Old Meets New
PROFILE – OCTOBER 2008
By Joshua Bodwell
Photography Irvin Serrano
A woodworker determined to settle in Maine
I had been trying to get here for a long time,” says Alex Hamilton, his arms folded across his chest as he leans against the drafting table in his sawdust-filled office at Tidewater Millwork in Woolwich. His eyebrows rise and a smile spreads across his face.
By “here,” Hamilton means Maine.
On the other side of his office door, saws whine in the large Tidewater workshop, and the air fills with the fine powder of mahogany. A crew of five is busy turning out some of the most impressive mouldings, turnings, doors, and cabinetry in the state.
Bright-eyed, mellow, and sporting a playful patch of beard, the 58-year-old Hamilton was born and raised in Connecticut. After discovering at a young age that he had a talent for woodworking, Hamilton was building fine interiors for yachts on the Connecticut coast by his twenties. “After you do that for a while, you start thinking you can do anything,” he says of the complex joinery required for the custom interiors. Soon enough, Hamilton made the jump from yachts to high-end residential and commercial work.
The next two and a half decades were, as they say, a blur.
Between 1974 and 1999, Hamilton grew his business to a crew of twenty-five and completed woodworking projects at Carnegie Hall, Rockefeller Center, and Yale University. His residential clients included Mel Gibson, Ron Howard, Keith Richards, and George Soros.
But as the new millennium approached, Hamilton finally decided to act on a long-standing desire and settle in Maine. He had visited the state throughout his life, and his wife had summered on Isle au Haut. Hamilton had also seen his rural Connecticut community eaten up by shopping malls and sprawl. At 50 years old, he wanted a change.
Today, Tidewater Millwork operates out of several handsome outbuildings peppered around Hamilton’s house on a twenty-five-acre spread along the Kennebec River. Considering that only a small, round “TM” sign at the end of the dirt driveway announces the business, Tidewater is a surprising combination of Old World craftsmanship and cutting-edge technology.
When Hamilton moved his business to Maine, he rebuilt his shop from scratch and acquired all new tools and equipment in the process. Among the drifts of sweet-smelling sawdust—which Hamilton trades with a horse farmer down the lane for manure to fertilize his gardens—are numerous saws and sanders, a vacuum press for making veneers, and other pieces of hulking equipment. Hamilton cut no corners when he set up the shop—in addition to a seemingly endless supply of profiles for casings, mouldings, chair rails, and other types of millwork, Tidewater has the equipment on-site to make their own moulding knives for custom profiles.
“Rather than subbing out bits and pieces and possibly losing the continuity of quality, all of this equipment allows us to have complete control on a project from beginning to end,” says Hamilton.
In another shop across the driveway, a computer-driven lathe is turning out historically accurate finials for Bath’s Sagadahoc Preservation; the same machine can also turn out newels and balusters with amazing speed and accuracy. At the other end of the small room, the robotic arm on a CNC router cuts thirty-two ornamental roof brackets out of two-inch-thick slabs of mahogany from a digital rendering. After explaining that one man runs the whole operation in this room, Hamilton grins and nods as the machines whirr.
Back outside and away from the noise of steel blades, Hamilton boils his business philosophy down to three “bests.”
“I’ve always tried to get the best equipment, the best employees, and the best clients,” he says. “We have the same high-tech equipment here as much larger commercial shops—but without the highly skilled, caring people who work here, none of it would matter.”
Even though Tidewater is relatively new to Maine, the company has already built a solid reputation. Their strong relationships with some of the state’s most respected builders speak for themselves: Boothbay Home Builders, Cold Mountain Builders, Fine Lines Construction, Knickerbocker Group, Bruce Laukka, and Wright-Ryan Construction.
With the morning quickly waning and a backlog of quotes to prepare and designs to finalize, Hamilton is anxious to get back to his office. “The commute is not bad, huh,” he quips as he walks past his house to his office. Vegetables, sunflowers, and rhubarb line the path to the front door, where a cider press awaits the apples ripening on trees in the yard. The back fields, which are nearly ready to be cut, roll down to the banks of the Kennebec.
“My other title here is ‘Alex, Head of Maintenance,’” laughs Hamilton. He shrugs at all there is to do around the property—he is content to finally be here.
When Alex Hamilton was just 18 years old, he purchased nearly twenty acres of land in Belfast on a whim. “I think I paid about six thousand dollars for it,” he laughs. “But back then I couldn’t actually do anything that would have allowed me to live out there. Maine is on the edge—next stop Atlantic Ocean.”
“It’s been a lifetime of working to get here,” says Hamilton with obvious satisfaction.