Preservation carpenter Daniel DiPaolo says the worst part of his job is the 100-year-old dust that permeates through many of the 18th century homes that he restores. “It’s black, sooty grit that oozes out of your nose for a week,” said DiPaolo, 32, who has restored many a centuries-old dilapidated building, knowing that beyond the dust and debris lies a proud craftsmanship.
Preservation carpentry is a unique specialty that is very New England focused because of the older homes here, as well as historic museums and national landmarks. “An old home bears unique subtleties and nuances that give it life and soul, whether it’s the hand-planed woodwork, wavy glass, or worn thresholds,” said DiPaolo, proprietor of Preservation Carpentry, based in Lynn, Mass.
An 1858 historic South End bowfront brownstone was one of DiPaolo’s recent projects. The severely damaged structure was headed for a complete gutting when the owners had a change of heart. DiPaolo was working nearby, refinishing the windowsills on a historic Shawmut Avenue restaurant when he was recruited to join the team of contractors working on the adjacent brownstone.
“A guy rode by on a bicycle, saw me doing the restoration work and said, ‘Would you be interested in doing the trim work on my brownstone?” It was now nighttime and a flashlight tour of the building showed a run-down but ornate residence with curved walls and lavish detailing. DiPaolo spent a year bringing the Victorian-era woodwork back to its original glory, traditionally milling every piece by hand.
“You can’t compare the workmanship that was done at that time,” said DiPaolo, who trained at the North Bennet Street School in Boston. “I have a lot of passion for our architectural heritage.”
Q: How did you get started with preservation carpentry?
A: My grandfather from Italy was a master painter who did faux finishing, mixing colors by eye. I remember watching him as a kid, wanting to emulate this pride in craftsmanship. As I got older, I spent summers helping to build homes but got bored with just framing homes and new construction. When I discovered the artistry of preservation carpentry, I fell in love with it.
Q: Are you also a history buff?
A: Yes, I keep adding to my collection of first-edition carpentry books as well as historic reference books on architecture and books on traditional joinery.
Q: What are the tools of your trade?
A: I work out of the historic Lydia-Pinkham studios where I have a loft filled with table saw, planer, wood shaver, and other machine tools. It’s here that I reproduce or replicate historic moldings and repair panel doors. But I also use old-fashioned hand planes, chisels, and backsaws that I pick up that antique shops or tool auctions. The steel and iron is a lot more durable and much better quality than today’s tools.
Q: Ever run into any ghosts while on the job in these historic properties?
A: No, nothing like that. But I have found old whiskey bottles, probably from one of the original carpenters.