As the grandson of an Italian master furniture maker and instrument builder, the son of a talented furniture maker and the nephew of two other furniture makers, Michael Vascimini's career was never in doubt. Despite his father's advice that he stay away from the family business and repeated recommendations that he become a doctor or a lawyer, Michael knew before he was a teenager that he wanted to build furniture for a living.
Maybe it was genetic, but the decision appears to have been inevitable. He is a talented furniture maker, restorer and repairer, and owner of Vascimini Woodworking in Homosassa, Fla. And his dad, who lives nearby, did receive his wish - Michael's brother, Frank, is a successful dentist.
The violin maker
Michael's grandfather, Pasquale Vascimini, was born in Italy and began his woodworking career at the age of eight as an apprentice.
"By the age of about 20 he was considered a master craftsman in Italy," says Michael. "And then he came to this country and he had done string instruments - violins, cellos, violas - as opposed to what he really made money on, which were replicas of furniture from the 18th century, such as Louis XV, Queen Anne and the like. Everything was all hand-carved. He was a perfectionist like I am."
Principal of: Vascimini Woodworking.
Shop size: approximately 7,000 sq. ft.
Business owner: 19 years.
Family history: third-generation woodworker.
Began serious woodworking: at the age of 12.
Pasquale built his own string instruments, primarily violins, using white and curly maple. He was also often called upon to repair some of the world's finest instruments, including some made by Stradivarius. He once said there were two keys to building a great violin: using old wood and making sure when the instrument was finished and played that the wood would "talk to you."
If he got bored building violins - it would take him six months to construct one - he often built ornately carved reproductions of furniture made by Duncan Phyfe, Hepplewhite and Chippendale. Pasquale moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., in the early 1900s and established his own shop, equipped with only a lathe and a band saw. He had three sons who also went into the family business - Pasquale Jr., John and Frank (Michael's father).
There's no doubt that woodworking was much different 75 to 100 years ago.
"My grandfather originally had the two machines, but then disconnected them because the insurance was too high," explains Michael. "When he needed to use them, he used them on the weekend, connected them and, on Monday, they were disconnected again. Those were the only two machines that he owned. I have the lathe here; the band saw was sold.
"The three boys wanted to go into business ... and they asked my grandfather and he said, 'Well, we'll start off by buying a house.' So they bought a house, they renovated it - it took two years - they had their machines in the basement. One ceiling went up seven times because it didn't meet his criteria."
Both of Michael's uncles took jobs doing restoration work in New York City for high-end clients and even some work for the White House. Eventually the two uncles set up a shop in Bay Ridge, N.J., where they worked for about 50 years.
"They did restoration, new work, re-upholstering and actually built couches from scratch, antique restoring and full interior design. They would go in and do the drapes, the rugs and an entire room; whereas I will only do upholstery work when I am restoring an antique - as long as it doesn't concern sewing. However, my dad worked with my grandfather in a forcing way because of my grandmother."
For all those custom woodworkers who say they were "self taught," it is safe to say Michael was "family taught." He learned the trade at home, but only after much reluctance on his father's part. His dad was determined that his son follow a different career path than he had. But Michael was adamant, even before he was a teenager.
"My training was from more 'wanting it' than being taught it because I always fought tooth-and-nail all the way to do this. And I had to actually beg my dad to let me go to work because he didn't want me to do this. I guess the first job that I remember was in New York City, I believe it was a chapel they did, and I was about 12 years old. I remember going up three stories of scaffolding and that was the first job I did with the shop. I didn't have anything to do with building it, but that was my first 'take him on a job.' "
And then there was the story about the eighth-grade graduation, wanting a workbench and losing a nail - as in a fingernail. All the youngest Vascimini wanted was to become a woodworker like everyone else in his family and it all came down to a mishap to finally achieve his wish.
"For my eighth-grade graduation, I begged for a workbench and my father would not do it, so I went out in the garage and I had a skill saw, which is a jig saw basically, and out of 2x4's I tried to make my own workbench," Michael recalls. "But I hit my hand with a hammer, lost my nail and was bleeding, and my dad at that point felt sorry and we went to the shop to make the bench."
His father had finally relented.
"We went to the old Rudolph Bass location in New Jersey and my father said, 'Now this is your graduation gift. The bench is here and now we are going to get you some tools.' He bought me a table saw, a band saw and a grinder. Those were the three new machines for my eighth-grade graduation. Then we went down to the used place and I ended up getting a 12" disc sander and those were my machines. I had all of them in my basement. This all started in the eighth grade and that's when I actually started building furniture in my basement."
His parents moved to Florida and all through high school and even into college Michael built furniture, filling the entire house with his custom work. It was a sign of things to come. Once he was married, he built a bedroom set, dining set and other pieces for his own home.
Off to Florida
After graduating high school, Michael earned an engineering degree at New York Institute of Technology. He worked three years as an engineer with now-defunct Digital Equipment in New York City. During his final year at the company, he decided to move to Florida, open his own business and build furniture.
With the assistance of his family, he purchased land for a shop in Homosassa, on Florida's Gulf Coast. It took a year from the time of the land purchase to survive the lengthy permit process and have the shop built. In June 1991, he opened his 7,000-sq. ft. showroom and shop. In case anyone had any doubt, the third generation of Vascimini woodworkers was definitely born.
"The building was built, my father put the building up for me, and I furnished all the machinery and we did a lot of the outside work," he recalls. "When I opened up these doors I had about $200 in the bank. We initially got work during the year we were building this building and my brother, who is a dentist, told patients about me and I probably had about six months of work when I opened up. People waited for me and that's how it started."
Owning a business
Being a new shop owner, one of the first problems Michael encountered was that he had a beautiful showroom connected to his shop, but he had nothing to put in it.
"People thought in the first year that I was going out of business because I had all this work and my showroom was empty. So I ended up taking on about four or five furniture lines; I was a Harding dealer, I was a Jasper dealer and some of the other companies I used to deal with while working with my dad. So I was trying to almost be a furniture dealer and a custom guy. The showroom, for the first four or five years, amounted to selling other guy's furniture to make it look like a showroom. It was something we had to do just for business."
But the business struggled. Selling high-end custom wooden furniture during the 1990s in western Florida wasn't the most popular way to operate.
"The furniture business, as far as selling other people's furniture, didn't really work out because we picked all expensive companies. We were going to struggle to portray quality here as opposed to going into the Formica business, because at the time, back in the '90s, if you had a cabinet shop in Citrus County you were building Formica cabinets. All of these houses that were being built didn't get wood kitchens, they got all laminate kitchens. We wanted to do quality, so we picked quality companies, but it was hard to sell them."
For his first 10 years, Michael worked alone or had some occasional help. His father didn't want to have anything to do with the business. The philosophical difference between the two generations, although they were family, was large.
"After I bought my first set of machinery, which at the time was all Delta, as things broke I ended up upgrading - I now have some more high-end equipment back there. But my dad was like, 'You don't need that. Why are you doing that?' He was from a shop that never owned a planer."
Michael will take orders for almost anything - cabinetry, furniture, architectural millwork, antique restoration, refinishing and repair. Although he doesn't carve as much as his father or grandfather did, carving is part of his repertoire as is a limited amount of metal work. He prefers business within the local area, but will travel as far as two hours to Orlando if a project is big enough.
"Business comes in spurts for me," he says. "Through the years, I would do three kitchens in a year and then in two years not do a kitchen at all. Then there are some years where I have had a lot of restoration. But the one thing that has always been constant has been the refinishing. There is also something in here that is always getting refinished or repaired because obviously they are not the big-ticket items."
Now there is an opportunity to carry on the Vascimini woodworking tradition to a fourth generation. With business inconsistent at the moment, Michael has a new assistant, his son Michael Jr. Maybe, just maybe, there is another generation of Vascimini furniture makers on the horizon.
"I have a son, Michael Jr., who is 13 and helps out a lot around here," says the proud father. "He helps me cut up the panels, put things together, comes after school, and he worked this summer quite a bit here."
Contact: Vascimini Woodworking, 5175 South Suncoast Blvd., Homosassa, FL 34446. Tel: 352-628-9010. www.vascimini-woodworking.com
This article originally appeared in the May 2010 issue.