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Meet the Waterford carpenter behind the restorations of Hygienic Art, a mansion, a mill and more

Waterford — Paul McMasters is adrift.

He has spent a career spanning five decades unanchored to any one type of carpentry. "Most people are very good at what they're doing and that's how they make their money, and I like doing something I've never done before," he said. So now he is working with driftwood.

McMasters, 65, is the owner of 18th Century Restoration Carpentry, and if you've spent some time in southeastern Connecticut, you've probably seen his work without knowing it.

He did the renovation of the former Von Winkle Mansion, now the Nelson & Aida White House, at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. He made the sign for Blue Gene's Pub there, as well as the original sign for Michael Jordan's Steakhouse at Mohegan Sun. He built cabinets for the Lyman Allyn Art Museum, and did a toy display for a children's exhibit there. He redid trim at the Garde Arts Center. He was the general contractor on the $4 million renovation of the former Allen Spool Mill in Mystic into 12 apartments and three commercial spaces.

"We don't turn much down," McMasters said. "If it's a fun project and we like the people and they seem excited about the project, that helps."

Most notably, he was the general contractor on the restoration of Hygienic Art.

"That was actually one of the more fun and harder projects I've done, because nobody wanted to work on it and it was just minutes from being torn down," McMasters said.

There are specific difficulties that come with working on old buildings, but McMasters prides himself on having never gotten anybody hurt.

"There comes a point when things can get a little dicey," he said. "People move the wrong thing, or there's a beam you don't know is rotted because it looks fine on the outside."

Bringing new life to driftwood

Down a quarter-mile dirt driveway on Pepperbox Road, and past his circa-1786 home that was transported from Berlin, Conn., to its present location three decades ago, is McMasters' workshop.

It contains multiple pieces of driftwood, of varying weights and at varying stages of being turned into the bases for glass-topped tables.

The endeavor is a partnership with Groton resident Bruce Chamberlain, who met McMasters when their wives worked together to help restore Eolia Mansion at Harkness Memorial State Park and later enlisted him as the contractor on his house.

Chamberlain showed McMasters some driftwood pieces he'd brought back from Fisher's Island Sound, and a decade or so ago, McMasters made tables. Now they're looking to start up the project again as a commercial enterprise.

"I've been filling my house up with them, and my wife is now saying the house is getting too full," Chamberlain said of the roughly six pieces of driftwood in his home.

He said maybe one out of every 20 pieces of driftwood he finds is worth bringing back. He likes that nature creates these pieces and that people can find animal images in them like they do with clouds. They might say, "Wow, look at the squirrel face or the seal face or the whale tail."

The biggest piece Chamberlain ever kept is 1,200 pounds, which required a flatbed truck to pull it up from the beach.

McMasters doesn't have a particular process for making the tables, saying, "You really just look at it." He mostly uses handsaws and simple drills, and a horizontal laser.

McMasters plans to put one in the Garde Arts Center, while Chamberlain mentioned the idea of putting tables up for display and purchase in the lobbies of places like the Ocean House in Westerly or Mystic Marriott.

After recent hip surgery, McMasters considers making the driftwood tables as "taking it easy," since it doesn't involve climbing ladders.

"People either like them or hate them," he said. "There's no in-between."

"There's nothing you can screw up that I haven't already done"

McMasters grew up in the western Pennsylvania coal community of NuMine, graduating high school in 1972. He spent several years working on railroads before getting into carpentry, work he had earlier done with his father.

He met his wife, Diana, through his friend's sister, who was Diana's roommate. The couple moved to Towanda, Pa., where they spent a few years running a restaurant and bar called the Rub a Dub Pub, before moving to Allentown and then Waterford.

Diana had grown up in Waterford, and her parents owned the property where Paul and Diana McMasters live now, so Paul called it a "no-brainer between a coal-mining town and here."

While working for HP Broom Housewright in East Lyme, McMasters helped move about 25 or 30 houses. Doing this before digital cameras were readily available, he had to photograph everything before moving the house and run to a one-hour photo-developing place.

McMasters said he didn't get a formal training or education in carpentry but learned on the job.

"I tell my guys all the time, there's nothing you can screw up that I haven't already done," he said.

Hygienic Art President A. Vincent Scarano first got to know McMasters through their work at the Eugene O'Neill, and then they worked together on the Hygienic Art restoration. McMasters also worked on the construction of the Hygienic Art Park.

McMasters has a "great sense of construction logic, I think you would call it, to get work done very well, and on time," Scarano said. He added, "He was very creative in figuring out things on the spot, and changing the whole concept if needed."

e.moser@theday.com

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