Midcoast Weekender

From dirt and decay, Union man builds something new

By Dan Otis Smith | Jul 09, 2017
Photo by: Dan Otis Smith Gary Harriman stands in his workshop.

Union — Strange experiments are under way at a workshop in Union, near the banks of the St. George River.

Gary Harriman toils with saw and hammer, separating legs from their former bodies and cobbling parts together to create something new – something with a life of its own.

“I don’t know what you’re going to do with this Frankenstein furniture,” Harriman recalled his friend, Kevin Davis, telling him a few years back.

That remark provided the name for what has become a full-time business for Harriman – crafting beautiful furniture from found, usually re-purposed wood.

He operates Frankenstein Furniture out of his workshop, advertising on Facebook, Craigslist and in Uncle Henry’s to sell to a growing number of individuals and businesses around Maine.

Old doors become tabletops, bedposts become table legs, headboards become coat racks, and innumerable scraps and boards once headed for the dumpster or bonfire are gathered in Harriman’s garage until a higher calling for them can be found.

For much of his life, Harriman was in the antiques business. He grew up with antique-dealer parents and worked at Rockland Antiques Marketplace for 14 years.

With others, he started Union Antique Traders Co. while building furniture on the side.

Eventually, he said, "I had to pick one or the other." Part of what swayed him was the slow pace of the antiques business once winter rolled around. "In January," he said, "you're just kind of twiddling your thumbs, watching the snow."

Between finding materials, restoring dirty or partially rotted wood and crafting entirely new pieces, he said, this line of work keeps him busy six or seven days out of the week.

"I never knew I'd be doing this much," he said. "I never was a carpenter or anything like that." Harriman said he has largely learned what to do on his own, though he picked some things up from his father and from Davis, with whom he originally started the business.

A couple of years ago, he bought his current property in Union, a shady plot that includes a garage-turned-workshop. Behind the shop, a smaller garage is filled to the ceiling with found wood. He said he gets it by chasing down giveaways offered on social media, rescuing it from attics, dumpsters or bonfires, or picking it up anywhere disused wood lies unwanted.

Working with antiques, he picked up a sense of what the customer wants, as well as background knowledge about where some ordinary-looking scrap of wood might have come from or how it was used.

He lifted a long, hefty, thick block of wood from the pile and said it was from a 19th-century bed frame, pointing out the holes where ropes would have been strung through the wood. "That's where you get your character," he said, and remarked on the quality of the heavy piece. "You can't reproduce that kind of stuff today."

"It's all about molding pieces together," he said.

Seeing value in a dirt-caked or moldy hunk of lumber takes vision. "You gotta look at what the potential is for it," he said. "You plane it, sand it and underneath it all, there's beautiful wood. Maybe the dirt preserved it, I don't know," he laughed.

Poking at a set of bedposts, he said old, broken furniture is an especially good resource. "Some of that stuff's made of cherry, maple, birch, and to buy that stuff would be so expensive."

Harriman said he builds most of the furniture by request because he has found building a piece and waiting for the right buyer doesn't seem to work as well. But it also means he sometimes must buy new wood to complete an order on time, which he doesn't feel great about.

He said he keeps everything he can, including old screws and nails from disassembled items. He can get caught up restoring battered old wood long after it's worth it.

But that work seems to be paying off, with buyers ordering from around the state. Some businesses have become buyers, too, such as Cafe Miranda, for which he built menu holders, and another restaurant that could soon come to Rockport. Some of his pieces are also for sale at Rockland Antiques Marketplace and Frantz Furniture in Warren.

When things get busy, sometimes he has his son help out. "I think about expanding, but I'm not sure if I want to go in that direction," he said. "I really do like it. I'm just out here doing my thing."

Unlike Dr. Frankenstein, Harriman seems inclined to keep his creations under control.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Donald Burr | Jul 10, 2017 20:23

Great story!



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