Mark Ambler: A Student of Life

Local craftsman has built a reputation for creativity and generosity.


Mark Ambler and his restored vintage bus. Photo: Caleb Galbreath, KP News
Being a student of life is a commitment to lifelong learning. It’s the acceptance that no matter how much someone knows, there is always more to learn.

Mark Ambler is many things: a carpenter, general contractor, bus driver — but above all, he’s a student of life.

Ambler has lived on the Key Peninsula for a little over 50 years. His family moved to Wauna from California when he was about 14 years old. After proving himself on a community building project, he got his first job driving dump trucks on the KP.

“I was just this teenager working with a bunch of 20-something-year-olds, they told me what to do and I’d do it,” Ambler said. “So when they told me, ‘You’ve got to buy this property and build there,’ I did. I built myself my first house when I was a junior in high school.”

In 1972, Ambler started building houses for Wayne Shields, launching a lifelong career. Even after joining the Navy in 1975 as a hull technician, Ambler continued to take on work whenever he was on leave.

“Work just found its way to me,” he said.

When he left the Navy in 1979, Ambler helped complete the former Brookside Restaurant, now the Windermere Real Estate office on SR-302 east of 118th Avenue NW. He continued to remodel the building as well as help manage the restaurant and cook breakfast, lunch and dinner.

“I can’t believe I did so many things at that age,” Ambler said. “I can’t imagine having the time for all that now.”

After a few years, Ambler returned to building full-time. He eventually helped convert the restaurant into the real estate office when Windermere took ownership.

Labeling Ambler as just a builder or contractor would be insufficient. It describes neither the scope of his work nor the philosophies that define it.

“I do whatever people want. The more challenging the better,” he said. “Those challenges let me learn new things.”

He’s pushed himself to learn virtually every facet of building a house, from laying foundation to framing, electrical and plumbing.

Jeremy Thompson has worked with Ambler on different projects for the better part of a decade. He described Ambler as an amazing problem-solver.

“The level of complexity in his work is just mind-bending sometimes,” Thompson said. “There’s so many details to keep track of and he has a way of breaking it down to simple, digestible components.”

Ambler’s ability to simplify things makes him an effective teacher, Thompson said. But what is more impressive is how generously he shares his knowledge with others, which Thompson said is not a common trait in their industry.

Ambler’s work even caught the attention of world-renowned architect Jim Olson. Olson’s family has owned property in Longbranch for generations. When he decided to design and build a cabin there, Ambler was recommended to him.

“I’ve been an architect for a while now and I’ve become a bit of a perfectionist,” Olson said. “But Mark is a perfectionist too and I think that’s why we work together so well.”

Jim Olson's Longbranch cabin in mid-construction. Courtesy Jim Olson

Olson said he liked working with Ambler so much that when he decided to build an addition to his cabin, Mark was the first person he asked to build it.

“He’s so intelligent, he can figure anything out,” Olson said. “It doesn’t matter what he’s doing; he’s going to think it all the way through and then do it. And he’ll be right.”

Ambler stood out to Olson for his ability to think outside the box— a way of thinking not only represented in his work, Olson said.

For more than ten years, Ambler has participated in Burning Man. Once a year, Burning Man gathers tens of thousands of people in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert where they form a temporary metropolis dedicated to community, art, self-expression and self-reliance.

Ambler’s interest in Burning Man started after watching a documentary about the event. He was inspired by the magnificent structures and artwork the attendees created and shared.

“I was hooked the first time I went,” he said. “The creations are incredible, but it’s the environment of giving and positivity that keep you coming back over and over. It just feels right.”

Ambler restored a vintage school bus to caravan there and set up a repair camp at the event. The brightly painted bus now even features a table, added storage and areas for sleeping.

“People have all sorts of ideas about what Burning Man is,” Olson said. “I think it speaks to his open-mindedness and creativity."

Ambler’s success is not only a product of his skill but also his commitment to the community. He occasionally does jobs free of charge for people who need help. He recently donated his services to construct the Longbranch sign in front of the Longbranch Improvement Club.

Inspired by the spirit of Burning Man, he refers to his old school bus as his “gift to the community.” Tickets for a ride to restaurants, bars and breweries are often raffled off at Key Center fundraisers. But he says he does it for free any other time too, just for the joy of giving.