Vol. 13, No. 3,066 - The American Reporter - January 8, 2007

American Way

by Joe Shea
American Reporter Correspondent
Bradenton, Fla.

Printable version of this story

MONROE, N.Y. -- In a plain red stable on a verdant, historic farm in Monroe, N.Y., a young carpenter is using an unconventional set of tools to craft a reputation for quality design and workmanship that has traveled throughout the Hudson River Valley and beyond. Those tools go beyond the adze and axe, the plane and saw, the hammer and nails that are also part of his trade, neatly arranged throughout the intimate shop; the unconventional tools are those designed not just to restore an ancient piece of furniture or recreate the grandeur of a dilapidated mansion, but are tools to build a life and a reputation through work that will endure. Joe Varcadipane calls them "The 10 Rules of C."

With his wife, Julie, and his two young daughters, Varcadipane came to Monroe on a home-hunting mission four years ago. As he wound through the hills and curves of Monroe, a town in southern Orange County just 50 miles from New York City, he spotted a stocky man hammering a "For Sale By Owner" sign into the ground alongside a stonewall fence on lower Rye Hill Road. Seizing his reluctant real estate agent, he marched up to the startled seller and quickly made an offer for part of the historic Shea Farm, a 50-acre estate once owned by wealthy New York Herald Tribune publisher Whitney Reid, the owner of the Villard Houses that now form the grand lobby of the Helmsley Palace Hotel next to St. Patrick's Cathedral on New York's Fifth Avenue. The seller was my cousin Billy Shea, the son of late State Supreme Court Justice William Shea, who summered in the home with my Aunt Lorraine from the early 1950's while maintaining an apartment in New York City's Stuyvestant Town. The Monroe home needed work, and Varcadipane had to take an out-of-code swimming pool deck apart, but it was just what he wanted.

Joe Varcadipane found a fitting home for his carpentry shop, Classic Design, on the author's centuries-old family farm.

AR Photos: Joe Shea

He bought the three-bedroom home, an old horse stable and then an old red barn whose ancient round rock silo still thrusts a defiant stone face from the town's rural past into the heart of modern Monroe, where three villages now encompass more than 30,000 people - and a host of challenges and opportunities for a craftsman.

A wide swath of the town is home to new homes whose prices range from $300,000 to well over a million dollars, and its wooded hills conceal stately Victorian and Colonial-style mansions that were once the summer homes of New York's rich and famous; baseball's Babe Ruth and George M. Cohan (the composer of "It's A Grand Old Flag" and other turn-of-the-century Broadway musicals) were frequent visitors, and 1972 Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Frank Gilroy called Monroe home; the vast grasslands of Arden border the southern part of Monroe, and the massive stone homestead of the Harriman family of railroad pioneers - now owned by Columbia University - overlooks Monroe from high atop a mountain.

The town abuts the famous Woodbury Commons, a magnet for city residents who speed up the New York State Thruway to visit its luxury outlet stores, and inside Monroe's borders is the whole panoply of retail shopping, from a huge Home Depot and Target to Wal-Mart and a hundred or more shops offering the latest furniture, tools, furnishings and fine art. Monroe-Woodbury High School, directly across Route 32 from Woodbury Commons, boasts the current state champion football Crusaders, undefeated as of this writing in their last 23 games.

Antiques, too, are a staple of a place once named Turkeytown; the community was founded, largely by members of the Smith family, before the Revolutionary War. John Smith, one of that tribe, was a longtime resident of the Shea Farm, whose windows once watched George Washington's ragged colonial army pass along Orange Turnpike and Stage Road en route to their summer encampment in New Windsor, 18 miles away. Smith Clove Museum Village, a staple of schoolboy field trips for five generations, captures some of the history that still lives on here.

This magnificent pergola was a five-month labor of love, destined for a Greenwich, Conn., estate.

Photo: Classic Design

On the recently paved Reynolds Road that borders the field just below Varcadipane's home, for instance, sits a tiny rustic cabin where a great- grandfather of Roscoe Smith, the late founder of Orange & Rockland Utlities, is said to have hung a British Redcoat during the War for Independence. On the farm, the stump of John Smith's Banyan Oak, a 186-year-old tree the settler planted around 1800, bears testimony to the origins of the classic design elements of doors, desks, tables, chairs and flooring in the nearby farmhouse that has now housed my family for 97 years.

Classic design, indeed, is the pillar of Varcadipane's work, and that's also the name of his small, four-person carpentry firm, which specializes in historic reconstruction and restoration. "'The 10 Rules of C' are, in fact, the rules of Classic Design, my business, and also rules for life," Varcadipane says. "They can help a carpenter, but can also help anyone who cares about their craft and reputation." That care is evident not only in the Rules of C, but in his patient tutelage of apprentices who work with Varcadipane to complete a growing backlog of jobs for customers from Long Island to Connecticut.

Take the pergola, for instance, that he is finishing now, after five months of painstaking work. The piece, an outdoor structure, is a soaring, octagonal masterpiece standing 10 feet high and is nearly 30 feet in diameter, with

A young intern adds a finishing touch to the Greenwich pergola.
all the grandeur of the fictional "Great Gatsby" compound on Long Island's North Shore. But this stunning confection now graces the elegant gardens of a magnificent estate across the Hudson River owned by a Greenwich, Conn., couple. Varcadipane took no other jobs while the pergola was under construction.

"I prefer to work on just one project most of the time," Varcadipane says, "so that I can fully focus on it and do the best job possible."

Part of the thinking that goes into each piece is whether or not the original can be restored, or has to be reproduced. He noted that a hefty, old blue door resting alongside his bench - an odd contraption about 4' x 4' that looks like it might have come from a pantry or storage room - was just 35 years old, and while its unusual shape might make it somewhat unique, it didn't need to be restored.

"It's a perfect example," he said. "Just because things are old doesn't make them an antique. It has to do with the quality and longevity. The customer wanted me to take this door and refinish it for him. But it has deteriorated to such an extent - the bottom has come off, the joints are separated - that you can't do much. It was not constructed in a style, manner or fashion that is going to increase its longevity. It may be unique, but it was easy to reproduce and that didn't take much away [from the original]."

Not all that is old is antique. A decaying door, right, was easily reproduced in Varcadipane's shop.

But the larger issue is the durability and usefulness of the piece, Varcadipane says.

"The most important thing I can do to something is to give it longevity. Whatever I do, I want it to outlive me. That's my standard: that whatever I build, it will outlive me. But I can't always guarantee that with something that has deteriorated. It's not just a matter of refinishing.

"It has to be more than cosmetic," he says. "You have to go down to the bones with it."

One challenging job was a home entertainment center that had to be entirely concealed in a handsome-looking secretary. Inside, the piece used a hollowed-out area underneath a staircase to conceal the true size of the elements within. "It was unique, and really cool," he said. "I enjoy being able to do something like that. It was neat to incorporate form and function and fool people into thinking it was a piece of furniture, but really, it was built around a tv. It was like, 'Here's a tv; build me something around the tv.' They didn't want it to look like an entertainment center, so I had to up with something that made it like a normal piece of furniture."

In the cabinet - built from scratch by hand - was a 50-inch plasma tv, and when the desktop pulled back on an articulated hinge, it became a fully functional wet bar. The tab: $9,000 - the most he's ever earned for a single, free-standing piece of furniture.

He owes his own work ethic to a hard-working Mom and a family of stonemasons, Varcadipane says.

One of his next projects is for me. It's a 100-year-old oaken desk once used by my grandfather, the former Reform Republican Sheriff of New York, John S. Shea. It is an unusual and complex challenge that aims to recapture the simple, staid elegance of a working turn-of-the-century office whose inhabitant was the second most highly-paid public official in the United States after he overthrew the fabled Christy Sullivan of Tammany Hall (know to history as the man who defined "honest graft"). That work will involve close-up detail that the pergola exhibits on a macro scale; while the two pieces are vastly different in size and complexity, they all fall subject to the 10 Rules of C. And that's probably a good way to introduce them.

"The first rule," Varcadipane says, "is the Golden Rule. Here, it simply means that if you want others to treat you as a professional, you must be a professional. That means not cutting corners, doing the job you promised to do in the time and at the price you said you would, and not taking on jobs you know you can't do. It means behaving in a way that is consistent with pride in your work and your reputation, and the expectation that you will be treated in the same way."

Varacdipane's work ethic came from his hard=working mom and a family of Italian stonemasons (the name means "boat of bread") from Sicily who ultimately settled in Patterson, N.J. They were people who took great pride in their work and passed their well-honed skills and techniques from one generation to the next.

To this day, Varcadipane, now 32, says, "I love to work in stone and tile." he says, "but there's just something about carpentry I love. I can't make anything out of stone, but I can make anything out of wood."

"At arm's reach" is where tools are kept at Classic Design - but the principle has a larger dimension.

He branched out into furniture restoration after years of working as an apprentice carpenter, and the new direction took him first into old, decaying homes that needed loving care to restore.

"I really started to learn my trade by restoring old homes - it was the old moldings and doors; and to reproduce windows, and those sort of things, to develop the talent to do that - stripping the paint off, conditioning the wood, refinishing it."

Those jobs were not trivial, either; in one home, the project involved "just about 22,000 square feet of paint-stripping," a 15-month job. "That was how it started. And that led me to say, gee, I could do much better by bringing the furniture to my shop."

The Second Rule of C might well have grown out of that learning experience, because like the long, tedious hours of paint-stripping, it requires a generous dose of humility. The second rule is easy to follow and self-explanatory, but arrogance and pride often frustrate its implementation, particularly among people who pride themselves on their experience. The rule is, "Read the directions. Read all the directions, first." Following the Second Rule of C, in fact, may assist a person in adhering to the Third Rule of C: "Always see your layout."

There's a "what if" factor in carpenty and life that Varcadipane hints is the craftsman's natural enemy. A well-drawn, well-detailed layout - or even a well-marked piece of expensive wood like theteak and mahogany he commonly uses - can save many hours of labor and hundreds of dollars in unnecessary expense. A "layout" needs to be more than a picture in your mind, Varcadipane stresses. "You need something that is written down, that is marked, that is clear not only to you but to others working with you." Vague and general descriptions of a job are not reliable, he's learned; take the time to physically lay out a problem piece of construction, and it will fare far better than an imagined plan.

Varcadipane studies a layout. He advises that a clear drawing accompany every project.

Planning is also central to the Fourth Rule of C, one that contradicts the old axiom, "Measure twice, cut once," replacing it with, "Measure once, cut all." In lots of carpentry jobs, there are elements that need to be crafted by hand, one at a time. The Greenwich pergola is a perfect example. It's important, Varcadipane says, not to waste time - and your client's dollars - by having to measure each piece separately. He says an efficient craftsman measures once, very carefully, and cuts all the identical pieces at the same time.

There's a lot of resonance in the Fifth Rule of C: "Sharp and to the point." The rule most specifically refers to the point of the carpenter's pencil, which is a sometimes undervalued and underused tool that can be critical to the success of an enterprise. And the meaning grows as Varcadipane discusses it, saying that not only should other tools, like the adze or the saw, be sharp and ready to go but so should the bearer of tools, the carpenter and the man. Varcadipane discourages aimless chitchat and usually has a clear point in mind as he talks, so that understanding his intentions is not difficult. Clarity about the scope of a job, costs, responsibilities and timing are essential to a professional, he says.

The Sixth Rule of C "is a freebie," he says. "The rule, "Waste not, want not," nonetheless extends to unexpected lengths. In his workshop, the barrels of unused oddments of wood in all shapes, sizes and types may come to have a myriad of uses over the months and years, and they save his clients time and money. Along one wall are neatly constructed racks of tools and building materials, most in plastic crates that slide open at a touch, yielding up useful things a less thrifty man might have thrown away. And there is a sense, too, that Varcadipane values human relationships the same way, not just as items in a long series of transactions but as learning experiences that may not be available elsewhere, and are meant to impart something of value for the future.

Joey Shea, the author's nephew, learns to "Measure once, cut all," a modern twist on an old carpenter's axiom.

For any manager, the Seventh Rule of C is invaluable. The words are simple: "At arm's reach." The meaning is not. Varcadipane says the rule intends that each article of equipment, meterial and all personnel be quickly accessible to the man or woman who has lead responsibility for a task's completion. It doesn't help, for instance, if you need something done and a helper is in another room out of earshot or standing next to you entranced by an IPod; it also means that the scope of a job needs to be fully assessed so that every tool that is needed to complete it is there at the job site from the beginning of the workday.

And if it's not? Then the Eighth Rule of C may apply. The rule, "Look hard," is one that everyone who's ever lost a set of keys or a book or glasses - and even something larger, like a car - can apply. So many things are lost right beneath our fingertips, Varcadipane seems to say, when all we really needed to do was to focus all of our attention and time and energy on finding them without delay. A journalist today, for instance, may carry a camera, cell phone, laptop and tape recorder, he or she may find themselves looking for USB cables, chargers, earpieces, fresh videotape, adapters, plug converters and the like, and it's not unlikely that one of those will be misplaced. It's probably close at hand, Varcadipane says; look hard.

And look hard at contracts, layouts, architectural drawings, research materials and the job itself; understand it completely, and know what's missing. Yet, he says, when the missing object pr element can't be found despite solid efforts, don't start looking all over again. To illustrate, with a befuddled look he opens and shuts the same drawer four or five times, pretending to look for something; the human being, he says, will keep doing exactly the same thing over and over, while animals know enough to move on.

"Sharp and to the point," Varcadipane's Fifth Rule of C, demands sharp tools and sharper people.

Knowing when to move on, in another sense, is the creed at the root of the Ninth Rule of C: "The pencil is more forgivng than the Sawzall." If you've done a good job of planning, drawing, marking, noting and understanding a job, the likelihood of having to go back and do it all over again is sharply reduced.

"Never be afraid to erase," Varcadipane says. "That's what a pencil is for - to 'pencil' a job, not to finish it." But when you realize your layout won't work, and have swallowed your pride and erased and started over again, he says, you've saved yourself hours of work and the cost of wasted material, not to mention the frustration, anger and hurt you can cause yourself and a client.

The Tenth Rule of C: "Clean as you go." Disorder, however comforting it may be to some, is not the way of the craftsman, he says. Keep your surroundings neat and clean, and never leave a mess behind with a finished job - it spoils the relationship with the client and slops over into the next project.

At Classic Design the Ten Rules of C are written down on a thick piece of paper and tacked to the wall, but they are living rules that govern every aspect of Varcadipane's craft. A full half-century of work probably awaits him, and with his huge shoulders, broad smile and bright hopes, the road ahead looks "doable" - so long as the pencils are sharp, the tools are at hand, the way is clear, and there's a well-drawn plan.

Joe Shea is Editor-in-Chief of The American Reporter, based in Bradenton, Fla. Joe Varcadipane can be reached at theclassicdesign@msn.com.

Copyright 2007 Joe Shea The American Reporter. All Rights Reserved.

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