Steve Ballenger’s cabinetry business is in a rented cinder-block building on Main Street in Bayboro. Inside, it feels like a large basement with two small, high windows. On a desk in the front room, a guitar sits in an open guitar case next to an open Bible. Fishing rods stand on a rack, well-organized. A pink shirt and tie hang from a punching bag. The space heater is unplugged. Everything is covered in sawdust.
Further inside the space, Steve, 66, stands with his arms folded tight against his chest as he explains the details and language of woodwork to me. He specializes in mortise and tenon joints that rarely split or crack, even when flooded (a concern here on the coast); tongue and groove shelves; and muntins and mullions for window glass. All are done by hand.
“Many said I would never succeed, that I take too much time, that my materials are too expensive. But I do it right.” He blushes as he says this. He blushes easily.
“I only do it my way,” he says many times in our hour-long conversation.
Steve has Tourette’s syndrome, a neurological disorder that can send a person into involuntary movements and frequent verbal outbursts. Steve’s case is mild.
“I remember the exact names of the teachers in high school who told me I would never amount to anything,” he says. “It was the 1960s. No one knew what this was. After I graduated from high school, I went from job to job. I was always the one getting laid off, always the one out the door. Even the Army didn’t want me.”
On a whim one day, he decided to try building homes because nothing else was working out. He gradually shifted to cabinetry because he liked focusing on details.
“I never learned numbers. I taught myself,” he says of his trade. “And it came to me like a duck in water. I liked building things right. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
His workspace is a deep room, large enough to fit cabinets for several kitchens. Dust hangs in the air. A large wooden island sits in the center—his current project for a couple from Rhode Island building a new home in the county. Clamps squeeze the joints as glue dries. Drawers made with dovetail joints are everywhere. A large industrial machine for making square holes for face frames is hidden behind wood projects for libraries and bathrooms. More than 30 long clamps hang from a rack.
Aside from a small sign on the building, Steve doesn’t advertise. He doesn’t have to. For 26 years he has been busy with local work via word of mouth. He started in his garage in New Bern. A few years later he rented a workshop in New Bern, and then another, but it was ruined during Hurricane Irene in 2011. A wooden wine rack and corner cupboard survived the flooding from the hurricane, something he credits to the care he takes assembling a piece, a true selling point. Since then, he relocated to Bayboro, where he is never without work. It can take several weeks to finish a piece of furniture, and three to four months for an entire kitchen; prices depend on size and difficulty. He normally works with home owners.
“I take care of my people,” he says. “And what is two extra months compared to the 30 extra years it will last?”
Steve says he likes working with hardwoods like maple, cherry, walnut and mahogany because they “bite better,” meaning it holds nails and cuts better than softer, cheaper woods.
A dry-erase board on a refrigerator in a corner bears a note in red marker, adorned with hearts: “Robin loves Steve.”
I learned about Steve in an email Robin, his wife, wrote to me. They have been married for 48 years and have four children and 12 grandchildren.
“I am his wife and I am proud of him,” she wrote.
If you have ideas for future bulletins, feel free to message or email me: downinthecountyPC@gmail.com