Three winters ago, Mick Hargreaves was trapped indoors during a February blizzard with nothing to keep him occupied but a pile of driftwood that he’d planned to burn to keep warm.
Mr. Hargreaves, a bass player, guitarist, sailor and all-around handyman from Springs, needed a night table at the time, and out of the pile of driftwood, he found the perfect pieces to build that night stand—the first of many washed up works of functional art he would go on to create.
The artist later sold that night table and has spent the past few years building unique bookshelves, spice racks, cupboards, tables, mantelpieces, coat racks and pirate chests that are now available at three boutiques on the East End.
He did the work between his other gigs as a snowboard instructor, bass player for the band Matty Liot & the Big Up, which frequently plays at The Stephen Talkhouse, and as a graphic artist.
When Mr. Hargreaves talks about where he finds the driftwood, though, he starts to clam up.
“It’s parallel to surfing,” he says. “We don’t want to give up our spots.”
Usually, after a good strong nor’easter, Mr. Hargreaves spends the day four-wheeling on beaches; he won’t say quite where they are, but will concede that they are both bay and ocean beaches and that they are mostly east of the Shinnecock Canal. He’s usually on the lookout for good surf breaks created by the shifting sandbars under waters made turbulent by the storms’ winds, but he’s also looking for washed up trees, pieces of shipwrecks and docks broken loose by the heavy weather.
On a recent Friday, a cold and windy Friday, the air had the first hints of winter in it and Mr. Hargreaves had just lit a hurricane lamp in his rented workshop in Springs. He began to stare down his next project—a sturdy desk, with legs made out of washed-up tree trunks and a writing surface that he believes was once the planking of the steps to a ship wrecked at sea.
“You want it to be the kind of thing that looks good with one of these on top of it,” he said, putting the hurricane lamp on the halfway-finished desk and warming his hands over it.
Working with driftwood is a unique craft that involves more than just the skills of good carpentry and solid dowel construction. In the years that he has been building driftwood furniture, Mr. Hargreaves has become an expert on just what makes a piece of driftwood sturdy enough to become part of a piece of furniture that will last for years.
By prying at the wood with his fingernails and studying every crack and warp, he usually rejects more than half of the wood that he finds before it even leaves the beach.
“You can hit it on a rock and know” if the wood is good, he said. “It’s like a baseball player tapping his bat on home plate to see if it’s cracked.”
Straight lines, which are so necessary to the average carpenter, are seldom found in nature, leaving Mr. Hargreaves to spend many hours pondering the fit between each of the planks and stumps that he has chosen, trying to find a way to level up the only two necessary straight surfaces in his creations—where the piece touches the floor, and its surface.
“Even if I found a straight piece of wood, there’s no straight line,” he said. “The wood is the boss, as opposed to me. There are no real rules. It’s gotta be level to the floor and on top. What happens in between doesn’t matter.”
The gnarled and curved aspects of the works are particularly highlighted in his “ship’s bow beam” end tables made of the planking of a large shipwreck and in an innovative crannied set of bookends that Mr. Hargreaves calls “the bookshelves that dominate the books.”
“The wood kind of talks to you,” he said. “But when things go wrong I talk to the wood. When you’re in the wood shop and the sawdust is flying, it’s really a good time.”
Mr. Hargreaves has grown his business slowly and deliberately, in order to not rush the pace of a craft that is time and labor-intensive. His creations can be found at Beach Bungalow in Sag Harbor, at the Aloha Gallery in Montauk and at another vintage shop called Whoa! Nellie! in Jamesport on the North Fork.
“It’s not intended to be art with a capital A,” he said. “I want it to be sturdy and affordable,” he added, looking at a coffee table in the corner of his workshop.
“You can dance on this thing,” he said.
The pieces also represent serious sweat equity—he sometimes carries wood on his back for long distances in order to take it off of the beach and he usually picks up trash along the way.
Much of the hardware that he uses is recycled as well—old barn hinges found on eBay are a specialty, though Mr. Hargreaves is currently boycotting eBay due to its new policy of not accepting checks and money orders.
Copper nails, which weather with a nautical greenish-blue tint, are also common features of his work, as well as rope handles, which are a hallmark of one of his most common requests—a pirate’s treasure chest.
Many of the pieces also include secret compartments, though Mr. Hargreaves won’t divulge to casual browsers the details of where those hidden compartments are.
Right now, Mr. Hargreaves is at the end of a cycle of building, running out of wood just in time to put on his gloves and start hunting for the driftwood treasures brought in by the storms of winter.
“I look which way the wind blows and I hunt accordingly,” he said.