Against the Grain is a series spotlighting those who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction industry. We speak with people working on projects—from whole-home renovations to intricate wood sculptures—to learn what inspires them, how they’ve carved their own space (pun intended), and what they’re working on next.
Even on Zoom, Kelly DeWitt, the founder of KKDW Construction, is the epitome of laidback and relatable. From the bright and sunny kitchen of her home an hour outside of Austin, Texas, Kelly's warmth never wavered throughout our conversation.
The longer we talked, the clearer it was that DeWitt connects deeply with her company’s mission statement: kindness is the first principle of doing business.
How did you first get interested in woodworking?
Kelly DeWitt: I met my then-boyfriend, now-husband when I was still in school at the University of Texas. He had a cabinet shop at the time, and one of the factors preventing people from getting into woodworking is the amount of money it requires to invest in tools. But, I had them at my fingertips—in this really lovely shop with a skilled woodworker—and I just bugged him a bunch to teach me how to use everything.
He's one of the most talented fabricators I know. He’s a really great steelworker, too—he taught me how to weld. I was still in school at the time just messing around in the shop, building coffee tables and such. Then, people started wanting to buy things from me. I had a regular job, so I was doing this at night and early in the morning—designing and building furniture.
Luckily, I had Margie, with whom I worked in a museum at UT. She was older and wiser. She said to me, “You need to get out of here and go do this.” She and my now-husband were the only people that said, "Go do it.” Everybody else in my life said, “What are you doing? This is stupid.” But here we are, ten years later.
What did you want to do before you found woodworking?
KD: I wanted to be a librarian. I was an English major, and I was going to go to grad school for library sciences.
What project are you most excited about right now?
KD: I’m really excited about everything that's coming up. That's what's so special about this job—my favorite project is always the next one.
A little bit of background: while I started as a very strict furniture designer-maker, what this company has grown into is much bigger than me. I still work to prototype and design, but we now have a team of about four to five people who help manufacture and fabricate everything. So, we take on pretty large scopes of furniture.
Right now, we're working on a couple of offices. It sounds boring to think of an office, but they excite me so much. Our strength is bringing a residential vibe into a commercial space, and that's what we're doing. We design a lot of furniture that someone would want in their home, but it's going into an office. It's an opportunity to be super creative and design a whole new line of furniture for a really big space—it really excites me.
That's what's so special about this job—my favorite project is always the next one.
It sounds like a giant jigsaw puzzle!
KD: You're exactly right. I have little pieces printed out, and I move them around to see how it makes sense. It's a really special place to be as a furniture designer and maker because you get to see your work on such a large scale. It's not just one chair, it's fifteen lounge chairs.
We also have a couple of restaurants that we're designing that are opening. Again, we go in and design all the barstools and tables, things like that.
What kind of companies have you designed for recently?
KD: A lot of tech, which is great. Another exciting thing about my work is that I do all custom designs. I'm able to understand what a company's brand message is, and let that influence the design, as well. Creating a home away from home vibe is our sweet spot—warm woods, welcoming textures, and fabrics.
Is that how you would describe your aesthetic?
KD: It's that exact mentality: we want our spaces to feel warm and welcoming, like a home away from home. Lots of good-feeling woods and textures. I always tell our team that what we do is very simple, embracing simple designs and simple lines. It also should feel good tactically, which is really important to me.
What is the biggest fail that turned into a valuable lesson for you?
KD: Oh, so many things are coming to mind. The main one is that it's okay to have a collaborative effort. I used to feel like it was really important for me to do everything—I felt like I needed to prove myself. Now that I'm older, wiser, and have been doing this for so long, it's clear that things work better when there are a couple of different people involved. Not always—there is such a thing as too many cooks in the kitchen! But, I wouldn't be able to do what I do without the team that I have.
What is the first thing that you ever built?
KD: I remember it so well! It was a coffee table for a dear friend of mine, Lauren Dickens, who did my branding. We did a trade a long time ago in 2013.
When did you realize that this was more than just a hobby?
KD: In the early teens and early 2000s, it was the halcyon days for makers and being able to sell what you've made. It didn't feel scary—it felt like what everybody was doing. I'm really lucky that I was able to grow the business to what it is now, and that it's had the sustainability and growth that it has.
In slightly different ways, we now have two shops: one in East Austin, where most of our team works, and then the other shop is behind my house on my property. It's a new perspective that I have now because I don’t have to be on the production side. I'm able to prototype and think about things in a different way, which is great.
If budget and time were no constraint, what would you love to build?
KD: Great question, I never thought of that. I would love to build…this is going to sound cheesy, but what I'm doing now.
What is your dream project within the realm of what you’re doing now?
KD: It would be great to have some sort of compound where I'm able to do a bar/restaurant design, and also some hospitality. Something on a really big scale. I would love to have a big set of acres, bring several buildings together, and make you feel like you're in a lovely spot where people can feel inspired and welcome.
What's one thing that you wish more people understood about woodworking?
KD: It's not as hard as people think, which is a big part of why I want to empower other people to get into this industry. I feel like there are so many hurdles that people see—and they're not always wrong, but it's not that hard to start.
If you're interested in this and you want to do it, just try. You can get some cheap hand tools, and you don't need a ton of space. There are lots of different ways that you can start that don't break the bank.
What has been the most rewarding part of learning to build?
KD: You have an idea in your head, you put it down on paper, and then you see it in real life. You're able to touch it and feel it and sit on it or eat at it. There's a powerful, communal aspect to what we do as a company—everything that we build and design is meant to be used communally. Big tables and long benches, big chairs so you can sit across from another person. It's really rewarding to have an idea of how something is going fit together and then see people engaging with it, using it, and connecting with it.
There's a powerful, communal aspect to what we do as a company—everything that we build and design is meant to be used communally.
Favorite wood? White oak
Favorite tool or piece of equipment? Table saw
Favorite piece that you’ve made? My couch. I’m sitting on it now, actually. I didn't do the upholstery, so maybe that shouldn’t count. Actually, this sideboard behind me is a favorite, too. These are both really special pieces to me.
Biggest goal? To make people feel like they can do whatever they want to do.
Favorite accessory in the workshop? Air squirter
Favorite step of the process? Either finishing, as putting the finish on, or photographing.
Favorite workshop assistant? Travis
Music on or off? On and loud.
Favorite band or song while you work? Backstreet Boys. Everyone makes fun of me. I listen to a lot of pop music, more Britney Spears than Backstreet Boys, actually. That's what gets me psyched up. Everybody else in the shop listens to cool music, like old country. Not me.