Sawdust and hard work

By Tony Wittkowski | Business Reporter | The Herald-Palladium

STEVENSVILLE — Tom Carson’s life can be summed up in the sawdust he wears at work every day.

Carson Wood Specialties is known for its custom woodworking, exotic hardwood decking and flooring and wood decking plugs. Outside of the usual architectural moldings, they also make bars and tables for businesses across Southwest Michigan. Past customers have ranged from townships to celebrities.

Examples of their work include the horseshoe bar in the Baroda Tap and the tables at North Pier Brewing Co. Their business comes word of mouth from other businesses.

“Orders come in whether it’s a friend or someone going into that business,” Carson said. “There really isn’t any common thing we make. It’s always different.”

Accompanied by his wife, Charlene, and son, Zach, Carson works at his shop every day. Their hours go from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays and by appointment Saturday, but Carson still finds his way to the shop on weekends (he lives a quarter mile down the road).

Over the years the Stevensville business has made some unorthodox items. They make the onion ring holders and soup boards for Clementine’s in St. Joseph and South Haven. Carson makes the clappers – a block of maple used for ironing creases in clothes – for ABO Apparel in Benton Harbor.

“We used to be surprised by the requests, but now nothing is out of the ordinary,” Zach said.

Woodworking isn’t limited to local businesses. In addition to Chicago bars and pizzerias, Carson’s family-owned business has done work for municipalities.

The Three Oaks Village Council asked Carson to transform an ash tree that had died in a park into a conference table.

“They brought the log, we sawed it, dried it and made it into a table,” Carson said. “We made them a conference table out of their lumber. There’s a special meaning behind that table. It was really unique.”

Past clients have included Oprah Winfrey and Muhammad Ali, who wanted personalized outdoor chairs. The most unusual project for the Carsons came 15 years ago.

Asked to make some ramps for the UCLA Medical Center, the Carsons were helping the nurses who would go on to work on Christopher Reeves’ legs. The actor, best known for his portrayal of Superman, had become paralyzed following a horse-riding accident in 1995.

Carson used ipe wood for its strength and made the legs for the ramp adjustable. After being told the reasoning behind it, the Carsons made six different ramps.

“The computer they were using for therapy on his legs couldn’t have anything metal touching it, so the ramp had to be all wood,” Carson said. “But the handrails needed to be able to hold enough strength in them so Reeves could hold himself up for support.”

Humble beginnings

Carson Wood Specialties opened in 1981. While Carson Wood Specialties started off small in a garage, the business grew and was incorporated in 2008. In 2009, a fire destroyed the original shop Carson and his family had called home for almost 32 years.

Carson Wood Specialties’ new shop opened for business later that year, less than a mile north of the original location.

Since they outgrew the garage, the Carsons have branched out and made thousands of engineering stakes for American Electric Power.

“We’ve been doing those for years,” Carson said. “We used to do about 10,000 a year, now they take 2,500 to 3,000 a year.”

They construct 3/8-inch ipe wood plugs for Simpson Strong-Tie. Carson said they got involved in that by accident. Now Charlene Carson does about a million of them a year. They use the South American hardwood to make the plugs that are used for decking. The wood is difficult to work with because it’s hard and dense, with high cutting resistance when cut.

The Stevensville business uses suppliers in Chicago for its wood. All the exotic woods come through Alabama and are imported from South America.

Carson said his favorite part of the business is the variety of jobs.

“I wouldn’t want to do the same thing every day,” he said. “For people to just tell you what they want and allow me to do my thing to it is fun.”

Moldings or trim can be turned around in a week, but a cabinet or vanity can take a month depending on the schedule. Carson said they still have a hard time keeping up with all the projects.

“Lately we are so busy it’s like we can’t even give someone a time frame now,” Carson said. “We did have a lady that waited a year and a half for us to make her kitchen for her.”

Contact Tony Wittkowski at twittkowski@TheHP.com or (269) 932-0358. Follow him on Twitter: @tonywittkowski.

(Author’s Note: This article was originally published on June 26, 2016)

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