by Tim Norris/Photo by A. Vincent Scarano

On his work sites Paul McMasters plants a sign that declares “18th Century Restoration Carpenter.” Bystanders who watch the buildings behind it rise and revive miss most of the inside action. From his Mercedes SUV and the work trailer behind it, McMasters steps into history and  sometimes, into extravagance. Often enough, he also steps into trouble. Rotted floorboards and wobbly bannisters. Mildewed walls and cracked ceilings. The misguided efforts of builders and forbears and maybe of an actual bear, or raccoon, or wood-eating insects.

As a contract carpenter and project manager, McMasters is not just among those who solve the mysteries of a building’s use and abuse; he and his co-workers do their best to deliver a just and lasting end. Like a storied detective, his signature is not just what he does, but how he does it.

McMasters and his crew have handled both skeletal and fine arts woodworking and other tasks for historic local structures including the Allen Spool Mill in Mystic, Old Black Point in Niantic, and Hygienic Art and its neighboring Art Park on Bank Street in New London. Additionally they have worked at such celebrated sites as Connecticut College’s Lyman Allyn Museum and the White House (formerly the Van Winkle Mansion) at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center in Waterford. Just now he is finishing detail on the Elihu Spicer mansion (soon to open as a high end bed and breakfast) at 15 Elm St. above downtown Mystic and bidding for new commercial and residential projects. Or new old ones.

“In a lot of these places the history, the craftsmanship, is already there,” McMasters says. “Why rebuild? Why take down more trees? Somebody put a lot of effort and time into it. Somebody walked away and said, ‘Yeah, I built that.” And they built a lot of that, he could add, by hand.

When McMasters and his workers carve new wood into vintage shapes on lathes and routers and with planes, rasps, files, and other hand tools in their workshop along the Mystic River, they practice a craft McMasters started to learn at his father’s shoulder in western Pennsylvania in a town northeast of Pittsburgh called Nu Mine. “They couldn’t spell ‘New,’” he says, and the joke still draws a laugh.

He also grew up in a household that, until he was six, had no running water. He watched his father, Robert, build a better house around them.“My father did everything,” he says. “With miners, with farmers, you don’t hire stuff out; you do it yourself. It’s all problem solving. You can figure out how to do anything and make it work.”

He adds, “I never trained. I learned watching the older guys, on the job. I kept learning. I tell our new guys, there’s nothing you can screw up that I haven’t already screwed up once. The thing is, you gotta learn by your mistakes.”

Working with wood comes at its simplest, maybe, in sticks being whittled and on railroads  where the smallest piece might be nine by seven inches by eight and a half feet: a railroad tie, tinctured in creosote. The biggest pieces crisscross in trestles, some of them a foot square and 20 feet long. That’s where Paul McMasters started, dodging the splinters, ducking the fumes, on the Bessemer & Lake Erie Railroad in western Pennsylvania. He was working the high-iron then  too. His father had just died, leaving a wife, two children, and bills. McMasters, 19 years old,  stepped into his father’s job and into his role in the family. He became known for his billow of white beard, but even more for his physical prowess. “I got my father’s strength and my mother’s height,” he says, smiling wryly.

In most places, colleagues say, McMasters remains the most steadfast worker and the sunniest person in the room. He is also curious and creative. In mirroring classic work on old wood he says, “the fun part is figuring out how to make the tools.”

McMasters attributes some of his natural cheer to his gene pool and upbringing and some of it to marrying well. Diana Branch of the Branch and Forsythe families, grew up in Waterford. They met in Allentown, PA, where he was working on the rails and she was studying environmental science at Cedar Crest College. (Diana teaches 6th, 7th and 8th grades these days at Issac’s School in New London; and, as a co-founder, helps to lead Friends of Connecticut State Parks).

The way he works with wood now would be another world to his father…a world of privilege and artistry and also of new materials and techniques, of hype and adverts, tight deadlines, harsh judgments, and impatience. His methods, though, and his goals, would be familiar, tried and  true. What Paul McMasters did with his own house in Waterford reflects his preferences and handiwork. Looking for new opportunities and a better place to raise a family, Paul and Diana moved in 1981 into a refurbished barn on property owned by her parents, Bob and Norma Branch. They found themselves surrounded by woods. During their two years there, he and Diana started to raise their two children, son Christopher and daughter Kelsey, and to plan a home of their own.     

Paul had been working a job up in Berlin, CT on Skip Broom’s crew, H. P.Broom Housewrights out of Hadlyme,when he stumbled upon his dream house. “The owner was putting in a factory, and he was just going to bulldoze it,” McMasters recalls. “I told him I was just about to cut out my own, a new post and beam house; and he said there’s one that you can have if you can move it, like, tomorrow.”

All he would have to do is lift off the roof plates and rafters by crane, pull the plaster from the lath in the walls, pluck out the windows and doors, pick apart the massive stone fireplace, lift what was left from the foundation…all the while looking out for fuel tanks, asbestos, lead paint, and then pile it on a flatbed truck and move it, load by load, to his wife’s family’s woods in Waterford. Then he would have to build a new foundation, lay in new flooring, and piece everything together again.

He was just the man for the job. At age 60, he has the woodcraft in his hands but still seems to look ahead. Old buildings survive and revive in a human network, he says, and restoring them means listening for opportunities and keeping an eye out for shysters hoping to buy cheap and sell dear. It also means compromise.

The march of technology brings strange materials and approaches and angst and forced compliance; it also brings stronger, lighter, more affordable materials and safer and more efficient techniques. Consider, for instance, the fluted columns supporting the front porch and porte cochere at 15 Elm St.  “In front, the fluting’s too narrow,” he says. “The depth isn’t right. On the porte cochere, you can see the difference. The bottoms were concrete in some of them, and we made wood. We made the tops composite. You would really have a hard time telling which were the originals.”

Another example might be his own leg. For a contractor, a carpenter, injury is an unwanted companion. “One thing I’m most proud of,” McMasters says, “is that I’ve taken apart probably 30, 35 houses, barns, carriage sheds, things like that, and I’ve never gotten anybody seriously hurt. There’s the bruises and the splinters and somebody shooting himself with a nail gun. That’s part of normal construction. You’re gonna get beat up taking a house apart.”

Just now, McMasters is undergoing rehab of his own, recovering from surgery to repair a hip replacement and broken leg. In the shop and on work sites and through numerous bidding presentations, he has taken the physical distress literally in stride, unable to hide a limp, but never indulging it. Before the initial replacement a year and a half ago, he learned he had been walking for a month on a broken leg. The hardware put in to support the break had broken loose early in August, and the pain was getting worse.“My hip was shot from all these years of lifting and carrying heavy stuff, always on the right side,” he says. “I thought I was taking it easy, but I broke something in the hip replacement. So I really gotta pay attention when I get out this time.”

Respect remains…for materials, for craft, for why older buildings matter most: the lives of those inside them. Just before heading out to put in a bid on a school project in Waterford, Paul McMasters tells this story: We were taking down an abandoned house somewhere upstate, and the front door was bizarrely worn. We thought maybe trees were rubbing up against it. An attorney called and said people wanna come down to see it, people in their 90s or something. Awhile later, I’m showing them around the place. We get to the front door, and the lady literally starts to cry.“What it was was that their pet horse used to come up in the morning and chew on that door to be let in. We had no idea. She was so thrilled that we saved it.

You can’t put a price on that.”