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Blacksmiths, coopers and other old-school trades masters thrive on LI

Blacksmith Rachel Miller at work at her shop,

Blacksmith Rachel Miller at work at her shop, Spirit Ironworks in Bayport, on Thursday, Nov. 5, 2015. Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

It may seem as if trades like blacksmithing and tailoring are ancient history, but some businesses on Long Island still practice these crafts, whose origins date back hundreds of years.

The advancement of time and technology have not relegated the skills of blacksmiths, coopers and other historical businesses to the annals of "once upon a time." Several small-business owners on Long Island still find a demand for their services. They survive by word of mouth and community outreach.

"A lot of people come to us because of what we are," said Tim Miller, a blacksmith.



Jacques Chalikian is a fourth-generation clock repairman at his family's Oyster Bay business, which specializes in repairs but also operates as a jeweler and restoration boutique.

The family trade started in Turkey in 1864, moved to Paris in 1920, New York in 1939 and its Nassau location in 1950.

Chalikian, 70, who goes by Jack, said he has always had an interest in the trade, even though he wanted to be a surgeon growing up. In his junior year of college, he said he knew he had the "talent in his hands" for clockwork.

He laments the lack of interets in the craft or in apprenticeships.

"The success in restoring pieces and bringing them back to life are the reasons why I rush back into work," Chalikian said.


East Coast Wood Barrels

Master cooper George Voicu and his son-in-law, Michael Georgacopoulos, man the helms of Medford-based East Coast Wood Barrels.

Coopering is the craft of making barrels mostly out of oak and acacia wood, which comes from Europe, for whiskey and winemakers. The company specializes in the manufacturing of European oak wine barrels and American oak whiskey barrels.

"A lot of the techniques we use are traditional techniques," said Georgacopoulos, 28, of New Hyde Park. "We use the same methods they've been using for 100 years."

Georgacopoulos trained in Romania and France, where Voicu, 59, and a resident of Great Neck, learned the trade when he was young.

The company, which has a dozen employees, has been open for 4 1/2 years and is the only cooperage on the East Coast, according to Georgacopoulos. The company provides customers, most of whom are on the East Coast, with what Georgacopoulos called "a different level of service," which, he added, distillers tell each other about.

"The best aspect of the business is when you tell someone you're a cooper," Georgacopoulos said. "It's so rare. It's a good feeling seeing that first piece of wood and seeing how it becomes a barrel."


Montella Custom Tailor

Sebastiano Montella started the business about 10 years ago and now works with his two children, Michelina and Fabio Montella.

The Bellport shop offers custom suits and clothing for men and women and specializes in custom handmade suits and dress clothes for everyday working people.

Michelina, 39, of Shirley, said her father, who is 62, began tailoring clothes when he was about 7. When she and her brother were young, she said they would apprentice under him after school.

"It's a dying art," she said. "Like when an animal's extinct, you can never get it back. We keep it alive."


The Bomba Works

Joe Santiago is the person Puerto Rican and Dominican percussionists go to on Long Island.

He uses aluminum and barrels to make a special Puerto Rican type of drum called a bomba. Santiago, who works out of his Westbury garage, said he's always been into drumming and that his "business" is more of a hobby that grew out of his friends' need for drum repairs. He's done it for about eight years and said he also makes drums out of the trunks of trees, calling them solid shell drums.

Santiago makes three or four drums a year. His material of choice for bombas is aluminum, which he said he uses because he noticed that many drums that deteriorate are damaged by the weather or are made of wood, which makes them more prone to rot and deterioration or more susceptible to hot and cold temperature extremes. Whether he's tuning drums or building them, Santiago said he does it to help preserve the music of his culture.

"The thing is, I feel very fortunate to help my cultural music," Santiago said. "I'm able to take the drums to the next level, and I think I'm achieving that. I try to support people who can keep the music alive."


Spirit Ironworks

Siblings Rachel and Tim Miller own Spirit Ironworks in Bayport. As modern-day blacksmiths, they forge iron to make art, furniture and chandeliers. Their work graces private homes and public landmarks, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, on which they have done repairs.

"It's like we're giving a little gift to the world," said Tim Miller, 42, of Patchogue. "There's nothing like driving down the street and seeing what you built."

Their father, Harry Miller, has been a small-businessman for more than 50 years. He owns Miller's Mint in Patchogue -- which buys and sells gold, silver and old, valuable coins -- and taught his children the importance of pursuing what they love.

"We were always encouraged to explore our passions as long as we work hard at it," said Rachel Miller, 45, of Bayport.

Much of the work done at Spirit Ironworks, which has several other employees, involves heating metal to the point where it's soft enough to be bent. When it is, blacksmiths can mold it to create the shapes they need.

Drill presses, anvils and hammers are some of the tools of the trade for the Millers. While technology has helped the craft along, many of today's tools also were used hundreds of years ago.

The siblings agree their craft is still relevant. For Rachel Miller, the creative process is a particular asset. "I love working with customers," she said. "It's like you're giving birth to something."

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