After a Devastating Fire, ‘the Black Lumberjack’ Forges Ahead

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While he now has a staff of four, his business began as a one-man show.

“Mount Vernon is a predominantly black neighborhood, and with black culture, sometimes the strangest things earn you a nickname, so the people became familiar with me and started calling me ‘the black lumberjack,’” Mr. Rising said.

The nickname initially was a concern, but when Mr. Rising realized he could market it, he bought the domain Blacklumberjack.com, printed the web address on shirts and hired an artist to paint the name on a shipping container in the yard he works out of in Hartsdale, northeast of Yonkers.

The yard, at least for now, has been Mr. Rising’s makeshift work space since Jan. 30, when a fire tore through the warehouse where his shop was. The warehouse was part of the Alexander Smith and Sons Carpet Mills complex, which housed workshops for artists, woodworkers and cabinet makers.

The cause of the fire is still being investigated, according to the Yonkers Fire Department, but the automatic sprinkler turned on after nearly 100 firefighters had extinguished the flames, leaving four feet of water in Mr. Rising’s shop, which held thousands of dollars worth of machinery.

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A Skilsaw on the floor of the temporary shop. Since the fire, Mr. Rising and his staff have had to use hand tools for many jobs that were formerly done by heavy machinery in his old workshop.

Credit
Karsten Moran for The New York Times

“I was kind of in shock when it first happened,” Mr. Rising said.

Still, he said he was looking at this rebuilding stage as just another challenge.

Mr. Rising is using the shipping container with a hole cut in the back for ventilation, and a 2,000-square foot greenhouse in his yard — with no heat or electricity — as home base for him and his staff. There, they make what they can and host do-it-yourself events for customers hoping to make their own furniture.

Two of those customers, Sam Ballantyne, 27, and Hannah Johnson, 25, showed up at the demolished warehouse in mid-February expecting to work with a slab from an oak tree that fell during Hurricane Sandy, which would become a dining table in Mr. Ballantyne’s Brooklyn apartment.

Mr. Rising picked up the couple in his 1992 Chevrolet 16-passenger sport van, which now has seats only for the driver and one passenger, usually whoever is helping with delivery. Mr. Ballantyne rode on a tire in the back.

“We drove out into this yard and they had a shipping container rigged up and open so the light from outside was coming in, and it was a very rough setup,” Mr. Ballantyne said. “Robert is really friendly, and you could tell he was improvising and wanted it to work out under the circumstances. It’s incredible that what could be a business-ending experience, having your warehouse burned down, led to a great experience for us.”

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Stacks of salvaged wood sit in Mr. Rising’s lumber yard in Hartsdale, N.Y. He began learning to work with wood about 12 years ago, and created a furniture-making business several years later.

Credit
Karsten Moran for The New York Times

Other customers are offering help.

George Bianco, a 61-year-old financial analyst for Merrill Lynch, was hoping to work with Mr. Rising on flooring for a new barn. Mr. Bianco, who lives in Bedford, N.Y., plans to host community events and pop-up dinners in the barn. When he visited Mr. Rising’s shop before the fire, he fell in love with tables and furniture.

“Unless he’s got someplace I don’t know about, what’s missing is that he should have a showroom,” Mr. Bianco said. “Robert’s a special guy with the way he looks at his work as a recycler and a woodworker, but he’s also got a very high sense of design and aesthetic appreciation.”

Mr. Bianco is hoping to partner with NYCitySlab and put tables and furniture in an informal showroom in the barn.

For Mr. Rising now, it’s a waiting game. Though he has secured a new shop location in Yonkers, he can’t get to his potentially ruined equipment until the Fire Department has concluded its investigation.

Still, he is cheerful as he talks about the fire, the future of his business, and his current projects, like tables for Coach’s headquarters at Hudson Yards on Manhattan’s Far West Side, wood for Fender to use for Brooklyn-themed guitars, and benches for Roberto Clemente State Park in the Bronx.

“I have to talk about all this with a smile on my face,” Mr. Rising said. “If I was to dwell and get into the bad part of it, I wouldn’t be able to function. It’s devastating. So, I look at the silver lining.”

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