A tree grows in Brooklyn. `City man' pursues a love for wood at his own urban outpost
New York — THE high-pitched whine of a saw and the rhythmic scratching of hand-sanding fills the semidarkness in this large factory space. A ray of light filters through a window; it illuminates an old-fashioned sleigh bed so beautifully made that the desire to caress the wood is instinctive. My hand stretches forward to feel it.
``Beautiful, isn't it?'' says a softly cadenced voice. ``I sometimes keep a finished piece out here just so the men can see what they've done.''
A lean, bearded figure is silhouetted in a doorway. He's Leslie Neilson, owner of BareWood Inc., a factory that specializes in 18th- and 19th-century restoration woods, architectural artifacts, and furniture. The shop is about 30 blocks from the Brooklyn Bridge in a section of New York City called Red Hook.
Red Hook was once a thriving shipyard area, long since abandoned by such large shipping concerns and related businesses. It has rare waterfront property, and spectacular views of the Statue of Liberty, but transportation and services here are minimal. And that has saved it from New York's rampant gentrification. Small craft factories have moved into this desolate area mainly because of the affordable space.
Not only does a tree grow in Brooklyn, but here you can get it restored, refinished, or duplicated should the need arise. There's as much wood-craft here as you will find in any Vermont valley.
In the pursuit of this craft, Mr. Neilson - a born and bred ``city man'' - has become an authority on 18th- and 19th-century architectural artifacts and woods. His journey to this point began tentatively.
Neilson says he took woodshop in the seventh grade and became very proficient at it, spending most of his lunch hours in shop instead of going home for lunch, and even cutting academic classes to spend more time in woodshop with the instructors.
``My dad, who came here from the island of Jamaica, had a dream of me pursuing an academic career and going to college,'' he recalls. ``He came to school and asked that I be barred from going to woodshop. I was.'' Which looked like the end of his budding desire to follow a woodworking trade.
``I never pursued it again until I was about 32. I married and had a son, who is now 22, and worked for the city and the state. I became a narcotics rehabilitation officer and bought an old barn in Cobleskill, N.Y. And I proceeded to rebuild it with the help of some contractors.
``While there,'' he continues, ``I started going to flea markets and buying objects that I thought I would get around to restoring and refinishing someday - the magic word - so that I could make this barn a home.
``I read everything I could get my hands on about antiques, woods - everything. My barn, my house, my garage, my mother-in-law's garage in Queens, began to be filled with my acquisitions.''
In the meantime, a friend of his opened a woodworking furniture repair shop in New Rochelle. Neilson spent about a year helping out part-time. Even then, he ``never expected to own a wood factory.''
``I was trained in a small cabinet shop in Queens by one wood carver and a master cabinetmaker who had spent 50 years of their lives in business,'' he explains. ``They were semi-retired and I was their helper. I donated my time so that I might learn more about woodworking.
``I had a gift and a love for my work....
As we walk about, looking at the various stages of restorations and work taking place, you sense a comfort, a sort of family feeling between the men and Neilson.
``I have men here who come in with no woodworking experience,'' he says, ``and they've been learning on the job. One of my beliefs is that, if someone comes in and they should leave, I want them to leave with more knowledge than they came in with.
``I ask my men for the ability to grow and switch gears and to stretch. Whatever the products are, the standards are high. Sometimes the skills needed are great, sometimes not; but pride in the craft and quality of the work remains constant.''
Neilson thinks this kind of exhaustive, painstaking learning process is the only way to grow a craftsman.
``I don't know where we can get young artisans,'' he says. ``We aren't training any young people in the trade schools for this type of work. There are programs, but they tend to be in rural areas. And woodworkers migrate to these areas, because they offer a way of life different from city living.
``I have a staff of 10 and employ an architect part-time. We have the specialized knowledge and tools for that kind of work. Currently we are reconstructing the handrails at the old Customs House. We do work for places like Trinity Church - repairs on carvings-tables, etc. - [and] Litchfield Mansion in Prospect Park. We're also doing woodwork for the new offices of Stair & Co., antiques dealers. We can duplicate anything in wood. We can build from scratch.''
How does Neilson feel about wood?
``Look, I'm a finisher, but when I see something come out of my shop that has been crafted from a raw piece of wood into something rare and beautiful, I feel a sort of awe, and I feel good.''
I leave the shop feeling country-good as I walk in the middle of those cobblestone streets down Brooklyn's very own Vermont valley.