Alumni Focus: The sweetest smell

After losing his dad, UND civil engineering alum devotes himself to carpentry, a trade his father taught him

Jacob and Aubrey Barney lead Timber & Ash Designs, a custom woodwork shop in Grand Forks, which came about after Jacob returned to carpentry, a craft his father taught him.

The smell of freshly-cut wood immediately brings Jacob Barney back to his childhood, working alongside his father in his carpentry shop. Jacob’s dad’s business was called Prairie Builders, a small construction company, based out of Michigan, N.D.  And though it was his dad’s business, it was in a way Jacob’s too – at least in the eyes of a little boy who looked up to his father like Jacob did.  “Every carpentry skill I know I learned from him,” Jacob smiled.

As the years went by and Jacob left home to attend college at the University of North Dakota, he continued to return to Michigan during the summers to work in the family shop. “It’s something I’ve always loved to do. It’s ingrained in me,” said Jacob of his wood-working abilities.

At UND, Jacob chose to major in civil engineering. It seemed like the perfect fit given the skills he’d acquired as a kid building homes with his dad. “Geometry, precision, attention to detail – these are all things that hold true in both carpentry and engineering,” Jacob explained.

After graduating from UND in 2012, Jacob was hired as a civil engineer at AE2S in Grand Forks. He met the love of his life, Aubrey (Schulz), ’11, and everything was going as “planned,” until the unforeseen happened. In February 2013, Jacob received the devastating phone call that his best friend, teacher and mentor – his father – had been killed in an accident.

“I couldn’t bring myself to build anything right away. The memories of building with him – it was all too hard,” he said.

But, as the days and months passed by, something stirred inside of Jacob, and that nostalgic smell of sawdust from freshly-cut wood was one he desired once again. Using the carpentry tools he had inherited – each marked in his father’s handwriting with the initials “PB” for Prairie Builders – Jacob started to build once again. “After Aubrey and I got married and moved into our first home together she asked me to make a few things for the house. That first time I cut wood and smelled that smell – I don’t know, I went from sad to happy and the good memories started flowing back,” he explains.

After Jacob started making custom floating shelves for his wife, he decided to sell a few online. Soon, the orders started coming in and Jacob kept building. “It just took off and then I started making some small tables and other custom furniture pieces for people, mostly family and friends.”

Barney utilizes his late father’s tools, inscribed with the initials of the business the family owned.

Fast-forward five years and Jacob is still hard at work – using the skills and qualities his dad instilled in him at he and Aubrey’s new business, Timber & Ash Designs in Grand Forks. As a custom-woodworker, Jacob says he’ll build what the client wants. “We specialize in unique items ranging in size from art pieces and mantles all the way to dining and conference tables. In addition to custom projects we also cater to contractors and DIYers by supplying everything they need to create a project of their own,” he says.

Jacob says the number one thing his dad taught him is that there is no substitute for quality and precision. This mindset held true during his days as a civil engineering student at UND, in his job at AE2S, and is one he honors on every custom wood-working project he touches. “If I am off a 32nd of an inch, it isn’t good enough and I will fix it,” Jacob explains.

If still alive today, Jacob knows his dad would be right alongside him, smiling and sawing away. Having peace that isn’t how it can be, Jacob will work joyfully in honor of his dad, breathing in those sweet sawdust smells and precious memories.

About the Author:Leanna Ihry

Leann Ihry, ’02, is an Impact Writer at the University of North Dakota Alumni Association and Foundation. Since graduating from UND with a degree in communication in 2002, Ihry, a native of Leeds, N.D., has had an extensive career in public/community affairs and local television media in Grand Forks.