KATHARINE SCHROEDER PHOTO
Woodworker Will Paulson works on a carving at his Mattituck shop. If he can’t find the tool needed to complete a task, he makes it himself.
It was the family business, but young Will Paulson wanted nothing to do with it. As the fourth generation in a long line of woodworkers, he’d been told his future from the day he was born. He’d mill lumber, build houses and work with his hands for the rest of his life. Nothing would convince his father otherwise.
By the time he reached 20 years old, the young man had heard enough. He packed his bags, grabbed an old guitar, and hitchhiked his way down South with nothing but a bag full of tools to remind him of his father’s workshop.
In the process, he learned something only experience can teach.
“I wanted to control my destiny, and I resented the fact that my destiny had already been chosen for me,” he said. “But the truth is, you can’t really control anything … you are who you are, and knowing that is the best gift you could ever give yourself.”
The reluctant miller hitchhiked South in the “old school, journeyman style,” he said, fixing doors to earn a dollar, repairing cabinets in exchange for dinner. When he reached Miami he discovered to his surprise that the only thing he wanted to do with his life was work with wood.
“My father knew, he just knew that this was what I would do with my life,” he said. “But I had to find that out for myself, not from him. It was crazy, but I needed it.”
Today, the 53-year-old miller has been operating Will Paulson’s Woodworks in Mattituck for more than 25 years. It’s hard work, he said, and sometimes nearly impossible to earn a living, but despite the numerous challenges, he said he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“There’s not a lot of jobs where you can work seven days straight in 100-degree weather and still say that you’re looking forward to going to work on Monday,” Mr. Paulson said. “If you’re going to do something every day, it might as well be something fun.”
Mr. Paulson’s workshop boasts an impressive display of gizmos, gadgets, and sets of big machines designed to mill lumber, make furniture, and produce any number of things, including an entire bathroom vanity made from a 4,000 year old bog oak found in Austria. Although machines are used to cut and prepare components, the final products are all finished by hand. Mr. Paulson even custom-makes many of his own tools.
A machine called a bowl lathe hadn’t been invented 20 years ago, so when he needed to make a bowl he created a machine that did what he needed.
“I just built one out of old parts lying around the shop,” he said. “I found a bunch of different machinery, things lying around, and I decided I could put them together and get what I needed out of it.”
Despite being made from leftover parts, Mr. Paulson’s lathe looks nothing like a thrown-together pile of scrap. The carefully constructed machine looks like a factory brand contraption, complete with painted parts and a ready-to-use lever.
“Sometimes you have to get creative when it comes to solving problems,” he said. “You’ve got to figure out how to do it as quickly as possible, and before you know it, you’re saying, ‘Wow, if I put this blade over here, and this piece over here … hey, this might work!'”
Mr. Paulson said he finds most of his wood locally, using fallen trees to create a work of art. Oftentimes, he said, a tree that is just beginning to rot is actually the perfect candidate for some of his most beautiful work.
In a corner of his shop, for instance, lies a part of a 200-year-old copper beech tree infected by a type of fungus that produces a discoloration called spalting. The lines that run up and down the wood, a direct result of the fungal infection, create a perfect outline of Long Island’s North and South forks.
“The local trees, a lot of people don’t realize how spectacular they are,” Mr. Paulson said. “Sometimes you open up a tree, and you just go ‘wow,’ like you’ve found gold.”
Although Mr. Paulson spends most of his time making furniture for homes across Long Island, he also has tackled several high-profile jobs, such as a mahogany library for President Reagan’s chief of staff and a mahogany wine cellar for ABC news and sports executive Roone Arledge. Mr. Paulson said that he considers such jobs just another day’s work.
“Everybody’s high profile,” he said of all his customers.
He believes that he’s found a measure of happiness that many of the world’s most successful people never see.
“I don’t believe money is success,” he said. “I don’t believe possessions are success. I don’t believe any of that stuff is success. Success is joy, getting up and being happy for the day. That is success.”