It Started with a Spark

Emmett Russell leaves his mark on a city dear to his heart.

Some might say he was lucky. Or that he was at the right place at the right time, he connected with the right people, he had some good cards. 

But Emmett Russell would say he worked for everything he has earned in his career as a functional artist, and he did it all for his family — son Ethan, 19, daughter Emma, 21, stepson Sam, 31, and wife Nancy, whom he calls his rock. 

“I think it goes right along with putting your head down and doing good work and being a good person,” Emmett says. “I think you have to do all of those things for that success to come.” 

Emmett, the owner of Russellbilt, masterfully transforms metal and wood into custom furniture, clocks, signage, staircases, railings, kitchen hoods, and awnings. Through collaborations with Aarow Building, Anderson Homes, and other top home builders around Columbia, his custom work can be found in over 100 homes around the region, while his furniture and signage enhance businesses and restaurants like Fretboard Coffee, Barred Owl Butcher & Table, and Silverball. 

“I can walk into a home where a builder wants a staircase and I can see it,” Emmett says. “When I’m done with a piece, it looks how I visualized it. For signage, I take into consideration where it is going, the feel of their space and what kind of business they have. It’s the same for furniture. I consider what type of space they’re building — contemporary, modern, rustic — and I can envision what works in that space.” 

Though Emmett says he was always artistic, and he frequently spent time drawing and painting as a kid, his full-time work had mostly been in fabrication and assembly, welding trailers and custom machinery and building motor homes. He first learned to weld on the job when a co-worker was fired and he volunteered to learn the trade. With his background in fabrication, Emmett has built many large projects, learning as much as he could from draftsmen and other welders and fabricators. 

“I didn’t know it then, but I told my wife when I was 24 that I just wanted to build cool stuff and sell it,” Emmett says. 

While he has found success as a working artist, he says it comes only as a result of his dedication and his hustle mentality. After working tirelessly to refine his skills, the day that Emmett’s art installation went into the Gateway Plaza at the corner of Providence and Broadway was a high point in his career as a professional artist. Personally, the opportunity to create a piece for such a prominent location in the city was especially symbolic for him. 

“To build something and put it into the middle of Columbia, and to leave my mark, that’s a pretty neat opportunity,” Emmett says. “It’s almost like my time in Columbia came full circle, and that means a lot to me. More than what most people know.” 

Emmett’s son Ethan, who was born with autism, is the reason he heads to his 4,000-square-foot shop, located just steps from his front door, each day. When Ethan was born, Emmett and Nancy were living in Iowa, but the couple soon found that locating services for Ethan was a challenge. Emmett says he began an online search for cities with more robust services, and they quickly identified Columbia as the frontrunner. The Russell family relocated in 2009. 

“With family in St. Louis, we felt comfortable moving to Columbia,” he says. “In the midst of planning the move, we also found out Ethan needed a kidney transplant, so when we moved to Columbia, he got his transplant, we were getting great help for his autism, and there was a great job for my wife at the university.” 

With the move to Columbia, Emmett first launched Russellbilt. At the time, Russellbilt was a home improvement business. At night, Emmett says, he spent hours in a small one-car garage, where he first began to create custom furniture. Though his skills weren’t yet up to par, he continued to practice and refine them with each project. 

In the years after their move to Columbia, Emma also had a kidney transplant, and Ethan had a second kidney transplant, both at MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital. As Ethan got older, it became more evident that Ethan would need lifelong care, and the Russell family was committed to providing that care at home.

“The goal has always been for me to work in my own shop and be on our property so if I need to shut the doors to the shop and be with [Ethan], I could do so,” Emmett says. “I knew I was going to make this transition, it had always been a goal. I just didn’t know when.” 

That opportunity to transition to a more flexible schedule came in 2017 with his first big staircase project, and Russellbilt transitioned from home improvement to custom projects. 

“I started working for Stephen Rust, and he and I worked on the first staircase project,” Emmett says. “I always say I was a packed snowball on the wrong hill, and he put me on the right hill and rolled me down it. He believed in me, and that was all the fuel I needed. Stephen put me in the places I needed to be and believed I could do it, and then I took the steps to do it, no pun intended.” 

As his opportunities began to expand locally, Emmett began showcasing his work on social media. After comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan began following him on Instagram, Emmett reached out and asked if he could build him a custom piece. The grandfather clock that Emmett shipped to Joe was visible in every podcast that played on YouTube. A year ago, Joe contacted Emmett and asked for a clock for his new studio. 

“He shouted me out several times on the podcast for that,” Emmett says. “That word of mouth has paid off so well. He asked to pay for the clock and I told him no. I’ve been paid back in full from the shoutouts. He mentioned my name on the podcast, and when I had things for sale on my website, everything would sell out. There was no need for him to send me money.” 

His posts and videos on Instagram have also connected Emmett to sponsorship opportunities. After contacting a company to inquire about some of their equipment, Emmett says that the owner began following him on Instagram, and he has since been sponsored by the company. 

“I’m an ambassador for FastCut CNC, which makes CNC plasma machines,” Emmett says. “They sent me a CNC plasma machine that I use to cut out my artwork and base plates, and it allows me to do things a lot quicker and more accurately. Before the CNC, I did all the work by hand. I’m a little dude in Missouri and I get to be part of this family. It’s a really cool opportunity from social media.” 

In addition to the financial benefits, social media has also connected Emmett to top talent, and inspiration, in the maker space.

“Jimmy DiResta started following me on Instagram,” Emmett says. “He is famous in the maker world, everyone knows who he is. He reached out to tell me that if I kept doing what I was doing, I was going to stand out. To hear that from someone I look up to was very motivating, and that is exactly what I did.” 

While he has achieved the ultimate success — the ability to be present for Ethan — Emmett is humbled by the people he’s met along the way who have supported him, encouraged him, inspired him, and cared for his family. 

“I came here with hardly anything, I didn’t know anyone, and my children have benefitted so much from MU Women’s and Children’s Hospital,” Emmett says. “I’ve been so fortunate in Columbia, and that’s what is so cool about the Gateway project.” 

It Started with a Spark