Arcadian appointments

There’s no sign on the road between Saugerties and Woodstock to proclaim that Romancing The Woods Inc., a rustic furniture design-and-build business owned by area native Rob Davis, is the go-to place for Eastern Red Cedar garden furniture, but word of mouth is driving sales even in tough times.

In the tight economy of 2010, the company had annual sales in excess of $150,000, and 2011 is looking to be much increased. Davis recently completed a $12,000 “summer house” (basically a fancy gazebo) for the entertainer Bette Midler, who owns a home in Dover Plains. Midler was directed to Romancing The Woods by her landscape designer; a typical avenue of referral, said Davis. Other celebrities who own the company’s products include Eddie Murphy and Robert Redford.

In addition to supplying delightfully attractive benches to many parks affiliated with Scenic Hudson, probably its biggest customer, Romancing The Woods also sells benches to the Walt Disney World Resort in Orlando for use at the Animal Kingdom theme park.

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Cedar is a tough medium

Davis began working for the company he now owns in 1992. One of four children, his father worked for the railroads and his mother was at one point the dockmaster at the Margaret Lewis Norrie State Park marina in Staatsburg, a concession then owned by his maternal grandparents.

Rob learned his own business the old-fashioned way, by working his way up, guided by a mentor in the specifics of harvesting locally-sourced cedar and mastering its unique carpentry demands. About seven years ago, aided by a business loan from Sawyer Savings, Rob bought the company from his employer, Marvin Davis, to whom he is not related.

Another former employee of Marvin, Mike Mattera, continues to work with Romancing The Woods, only nowadays he owns a boom truck with a crane. Working as a subcontractor, Mattera manages the company’s large-item delivery and installation, which often requires concrete piers to anchor the woodwork into the ground.

“We’re really, really busy. We have work booked all the way through to April,” said Rob.

The trim 38-year-old, who sports a neat ponytail, lives on Blue Mountain Road with his girlfriend, a professional nanny who commutes to Tarrytown to work for members of the Rockefeller clan.

Davis says that although he has two “amazing” employees, Joe Cook and Mike O’Brien, it’s not easy to find people with the right carpentry skills and attitude for working in the shop’s close quarters, building with wood used mostly in its natural cylinder shape. Fabrication is challenging both mentally and physically, and winter is chilly inside the converted automotive repair garage, heated by a wood furnace.

“Working with a round material as opposed to square (cut timber) is just very difficult to pull off well, but Joe got it right away,” said David.

“Mike’s still the new guy but he’s coming along,” said Rob.

Cook relocated to Saugerties from Brooklyn about a year ago. He used to be a carpenter for theatrical sets. Cook and his wife, who works at The Phantom Gardener in Rhinebeck, are “sort of nomadic,” but they’re loving their new life as residents of Malden, and even won “best tasting tomato” in this summer’s contest held by the Saugerties Farmer’s Market.

“If you’d told me two years ago I’d be doing this and growing a contest-winning tomato, I would have just laughed,” said Cook, who credits a heartfelt speech on the area’s many merits delivered by Suzanne Wald-Balsamo and Jordan Balsamo, owners of Partition Street Wine Shop, with prompting the Brooklynites to relocate to Saugerties before they’d found good jobs.

Finished work a silent recommendation

“Eventually we’re going to put up a sign by the road, but it’s the finished work that’s still on the property which sells us,” said Rob, who had to break off the interview briefly to attend to a prospective customer who pulled into the parking area behind the wheel of a late-model luxury sedan.

The prosperous-looking gray-haired driver wanted an estimate on cedar garden fencing, a popular inquiry, said Davis. Unfortunately, it’s not particularly easy to come up with a price on spec, since designs vary in terms of intricacy, and there are the usual variables of height and so forth. This year, an average fencing job for Romancing The Woods is for about ten yards at an average cost of $85 per linear foot, according to Davis. But the price can range from $65 to $110 per foot, depending on the style the customer selects.

“We don’t do craft fairs,” said Rob. “I tried the craft fair (circuit). We had lots of people come by and say nice things but we didn’t get a single sale.”

Unlike most small upstate businesses, Romancing The Woods has a fairly elaborate and up-to-date web site, which Rob designed mostly himself. He made his company’s Internet presence a top priority when he bought the business, and that’s really paid off for him. Unlike many master craftsmen, Davis is unusually competent with digital technology.

“It’s really embarrassing, but when I was growing up, my brothers and sisters called me ‘Computer Bobby,’” said Davis, wincing. “I had help with writing some of the code, but yeah, creating our company web site was one of the first things I did when I bought the business.”

For a while, the company had one of those white plastic removable letter stand-alone signs by the side of the road. Although relatively few customers actually originate from drive-bys, it’s been effective marketing to display near the road finished swings, benches, arbors, pergolas and gazebos. There’s also the company’s one and only dog house, known as the “Sugar Shack,” in which Davis’ miniature Dalmatian named for the cane sweetener typically spends most of the day.

Creating canine retreats isn’t likely to be a growth area for Romancing The Woods, said Davis, adding that to-date he’s had no requests.

“I love the idea but they’d be so expensive to build. To do what we do, you have to go out and cut a tree selectively, and then hand chisel and build everything from scratch,” he said. “We rarely use any glue, the furniture is all fastened together using four-inch ceramic-coated screws and galvanized lags.”

Romancing The Woods buys its screws from nearby Woodstock Building Supply and the lags, which look like really heavy-duty screws to the uninitiated, come from a supplier in Albany.

The most popular item Romancing The Woods sells are benches fashioned in the “romantic Adirondacks style, more or less,” said Davis. They cost between $650 and $850 depending on the size. A really nice bench-swing is about $3500 and a typical arbor is $1200.

“The former owner knew a lot more than I do about the art history side of building this style of garden furniture,” admits Davis, a college graduate who studied wood sculpture and other fine-arts crafts, mostly at the University of Hartford. “I’ve changed things a little, reinterpreted it.”

‘I can’t smell cedar anymore’

Romancing The Woods is always on the lookout for stands of Eastern Red Cedar, classified as a pioneer invader, which means that it’s one of the first tree species to repopulate former farmland, or forest burned down in a fire.

Upright, it’s not a particularly attractive tree, and it’s also a host for a disease which damages apple orchard fruit production. So quite often, Davis is able to negotiate rather favorable terms for its removal. In most cases, only trees selected for the custom furniture work on order are harvested. Others are allowed to continue growing. Specimens can easily live for a couple of hundred years, but a trunk diameter of that size is rarely used for garden furniture.

The fine-grained pinkish-brown wood is fragrant, however, and it’s also light, durable and especially resistant to rot, hence its popularity for outdoor furniture and fencing. Its scented oil also repels moths, which is why cedar has traditionally been used indoors for closets and blanket chests. Once cut, cedar gradually ages to a grayish color when exposed to the elements, but otherwise remains little-changed.

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“The joke is that when people come to our shop they always say, wow, this must be so nice to work with all this cedar, it smells so good, but I can’t even smell cedar anymore,” says Cook. Joe said he lost his ability to discern the scent after less than a week of working with it.

The manufacture of Romancing The Woods garden furniture produces quite a bit of cedar shavings and chips. In the past, the company has donated this by-product to area farm animal sanctuaries, but while it’s great for some animals, it’s harmful to others. The sanctuaries have stopped hauling it away.

When I visited the shop, there was a huge pile of fragrant cedar bits in a heap off to the side, against a wall.

“Tell anyone you want they’re here and free for the taking. We don’t have time to package and sell the shavings to a retail (pet) store, but they’re ideal for small rodents like gerbils,” said Davis.

For more information on Romancing The Woods and the products it custom manufactures, visit www.romancingthewoods.com, or stop by the shop and pick up a brochure – and possibly a free supply of cedar bedding or mulch for your hamster or shrubbery.

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