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Turning Hobbies into a Business

Penfield retirees founded and own Firehouse Wood Works, which sells handmade works of wood and ceramic tile

Mike Costanza

Carolyn Robbins and her husband Paul Robbins kept their day jobs while renovating the Old Northside Firehall, which they bought in 2017.

Paul and Carolyn Robbins have turned their hobbies into work they love and an old firehouse into a business. The Penfield retirees founded and own Firehouse Wood Works, which sells handmade works of wood and ceramic tile.

The Robbins came to start their business by a roundabout path. Carolyn had ground eyeglass lenses into the proper shapes while employed as an optician, and wanted to try her hand at working with ceramic tiles. Paul supported her — for Mother’s Day, he bought his wife a “wet saw,” a special type of saw for cutting such materials.

As one of her first projects, Carolyn made a tiled tabletop to cover the fire pit that the couple had had installed in the backyard of their Penfield home.

“It’s really beautiful and I was completely hooked,” the 60-year-old said.

Soon, she was making original works for her friends.

Paul was employed in alcoholic beverage sales and marketing, but also enjoyed working with wood. On his off time, he made farmhouse-style tables and other objects for the couple’s neighbors and friends.

By 2017, they were ready to focus more upon the kind of work they really enjoyed. Plunking down their own money, they bought the Old Northside Firehall, a former village of Fairport fire station that was then the home of the Perinton Food Shelf.

For five months, the couple renovated the picturesque North Main Street building while working part-time at their day jobs. Firehouse Wood Works opened its doors in June of 2018. By then, Carolyn had already retired from her full-time job. Paul retired that December.

The smell of sawed wood filled the air of Firehouse Wood Works one recent winter’s day. Cutting boards of mahogany, walnut, purpleheart and other types of wood gleamed on shelves and a table, along with charcuterie boards and other objects.

“Right now, my biggest interest is working with all the different varieties of hardwoods,” said Paul, 61.

Carolyn Robbins operates equipment to cut ceramic tiles while her husband, Paul Robbins, puts together a wooden frame.

Engraved and painted signs offered words of welcome and jokes, and a rough “live edge” walnut tabletop waited to be smoothed and finished for a customer.

Paul particularly enjoys working with that type of wood, which he obtains from a local man who operates a small sawmill and a wood kiln as a hobby.

“To be able to take the wood and the character of it, and turn it into a piece of furniture, I think, it is probably the most remarkable thing,” he said.

Next to it sat a small oak side table in the shape of a trapezoid, a piece the shop custom made for Fairport resident Pam Ryan.

“I have a trapezoidal-shaped space between my reading chair and our window to our deck,” Ryan said.

Ryan has also turned to the Robbins for mosaic tile tabletops and cutting boards.

“They do great work and they’re fun people to talk to,” she said.

Serving boards, plaques and other intricate works of specially cut ceramic tiles offered colorful counterpoints to the shop’s wooden products. Above and behind the shop’s desk stood a large work bearing a bright, cheery jungle scene. Fairport resi

dent and regular Firehouse Wood Works customer Susan Papa ordered the piece, which was a gift for the granddaughter of her husband’s office manager.

“Whenever I ask Carolyn to make something, I give her free rein,” Papa said when she picked up the piece. “I give her guidelines and she comes up with something magical every time.”

That kind of response helps keep the Robbins coming back to their shop.

“What I love is the reaction that I get from the customers when they see the finished piece,” Carolyn said.

In addition to offering individual items, Firehouse Wood Works takes on larger projects. It recently sold 17 handmade tables to a new village café.

Folks who aren’t in the market for ceramic-tiled tabletops, charcuterie boards or other goods might head to Firehouse Wood Works to peruse the Robbins’ collection of fire department memorabilia. Ranks of antique fire extinguishers hang on one wall, a display of fire department uniform patches adorns another and firefighter helmets, coats and pants hang on hooks, seemingly ready for action.

Much of the equipment in the collection was made by American LaFrance, a now-defunct company that once made fire engines and firefighting equipment in Paul’s original hometown, Elmira. Herbert Robbins, Paul’s late father, was a lifelong member of the West Elmira Volunteer Fire Department, and Paul was an active member of that department from the 1970s to the early 1980s. He and his wife of 33 years have two grown children.

Top image: The Old Northside Firehall, a former village of Fairport fire station that was then the home of the Perinton Food Shelf, is now the Fire Wood Works.