Where Work is a Labor of Lumber

A bowl made of Norfolk Island pine by Chris Lavinio of Hampton Bays.
A bowl made of Norfolk Island pine by Chris Lavinio of Hampton Bays.
A bowl made of Norfolk Island pine by Chris Lavinio of Hampton Bays.

By Gianna Volpe

The East End is an undeniable bed of creativity so thick with right-brained residents that no matter where a tree should fall along the Twin Forks, one can bet the Long Island Sound there’s an artist in the area. This is particularly true of those who use timber as their medium for creative expression because just outside Mashomack Preserve — roughly 2,000 acres of land making up one-third of Shelter Island — stands the workshop of writer turned woodworker Becky Cole.
The 60-year-old owner of Griot Fine Custom Refinishing said she first became acquainted with carpentry during early teenaged summers spent up in Vermont helping out an uncle who regularly resurrected pieces sourced primarily from yard sales.

“While my uncle was teaching me basic woodworking, he saw I had more patience than he did, so he had me refinishing pieces…The more intricately carved something is, the more attention needs to be paid to it, but I kind of like that—there’s just something about having to clean out every groove and every ornament,” Ms. Cole said of the meditative work that made it possible for her to write hour-long soap opera scripts every week for a decade.

“If you ever want to experience burn-out on a massive scale, you’ll write for a soap opera,” she said with a laugh. “It’s a crushing schedule and after I left my last job I’d spent most of my adult life writing professionally. I was tired of being edited — among other things — and really wanted to use a different part of my brain.”

In 2000, the wordsmith retreated to ‘The Rock’ where she cared for her mother with the assumption she’d one day return to ‘The City’ in which she’d been born and raised, but in the end—following a stint working at Marika’s Antiques—Ms. Cole was won by ‘The Island’ on which she opened her own company refinishing furniture.

She named it ‘Griot’ after storytellers who orally keep history alive in cultures, particularly those in western Africa, that lack a written language.
“And in a way that’s exactly what furniture does,” she said. “It’s our history told through different styles and methods of manufacture. I once priced a job for a woman in East Hampton…To refinish an old walnut dining room table and when I named a price the woman said, ‘Why, I could buy a new table for that,’ and I said, ‘Yes, you could buy any table you want for that, but it won’t be this level of craftsmanship and it won’t have the history.’ She ended up deciding to just get a new table.”

Becky Cole's workshop on Shelter Island.
Becky Cole’s workshop on Shelter Island.

Ms. Cole’s customers often lie on the opposite end of the personality spectrum. Some of her favorite jobs have been for folks who, despite cost, pushed for her to restore their personal pieces of history.

“The greatest story is when someone brings me a piece that’s just been badly abused and I’m able to strip it down, clean up its surface, put a nice finish on it and have them fall sort of freshly in love with it,” she said. “When I first started, this couple brought me a little chest of drawers that had been painted brown and because getting paint completely off is very difficult, I told them it would cost them far too much, but they said it was a sentimental piece and they wanted to go ahead with it. When I started stripping the paint off, it turned out to be a beautiful little piece with burl on the front of the drawers and here I’d been ready to tell them not to bother with it.”

According to Ms. Cole, burl makes a wood’s grain appear swirled as the tree “sort of goes nuts” in response to insect and other invasions. Anyone who has noticed a tree with a cystic protrusion on its trunk has seen this phenomenon from the outside.
It’s the kind of thing that is right up the alley of 21-year-old Hampton Bays resident Chris Lavinio.
Born and raised in Sag Harbor, Mr. Lavinio has been using a lathe since age 10 to make wooden salad bowls and utensils like tongs or pens, but though he’s done so using several species such as mahogany, box elder and Norfolk Island pine, what the woodworker finds more interesting is the unusual aesthetic accents that can be found within all sorts of wood.

An artist through and through, Mr. Lavinio said that, for him, “turning” freshly cut, or “green” wood even trumps the timber’s type.
“When you’re using the tool on green wood it catches water and drips it on the piece,” said the young tree care professional who works for Tim Blenk Tree Care in Southampton. “Green wood is easier to turn because it’s more [malleable] and allows for a few mistakes; but it also makes nice streamers, which means when you’re cutting, there are pieces of wood streaming over your head.”

The aesthetic elements present at all levels of the industry seem to be the magnetic thread binding all woodworkers and for second-generation local builder Jason Biondo, the section that speaks to him loudest is that of design.
The 40-year-old owner of Hammerhead Construction of Montauk said it was his artistic side that led him toward reclaimed materials and subsequently to his opening the Antique Lumber Company five years ago when he said most carpenters—despite skill level—remained apprehensive to using the medium.

“After Donnie Disbrow [of the original Antique Lumber Company in Water Mill] up and moved his family down South, me and a handful of other guys who work with [reclaimed materials] kept calling him up here to bring us stuff like barn board, big hand hewn beams or live edge slabs because it’s not something you can get at Home Depot or Riverhead Building Supply,” said Mr. Biondo, who majored in sculpture at San Diego State University.

Mr. Biondo said his artistic satisfaction in recent years is capitalizing on Montauk’s influx of young city folk.

“They’re here, they’re not going anywhere and they’re buying houses that they’re gutting to timbers and since these people are in their early 30s, they’re not afraid to stray from the normal boiler-plate renovation, which is great,” he said. “Instead of asking for colonial trim, sheet rock and paint, they’re saying, ‘Lets’ add a live edge walnut slab to the kitchen island,’ and it’s like, ‘Hell yeah, let’s do that!’”

A bench with a live edge by David Nyce.
A bench with a live edge by David Nyce.

Live edges—where the rough edged outline of a tree trunk’s shape is left intact—is pretty popular in the world of wood right now.
In fact, Greenport Village’s former mayor David Nyce is studying exactly that in his North Fork workshop, where he is currently building an entire set of live-edged furniture. At press time, Mr. Nyce had already constructed a large bench with a smooth kidney-shaped indent displaying an ever-readiness to receive a human bottom or custom cushion and he’d already made it halfway through imagining the set’s second piece: a tall, thin table fit for a foyer, or anywhere else, really. To illustrate how crucial an element time is for Mr. Nyce’s creative process, the carpentry artisan showed off wooden leg-warmers he’d hand-made for the table before deciding to scrap the stem accentuation idea altogether in favor of cleaner lines.

“I can’t do design on demand,” he said. “Other people do it differently, but I need time to be able to fluidly free associate with stuff to figure out in my head how a piece is going to be put together and what the piece is going to look like.”

“One of the basic requirements is that you truly enjoy the work,” said 40-year industry veteran Gerry Starr, the owner of East Hampton’s Grains of Wood. “There’s plenty of people who get involved in this, buy a bunch of machinery and then they’re not around a year or two later because they didn’t think it out. You’re making a living on your own energy and in the building trades, that’s not going to make you money. You have to hire people and charge for them, you’ve got to be seriously engaged in the process because it’s something you’re going to end up thinking about before you go to sleep, you’ve got to have a personality to be able to deal with clients and you have to do lots of paperwork, just like in anything else. You can’t be a slacker…If you’re just looking to make a bunch of money, well, that’s not going to happen—it’s just not.”