Craftsmen colonize former factory
Rockland — A group of four woodworkers is breathing new life into one of Rockland's oldest industrial properties, the former Bicknell Manufacturing Co. on Lime Street in the city's Tillson Avenue district.
"This is a collaborative group shop," Austin Matheson said Aug. 23. "We all work independently, but share the space and ideas and gain strength from numbers."
The 35-year-old Matheson is one of three partners who purchased the five-building complex that includes the 9,000-square-foot brick factory in 2005. Originally from Miami, Fla., Matheson came to Midcoast Maine 12 years ago and shared a workshop in Camden with another woodworker.
"I'm the sweat-equity partner," he said.
Matheson works only on commission and shows some of his work in galleries. He teaches part time at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship in West Rockport and exhibits in that school's annual faculty show.
Two years ago he set up shop at the Lime Street factory.
"There was a lot of empty space in the building at the time, so it made sense to move over here," he said. Matheson said he was doing well, making furniture, and decided to purchase machinery and install a dust collection system so that others could share the workshop.
Four furniture makers form collaborative effort
The first to join Matheson at the Rockland facility was Jeff Walsh.
"I've been running my own shops for the last 10 years and relocated to Maine three years ago," the 41-year-old Walsh said. He said Matheson was a "like-minded individual from a woodworking perspective."
Since then, both Bill Doub and Orion Boshes have set up shop with Matheson and Walsh.
Doub, 57, is from Portsmouth and has a manufacturing facility in Deerfield, N.H. He makes custom furniture and architectural interiors, primarily in the art nouveau style.
"I'm gradually relocating to this area," he said. Doub also makes interiors for yachts and churches as well as display cases, but said he was trying to keep his focus on furniture. His work has been delivered to customers throughout the United States and in Europe, where some buyers pay him to design pieces to be built by local craftsmen.
Doub rents additional space in the former tool factory that he plans to use to do marquetry, or inlaid veneer, work.
Boshes, 35, moved to Maine from Lowell and Somerville, Mass., in 2002 to be a student in the first nine-month course at the Center for Furniture Craftsmanship, and met Matheson shortly thereafter. After completing his coursework, Boshes worked for Phi Home Designs in Camden.
About a year ago Boshes joined Matheson, Walsh and Doub, making furniture and cabinetry on commission.
Walsh, originally from Nantucket, Mass., said there were many benefits to working in a collaborative group shop.
"We share machinery and cut down on overhead," he said. "The primary benefit is the brain trust that we've developed here. We have four experienced, talented woodworkers."
"The ability to solve problems increases tremendously," Walsh said.
In his 12 years as a woodworker, Walsh has been a boat builder and antiques conservator. Now, he said, he focuses on architectural woodworking, furniture and built-in cabinetry.
"My goal is to do my own lines of furniture," Walsh said.
He said he hoped to use the Lime Street space as a research and development facility for short run production.
Matheson said orders for the work done by the four woodworkers has an ebb and flow and that allows the men to help one another when the pressure is on for any one of them.
Owner seeks creative tenants for industrial site
As for the building itself, Matheson said he hoped that other creative business owners would join the woodworkers at 11 Lime St. A restaurateur was interested for a time, but that prospect has not developed, he said.
Camden artist Hope R. Angier maintains a studio there and former owner Bicknell Manufacturing Co., now based in Elberton, Ga., still rents office space at the Rockland factory.
"The rest of this building is a clear slate," Matheson said.
He said he cleaned the former metalworking shop thoroughly and pressure-washed it from the roof to the battered wooden floor. A new roof was installed and he has started to replace the windows in the brick building.
"We're figuring out the electrical system and plumbing," he said. "It's viable and can be rented and used by a number of people." He said the best tenants would be artists or other industrial users.
"The highest goal would be to fill it with creative people," Matheson said.
Matheson's current woodworking project is a carving of the Hindu deity Ganesha, the elephant-headed patron of success, education, knowledge, wisdom and wealth. Often called the "remover of obstacles," Ganesha is also purported to remove vanity, selfishness and pride and to personify the material universe.
"Carving is fun and therapeutic," Matheson said. He said the sculpture, which he plans to put on the workshop's wall, was part of an artistic process he was going through.
Matheson is using an old table leg that he has held onto for a number of years as the trunk of the figure and he said that would make the Ganesha an even more fitting deity for the collaborative shop.
Among the obstacles that Matheson has moved, since he and his partners purchased the building, are small machines, old parts and patterns for tool making, and paperwork pertaining to the former occupant's business.
"We saved anything of historical interest," he said. That included master patterns for the chisels and hammers the Bicknell company made for the granite trade that was once a prime industry along the coast of Maine. Matheson said he found and saved some of the tools themselves, as well as brochures and signage that were made in an on-site print shop. He also saved some of the printing plates from that era.
Many of the old machine parts are now being stored in a fireproof vault-like room called The Hole where master patterns were once kept to protect them from possible conflagrations that might start in the building's foundry.
"It's an old cathedral to the industrial revolution," Boshes said. He said the building housed American industry and creativity and embodied the country's heritage of ingenuity and manufacturing.
"It's the last significant industrial building in this district," Matheson said.
The Herald Gazette Reporter Shlomit Auciello can be reached at 207-236-8511 or by e-mail at email@example.com.