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Chester County Press

Where wood gets new life

11/08/2018 01:00PM ● By J. Chambless

Caitlin Abate in the doorway of her Kennett Square workshop. (Photo by Jie Deng)

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

Every morning, Caitlin Abate opens the garage door to her workshop on Mulberry Street in Kennett Square and gets to work. Standing to the left of the open door is a massive bear with its paw raised in greeting. People driving or walking by can't help but notice.

“It's been insane,” Abate said. “People pull over and say, 'What are you doing in there? Can you fix something for me?'”

Abate is the sole worker at HoneyBadger Woodworks, a company she formed in 2012 with Jenna Price, who today is a business partner but not involved in the day-to-day work. Abate grew up in the Victorian house next to the garage, and she learned at an early age that handling tools and getting dirty was a good thing.

“My parents are both DIYers,” she said. “My mom's dad was a master carpenter. Her brother was a carpenter. If there was a repair to be made in the house, I was always helping my dad on the weekends. I did roofing, plumbing, you name it.”

Abate graduated from Kennett High School in 2003, but felt limited by the restrictions on the tools. “They had a beautiful wood shop there, but you weren't allowed to touch the tools,” she said. “I think it's a liability thing.”

Abate still lives in her family home, which means that her work is only a few steps away. While the workshop is compact – “I've had woodworkers visit who can't believe I can operate out of here,” Abate said – it has what she needs to turn out a dizzying array of projects – from tables and chairs to built-in cabinets.

“I went to Penn State and majored in sculpture. Then I went to grad school at Tyler and got a master's in sculpture. And then I didn't make sculpture,” she said, laughing. “But we had a full, working wood shop, a metal shop. I learned how to use table saws and band saws, how to weld, all that stuff.

“After grad school, one of my professors lived up in Plymouth Meeting, and I worked for him for a little bit,” she continued. “Then word got around my family that I was cheap labor. I was kind of a handylady for about a year. I had the skill set to play around with.”

She spent a year in New Jersey. “Then one of my aunt's friends went to a First Friday event and saw an upholstered bench that she wanted in her house. She asked if I could make it, and I really liked doing it,” Abate said.

Back in Kennett Square, Abate begged her parents to give up half of the garage to put in some woodworking tools. She has since taken over the other half as well, but her workspace is still no bigger than two cars parked next to each other.

The waving bear made of scrap wood has become a local landmark. (Photo by Jie Deng)

 The name of the company, HoneyBadger, was inspired by the feisty, take-no-nonsense nature of the animal, she said, admitting that she has been called a honey badger by those who have seen her lose her temper. And her grandfather had a reputation, too. “He had a terrible temper,” she said. “When I was young, the punishment, if you were bad, was that you had to go help grandpa with whatever he was doing. He was old-school. He'd say, 'Hold this piece of wood,' but whatever you did, you never held it right.”

When projects were not exactly coming in fast and furious a few years ago, she opened a retail space on State Street in Kennett Square – a fun, eclectic shop that sold some of her work as well as other items – “but that was a miserable failure,” Abate said with a sigh. The time spent behind the counter at the store took away from time in the wood shop, so after a couple of years, she closed the store and devoted herself full-time to making things. “It's been busy, busy for the past couple of years,” she said.

HoneyBadger's main rule is to waste nothing and use recycled wood whenever possible. The rough-hewn charm of barn wood is wonderful to work with, she said. And Abate doesn't spend money on frills. Her glue pot was an old mustard container for years, until she famously stomped it in frustration, and the resulting online reaction turned the container into a minor hero. A Dunkin' Donuts styrofoam cup was used for so long that it disintegrated.

But saving wood from the landfill is satisfying – and economical, Abate said. “I've been here long enough that my neighbors have given me wood, which is awesome. I had a guy drop off these two pieces,” she said, pointing to two huge slabs of nearly black wood outside the garage door. “I think they're Douglas fir. They need to be cut down to remove the oil that's on them, but I have plans for them.”

Much of the charm of her recycled wood projects is the patina of age. And Abate takes great pleasure in making “useless” wood vital again. “I like the aesthetics of the wood. I like the way it looks, and the the idea that you're not buying something new,” she said. “I have seen joists from the 1800s and they are as straight as an arrow.”

Her least favorite projects are the build-in cabinets since they “are basically boring boxes,” she said. But the reward of taking a customer's ideas – sometimes nothing more than a rough doodle on scrap paper – and turning it into a functional storage unit or other furniture is what keeps her going.

“I like to throw in my own interpretation to the designs I get from customers. I keep in constant contact with them along the way,” she said, pulling out a notebook of updated designs she shares with customers.

With the holidays approaching, Abate said she will be busier than ever with custom orders. “Last year, I delivered a project on Christmas Eve,” she said.

The HoneyBadger price list is very affordable, especially since every inch of the projects is handmade. But some people just don't get it. “Wood today is terrible. The 2-by-4s are terrible,” she said of buying lumber new. “Probably the bottom of the furniture barrel is Walmart stuff. It's not real wood. That's the first thing people don't realize. Ikea, believe it or not, isn't that bad, but it's not going to last your whole life. So unless you want to buy that coffee table five times ...”

And people don't understand the process of making wood furniture. “I had a woman email me probably two years ago. She was cutting down an oak tree in front of her house and wanted me to turn it into two tables. I told her, 'First, you have to wait at least a year for the wood to dry.' I didn't hear back from her.”

Because she's constantly working, Abate said she is constantly learning. “I can see the difference in the things I made just a couple of years ago,” she said. “I can see all the mistakes I made back then.”

Abate also regularly posts videos on Facebook and Instagram that show her creating all kinds of furniture in fast-forward. Turning out a table can take 60 seconds in one of her videos, which leads customers to think “Oh, that's easy,” she said, laughing. “Well, a minute in one of those videos can be up to 10 hours of work. But people seem to like them. It is time consuming to do them, though.”

Abate has even gotten a couple of comments from a man she doesn't know who enjoys watching her working a bit too much. Perhaps it's the chainsaw, she said, laughing.

Abate knows her way around chainsaw sculpting, and the videos make it look easy. She's also not afraid to tinker with her tools, and she has taken apart and repaired any number of lathes and chainsaws, and gotten them working without any formal training in mechanics. She just has a knack, and YouTube how-to videos help.

“I'm pretty sure that chainsaws are the deadliest homeowner tool,” she admitted. “I did some chainsaw mushrooms for Barkingfield Park last summer, and that was a fun project. You just feel so badass using a chainsaw.”

Her car, which is parked on the street outside her home, has been stripped of all but its driver's seat so Abate can use it for hauling some completed projects to the homes of buyers. “The looks I get,” she said of the disheveled vehicle. “But I can haul a lot of furniture in there.”

But nothing up to this point has generated the amount of interest that the larger-than-life bear outside her door has created. “I started him in June or July this year,” she said. “I had wanted to clear out the other half of the garage that I was using for wood storage. I had to get rid of the stuff, so I stacked it up, glued it together and started sculpting the bear on the street. I wanted to make it funny.”

Using a chain saw to whittle down the stack of wood, Abate got the body right, but the arm proved a bit more problematic. Now she's happy with the overall shape, but the features still have to be worked out – when she has time. The problem is that she doesn't have much spare time.

“He will be smiling, eventually,” she said of the bear, which has been dubbed Mulberry, after the street he stands on. “I wanted to make people laugh. People use this as a through street at the beginning and end of the day. I've had people say, 'I drive by that bear just to smile.' People bring their kids by after school ... I can't believe how many people like it. It's been so popular. What was I thinking? Why am I bothering making furniture?”

The obvious question is why Mulberry isn't a honey badger. “I wanted it to be a honey badger, but they don't stand on their hind legs a lot. And when they do, they kind of look like bears,” she said. “So I figured I'd cut my losses and did a bear.”

The work space lacks a lot of comforts that might seem necessary – such as heat and air conditioning, but Abate is hoping to get a heater going this winter so she won't risk frostbite. The garage – while it is becoming a local landmark – may not be her work space forever, she said. “This is an old carriage house, so the floor slopes severely to drains in the center of the room. When I do build-in cabinets in here, just getting them level is a pain,” she said.

To handle the rapidly expanding budget, Abate said she taught herself QuickBooks, and is handling the business side satisfactorily. “When the business started off, it was so small. The learning curve was over such a long time that I've had time to get better at it,” she said. “I had a professor in art school tell me that if I made a living in art, I'd spend 50 percent of my time on the computer. She was right.”

The satisfaction of the job “is the skill building aspect of the work,” Abate said. “When I started, I knew I things I was making for people then were not going to be as good as they are now. I made decent furniture, but there's so much to learn about how things should be joined, the staining, the finishing, that certain woods take certain finishes. In general, I just love working with my hands. It's such a sense of accomplishment.”

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