep under wraps for the time being.

There’s one other change. “The name of the company is now Castilleja, LLC. We specialize in furniture and designed objects. The plan is to pursue signature furniture lines and have them available to the trade and to the public.”

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