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July 2, 2018

Fine woodworker swings a sledgehammer to carve out larger space in Biddeford

Courtesy / Oak & Laurel
Courtesy / Oak & Laurel
Lauren Rioux and Sten Havumaki purchased a 2,300-square-foot building at 366 Main St. in Biddeford to create a larger home for Havumaki's business, Oak & Laurel, which specializes in architectural carving.

BIDDEFORD — The purchase of 366 Main St. in Biddeford will more than double the space available to the fine furniture and architectural carving company Oak & Laurel, as well as make the company and its products more visible to the public eye.

Oak & Laurel purchased the 2,300-square-foot building on 0.09 acres from Belanger Trust for $105,000. Cheri Bonawitz and Karen Rich of Malone Commercial Brokers represented the seller and William Umbel of Bay Realty represented the buyer in the transaction, which closed May 22.

Owned and operated by Sten Havumaki, Oak & Laurel Workshop will move from its space in a 19th century textile mill on the Saco River in the heart of Biddeford.

"It was an attractive square-footage price compared with the market," said Umbel. "So it's a win-win for everybody."

Built in 1930, the dilapidated building was listed, for a slightly higher $110,000, as an owner-user redevelopment opportunity. The former location of Rod's Electric, it has high visibility off Route 1.

Attracted by Biddeford's 'energy'

Courtesy / Oak & Laurel
Courtesy / Oak & Laurel
A concept sketch of the new front elevation at 366 Main St., Biddeford.

Havumaki runs a one-man shop. Much of his business comes from the Boston area through contacts he previously made there.

"But with this new shop, I'm looking forward to becoming a little more visible and opening up more work locally," he said.

Havumaki, a Connecticut native, worked for a carpenter-cabinetmaker right out of high school, then went out on his own there and later in Boston. "I found wood-carving in my teens, but I was also interested in American history and traditional craftsmanship and architecture, and became more interested in traditional architectural carving," he said.

Architectural carving includes interior and exterior motifs like staircase details, brackets, mantels and custom molding elements, as well as furniture details.

He has been in Biddeford for five years at the North Dam Mill. He ended up in Biddeford thanks to his wife, Lauren Rioux.

A native Mainer, she was born in Portland, raised in East Machias and studied music at the University of Southern Maine School of Music. Her career as a professional musician took her on extensive tours.

Rioux and Havumaki met in Boston through a mutual friend. Eventually, Rioux moved to Scarborough, where she has a large teaching studio for students coming from as far as Bangor to the north and New Hampshire to the south. Her online studio attracts students worldwide. Because Havumaki's work is more mobile, he decided to move to Scarborough to be with Rioux.

"When we were looking for a place to set up his shop, I had my mind on the Biddeford-Saco area," Rioux said. "I had read an article that highlighted how great Biddeford and Saco are in the energy and the funds going into development. And we knew how challenging it can be to find something that's affordable in the Portland market. So we checked out the mill and they had a space that was available that really was ideal for Sten at the time."

The quality of his commissions has since evolved to include high-end clients, such as Yale and Harvard universities, that seek complex decorative work. Most of his work is commissioned through architects, builders and mill shops.

"It's a nice way for them to set themselves apart because they can get handmade custom details that add value to the pieces," he explained.

Havumaki also runs Handsome Tool Co., which features wooden products like his handcrafted butter knives and cutting boards. The couple said they're grateful to their friends Amanda Kowalski and Peggy Keyser for their photography of Havumaki's work, featured on the Oak & Laurel website.

Sweat equity on a blank canvas

Oak & Laurel
Oak & Laurel
The interior after demolition.

Havumaki started his search for a larger space thinking he'd probably lease again.

"But that was becoming less and less appealing to me," he said. But the price of the property, the build-out and the move seemed reasonable compared with available leases.

"I'm working out of 1,000 square feet now," he said. "I wanted 2,000 to 3,000. This building is 2,300."

The new space is rugged and structurally sound, he said. He started demolition the day after the closing. Part of the appeal of the property, both for him and his bank lender, he said, was that he could do the build-out himself.

"The bank was more readily agreeable to loaning us money for the purchase, knowing Sten would be the one working on it," said Rioux.

"And it's sort of a blank canvas that I can work with and turn into what I want," added Havumaki. "I can give it some curb appeal, which is has none of right now."

Issues to deal with include some water damage and a swayback roof. He said he'll be working on rehabt all summer, with the goal of moving there in September.

"I'll have a machine room on one side, a room for the handwork and assembly work, and space for a finishing area and lumber storage and tool set-up," he said. "I'd like to have a picture window in the front, where I'd have a display."

Advantages of the new space

Courtesy / Oak & Laurel
Courtesy / Oak & Laurel
One of a pair of large exterior brackets that Sten Havumaki carved for a Greenwich, Conn., residence.

Part of the idea with more square footage is to have an extra bench for classes.

"I haven't quite figured it out, but it would be an opportunity to do some teaching," he said.

The new space will provide a street presence.

"I'm in the middle of the mill, so it's hard to find," he said. "Which is fine, but it's more of a private studio space. Now I'll have more of a public presence. And being a block and a half from downtown and being open for things like art walks is great. It opens up a whole other dimension for opportunities for the type of work I could be doing a lot more of, like repair work — bread-and-butter type jobs."

For the redesign of the exterior, he said, he's drawing inspiration from traditional mill buildings, workshops and carriage houses.

The rehab is financed mainly by sweat equity plus an estimated $15,000 to $20,000 in out-of-pocket expenses, he said.

"I'm actually enjoying the work because I'm used to doing fine carving and it's nice to be swinging a sledgehammer," he said.

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