It’s fitting that Philip Howard lives next door to the home once owned by Charlie Russell in the town of Cascade.
The 61-year Eastern Montana native could be considered an artist himself when it comes to his fine furniture that’s featured in Montana homes and across the nation.
In November of 2014, Howard was looking to leave bustling Bozeman behind. He almost bought the Two Dot schoolhouse, but settled instead on a run-down building in Cascade that just a few years earlier was nearly home to a medical marijuana growing operation.
"My specialty is that I’ll try it," said Howard when asked to describe his style of making furniture.
It’s a trade he mostly taught himself to master. Now, his tables, chairs, bookcases, headboards, and more have been sought by buyers from the Big Sky to the Big Apple.
Howard says he was once asked to build a wood-carved desk by a buyer.
“They said, ‘Who are you going to get to carve it?’ and I said, ‘I’m going to carve it,’” said Howard. Now one of his wood-carved desks resides in New York’s Rockefeller Center.
Howard’s college days were spent in the philosophy department at the University of Montana.
"There wasn’t anything else I was interested in studying other than studying how we think, and spending time thinking about thinking, which is what I do as a furniture maker," said Howard.
After a stint in the merchant marines in Southeast Texas, he made his way back to Montana where his love for backpacking led him to the Bitterroot and the Bob Marshall Wilderness.
His early career as a carpenter took him to Choteau, Sheridan, and Dillon. The Beaverhead Valley was where he discovered the writings of woodworking guru James Krenov.
"It was a lot about lifestyle and how you wanted to live and what he (Krenov) told people was, if you’re trying to sell your work, talk about the wood!"
Howard later moved his family to Ennis where word of his woodworking skills got around. He was hired to do a remodeling job at the bank. That led to a job offer from the town veterinarian.
"He basically said, ‘Would you spend my life savings and build me a house?’" recalled Howard.
He said he was burned out on the carpentry industry and had to think about it for a day. When he agreed, he was given full autonomy on the project. From the shingles to the stone and stucco to designing the home, it was also where he found his flair for making furniture.
It’s where he built his first wooden chairs which he claims are still the most comfortable chairs he’s ever sat in, and says people still tell him the same.
Howard and his ex-wife wanted give their kids a broader taste of culture, so he moved the family to Bozeman in 1994. He says the timing in the building industry was right.
"There was those subdivisions that had gone broke in the late 80’s and it was changing around,” said Howard. “There were two interior designers at that time and they both hired me, and I started making furniture."
Before leaving Bozeman in 2014, he took part in a major remodel at Holy Rosary Catholic Church, redoing the altar furniture.
"That kind of makes it all worthwhile to have your work in a place like that, that’s going to be cared for, and has spiritual meaning, it was fabulous."
Unlike other workers on the church project, Howard did most of his work at night. He says he prefers the solitude and was even given his own key to the church to work after hours.
That love for solitude also helped lead him to the small town life in Cascade.
"Cascade is kind of like living in a national park without all the national park stuff,” said Howard. “My neighbors give me access to both sides of the river. So when it gets too intense in here I can step out into the great wide open."
His works can be viewed on his website, which has drawn interest from as far away as Kuwait.
He likes to finish many of his pieces with exotic veneers. They include ebony wood from Laos and Brazilian Rosewood which is on a list of exotics that can no longer be imported to the United States.
Howard says the greatest demand for his work is in the Gallatin and Paradise Valleys. He says that’s the area where demand for his type of furniture is the greatest.
Howard, who is also an accomplished triathlete, says he’s always been a worker, and will continue to be until the day he dies.
"My epitaph would be Phil Howard, worker; or Phil Howard, man on earth. Those are the only two I can come up with."