Gardner Pickering standing next to the new CNC machine at Hewes & Company of Blue Hill.
BLUE HILL – Life is full of twists and turns some we decide and others are decided for us. As we make our way through grade school and high school the decision of what to do after we graduate begins to loom on the horizon. Some know exactly the path they want, but others head out with little or no direction. Some head off to college, many find their way there, but others end up with a useless degree and huge debt. Some go out into the real world and still manage to find a path that leads success, like Paul Gardner Pickering did.
Gardner’s grandfather on his mother’s side was James Robbins, a boatbuilder and fisherman from Stonington. Many will remember his shop and house at the end of the causeway when you are leaving Billing’s Diesel & Marine. James lived to be 105 years old and the Army would not take him saying that his heart was weak. During World War II he became the foreman at Billing’s building the 40-foot oak planked Navy tugs. Gardner added, “I went fishing summers with my him, which I loved doing. I loved being down there. I spent as much of every summer as I could down there. In fact when I was like 16, and I got my driver’s license, and a beat up car that is where I would go for my summers. My parents didn’t care. They knew where I was and I was either with Walker my father’s father or James, my mother’s father.
Walker Pickering, Gardner’s grandfather on his father’s side, ran the Deer Isle Village Store that was S. Pickering & Sons, which began in the 1870s Walker would have been the 6th generation to run it and that burned in 1971, the night his brother was born. My father wanted to escape Deer Isle plus he just got a degree as a commercial accountant so they didn’t rebuild. My grandfather was mid-late 60s. He graduated in 1929 with an engineering degree. That was a really bad time to graduate with an engineering degree. He went home and taught math at the high school and he never got an engineering job. His father died young of a heart attack and there were two brothers, Walker actually wanted to stay and run the store and Carl, Carl escaped into the diplomatic corp.”
Continuing on about his grandfather James, “I would spend summers with James go fishing and when I moved back in ’90, didn’t have anything to do, said Gardner, “he refused to let me go fishing. He told me outright that I couldn’t do that. He said there is no future in this and he was right about scallops, right about haddock and right about hake. He, Steve and Arthur Barter, the three of them, would shut off coves all night, sleep on the nets and then go lobstering the next day. I can’t imagine how many hours that man was working when he was in his 30s, it was non-stop. Herring was really gambling. You depended on lobsters to make money day to day and then the herring, you might go all summer and not catch any, and if you hit it, there was a year’s pay. He was right about all those fisheries, they are all gone. The only thing he was wrong about was lobsters.”
Gardner said he would have gone lobstering, but his wife (Maria) disagrees. “At one point I was offered the foreman’s job at Billings Diesel,” said Gardner. “This was mostly for affect; it wasn’t really going to happen. I went home and told my wife and I said, ‘I can get my grandfather’s house right now, I can get his job at Billing’s, I can walk to work, I would never have to drive again. I would never have to leave Stonington again.’ And she said, ‘That sounds like a really good situation for you because you would have all kinds of spare time to do all of your own cooking, cleaning, and washing because I won’t be there.’
“The Pickering’s landed in Portsmouth, New Hampshire,” added Gardner “which was Strawbery Banke, in 1625. We left a repressive regime and escaped from prosecution in New Hampshire in 1760 and they landed on Pickering Island off Little Deer Isle just in time for the Revolution. I have found the documentation saying that we were in the battle of Castine in 1779. The British were paying cash money to build the fort so John Pickering, Sr. and Jr. signed right up. The militia was paying cash money to attack the fort so basically they signed on with the militia too. Supposedly we were there when the militia made the one charge on the fort. It’s in the British records that the commander told his men that they were to fire once for honor, and then surrender because he couldn’t hold the fort. He fired once, the militia ran and they never charged again. They spent the next four weeks with the militia and the Navy arguing about who is going in next and neither one of them did. The British held the fort for several years after the peace treaty was signed. They were waiting to be relieved by an American garrison which never came. Anyway, my family moved from Little Deer Isle to Deer Isle proper.
Timothy Pickering was a cobbler. When he was young he started buying old schooners and went into the shipping business. He established the store and the schooners that were running to Boston and back. They would take firewood and hay and butter and eggs to Boston and trade them for mercantile goods and bring them back in the store. Timothy established the store then Samuel ran it, then Emery ran it and then Walker.
“I am the first one in my family not to go to college in five generations,” said Gardner. “They didn’t even go to sea. They owned the ships and stayed onshore. They never went anywhere, just stayed on Deer Isle.”
Gardner’s wife is from Grand Manan and lived there until she was 19. They talked about moving out there when her mother was sick, but she did not want move back. When asked what it was like out there, Gardner said, “It’s a little boring. Fish farming is big. They have a nice grocery store, school, hospital and the ferry is really nice. My wife is the youngest of eight, her mother was the youngest of nine, her father is the oldest of five, so she is related to everybody out there. There was a boat shop over there too that was active. That was run by her cousins, every place there was run by her cousins and they were finishing off Young Brothers hulls too. They are far enough off, they still have herring weirs. Maria’s father ran a herring boat with his brothers and his father for years. He was in World War II and when he came back home he named his herring boat the ENOLA GAY.
Gardner grew up in Calais, but his roots are Deer Isle and Stonington. His father’s family is from Deer Isle and his father was a commercial accountant and worked for Georgia-Pacific. So they lived in Millinocket for a year and then off to the Woodland Paper Mill, when they lived in Calais. Gardner went from kindergarten to graduation. His mother and step-father then moved to the Hancock area and he went to work at Hannaford in Ellsworth. After a few months of that he packed up and volunteered for the Watch Tower Apprentories in New York City. He discovered that the world was a lot bigger than Calais and added, “I liked it, I did have a good time, but I kind of got that out of my system because the girl from New Brunswick who wouldn’t talk to me when I lived in Calais, her mother changed her mind. She wasn’t ready to move to New York City and I was ready to come back.”
“When I got married it’s like, okay what are we going to do,” explained Gardner. “I was shocked to find out that I was going to have to become employed and discovered that wasn’t actually easy. I was living down the road from Paul West and that was a really fortunate. We worked mostly on a couple of small sailboats he was building. He didn’t pay me much but it was definitely more than I was worth. He gave me the basics in all of this stuff. I went and did house construction for a year which I didn’t like and then I went to Young Brothers. I knew just enough that Paul had taught me that I could get a decent job there. Young Brothers, that was a four day a week job, and I was broke so I usually laid up hulls for Paul on Friday and Saturday. That is when he had that 31, so I was doing the gelcoat spraying and the hull layup for him on Friday and Saturday.”
While at Young Brothers Gardner spent three or four months on the layup crew. Then came a lucky break. He added, “Somebody went on vacation and Colby (Young) needed a helper to finish off the boats. I considered that one of the big breaks of my life; Colby and Paul West were pretty significant. When the guy came back from vacation, Colby kept me. I spent the next 3½ years finishing. He was very good to work with.”
Unfortunately, Young Brothers did not offer health insurance and that was the only reason Gardner left. Morris Yachts of Southwest Harbor did so in 1996 Gardner made the move. Gardner added, “I was also very fortunate, the last year I was at Young Brothers we built probably the fanciest boat they ever built, it was all teak. I was working for Vic Westscot, the lead, and he let me do all the fancy woodwork. He was a really good teacher and he was funny as can be. Because I had built that boat and had the pictures of it, that got me the job at Morris. I remember my second day at Morris, I put all the sharp risers in a boat, shaped them, hot glued them and said okay, where’s the resin, I need a bucket of hull and deck and the cloth and they said oh, no you’re done, the fiberglassers come and do this. This is great, I love this job.”
When Able Marine in Trenton went through bankruptcy Morris took over the facility and Gardner moved up there and began work on a 48-foot hull. He then went to work on the Morris 36s.
In the 1970s Michael Hewes came to Maine to build furniture. He did this for a time, but found it easier to hire people that could do it. This furniture business evolved into house repair, remodels and then high-end custom homes, which is the main aspect of the business today. In the early 2000s, Gardner was working as project manager of the Morris 36 for Morris Yachts in Trenton. He explained, “This was the first production boat Morris ever built so in 2004 they assigned me to do that. I had been lead carpenter at Morris Yachts for a couple years before that. Lead carpenter on a custom boat is they give you the boat and you are in charge of it. You take it right from A to Z, until it is launched. Sometimes you get to do the delivery, which was a lot of fun. Every four weeks we put a boat in the water, and we had six boats going all the time. We built them in stations and when it came time to launch, the boats would move from one station to the next. It worked relatively smoothly, but this meant that we were building the exact same boat every time. The countertop color and the cushions changed, some of them got teak decks and some of them didn’t but by and large they were identical. Mike Hewes had just bought a CNC machine to build cabinets. I contracted with Hewes to cut everything we could possibly machine so the plywood interior parts, the Formica, the Corian, the handrails, the acrylic sliders, the trim around the windows anything that we could possibly think of we were cutting on the CNC and that worked really well. That means they sent me a new kit every four weeks, sometimes they even finished the cabinets off here. So, Mike had this fancy new machine for cutting cabinets, that kept it occupied maybe 10 percent of the time so it was idle most of the time. The expense of a CNC machine is not the machine, that’s a good chunk of change, but the real cost is the guy who punches in Monday morning and is on the clock for the week who know how to run that machine. If you don’t have things to cut, you are paying him regardless. Mike hired me outright to essentially recreate what he was doing for Morris. What I knew from working at Young Brothers for five years and Morris Yachts for ten years, really helped except I didn’t know how to draw when I came here. I had to take night classes to learn how to do computer drawing.”
To make this endeavour work, Gardner hit the road to find those boatbuilders who would utilize the CNC machine. Since the time he was hired until the pandemic hit he was constantly on the road finding jobs for the machine. When the pandemic hit the work was coming in its own, to the point they have more work than they can handle. “Mike Hewes gave me a lot of freedom after a couple of years because ‘can we machine it’ that was really the only question,” he said. “We did a lot of strange things which were a lot of fun. Kind of added a little cache to the business, Mike always says that it put him in a better position to be able to sell nice houses because the people say well, if they can do this they can build a house.”
The turning point in the CNC business for Hewes & Company was when Brooklin Boat Yard started ordering parts and pieces for boats they were building digitally. Gardner added, “All of their boats are designed on the computer, they have somebody in-house who takes those designs, Will Sturdy, who is a fantastic computer draftsman, brought a lot of new ideas and so he’s drawing everything. I got this from him this morning and it’s all ready for me. They have their act together.”
Another aspect of the business of the CNC machine is cutting skiff kits. They have a two-page handout on all the models that they offer and it can keep them pretty busy at times. Gardner said, “If somebody has it drawn in CAD we can cut it. Usually what happens is designers discover how much of a pain in the neck it is to deal with customers and they just turn it over to me and I just pay a royalty to them. Some of those we have never sold, any of, but I have got the CAD drawing so I can price them out. When I do a boat show I have more people approaching me with the design that they think is the next big thing then I have people who want to build a kit. Iain Oughtred is the rock star in this world. It’s not that big of market of people that have the time, talent, money that want to do this.
“Almost the entire skiff market is doctors,” continued Gardner. “I got in trouble with this once at a Small Reach Regatta and I got called on it. I said, ‘It’s almost entirely doctors because doctors work with their hands, are generally wealthier, and went to college and you mostly have to go to college to sail. Someone at the picnic table said, ‘Okay this is a sailing group, who here went to college and who works in the medical profession,’ and almost every hand went up. I try to diplomatically ask them are you building a coffee table or are you building to use…each one is fine. A lot of them want to build a showpiece and show their friends, careful to never scratch it. Some of them are going to go down and want to sail and beat the snot out of them.”
They also offer cork decking. “We have been waiting for that to take off for a dozen years now,” said Gardner. “It never has. We do three or four a year and if it is a local shop I always go help them with the install. That way I know it is going to work.”
One never knows what someone will call to have them do. Recently someone called wanting them to laser scan a fish creel from the Smithsonian so Hewes & Company can make a mould of it. They have done a huge bridge that went to New York City, a plywood clock,
Everything changed at Hewes & Company four months ago, when they became an employee-owned company. “Mike Hewes is retiring,” said Gardner, “that changed things. It means all of the employees are invested in ownership of the company. We still have a management team, and five of us are in the management team to make decisions on the company. Four months ago, because some people left, I became the cabinet shop manager. Prior to that, I was only bringing in CNC work and I could keep two guys busy full-time. Now I am actually responsible for everything that happens down there. We are still trying to figure that out and how to make it work. I am looking to train people to do what I once did. I am training a person to at least do the labor part of it, but what you really need is somebody who can do CAD drawings. You always want the guy who draws it to be the guy who patterns it as there is just too much opportunity to mess up. I need to find somebody to take over the skiff part of the business entirely.”
There is so much business they now have two machines and two operators. I think that there are still a lot of boatbuilders and house builders that could benefit from these machines and make their life a lot easier. Too many people like the hand finish, but in business when it comes down to time a CNC machine makes perfect sense.