Forgotten Treasures: Eric Hollenbeck Is ‘The Craftsman’
Far north of San Francisco sits the exquisite oceanside town of Eureka, California, known as one of California’s best-kept secrets for its giant redwoods, remote ocean landscapes and ornate timeless Victorian homes. The town also serves as home to about 25,000, including woodworking extraordinaire Eric Hollenbeck, a self-taught master woodworker who’s built his life around preserving and restoring buildings and items of the past. Hollenbeck is the delightful subject of Magnolia Network’s series The Craftsman airing Thursdays at 8pmET. The series is also available on the network’s streaming platform discovery+.
Born and raised in Eureka, the 70-plus-year-old Hollenbeck has spent the last four decades restoring historic relics through his family-owned business Blue Ox Millworks, which he started with a $300 bank loan. Cameras follow Hollenbeck and his family as he shows viewers the fascinating craftsmanship and self-worth that goes into preserving historic pieces. Episodes explore the history and restoration techniques needed to preserve things like finials and corbels to a trolley car from the 1880s, a call box in the historic Carson Mansion and much more.
Unable to read or write, Hollenbeck dropped out of school in his teens and headed into Eureka’s woods for work, where he forged for equipment and tools that essentially built his expansive workshops he uses today. With his pipe in hand, Hollenbeck chatted with us about this somewhat lost craft and why it’s so important to him to pass along his talent to the next generation.
“I’ve worked with my hands because I can’t read, and I can’t spell,” he shares. “I was born with a handicap, but life gives each one of us a compensator — something that we’re extra good at — and for me, it was working with my hands. That was my compensator.”
Hollenbeck describes his mind as mechanical. He’s gifted with a talent that helps him visualize how things work. In the third grade, his first real big wood project was with his best buddy Dennis, where they built a boat. Laughing, Hollenbeck recalls, “We went out and painted the whole boat with tar, and that’s how we made it semi-waterproof.”
If there’s one thing Hollenbeck would like younger generations to take away from the series it’s that you can start from nothing and build your own success.
“Forty-nine years later, we’re still here,” he says. “There was never any money to go buy equipment, so I either had to find it for free laying in the woods or find something that I could trade labor for. I could make them something and trade for it. I had to get the old junk nobody else wanted and then bring it and refurbish it. I could take it apart, see how it worked, see what was broken and make a new part for it and put it back together, paint it and then teach myself how to use it.”
Hollenbeck’s workshops are as historic as the pieces he works on. Viewers will be enthralled and educated on not just the process of restoration but on the history of the equipment he uses. In the end, it’s Hollenbeck that is the true treasure.