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When Armando Reyes moved to Erie, Pa. from Chicago in 2007, he was pursuing a job opportunity in the automotive industry, a career which he’d trained for and highly anticipated. Now, as the owner of Lake Erie Woodworks, he’s clearly had a change of heart as to his true calling.

Reyes’ full-service custom woodworking company was officially formed in 2018 and has thrived and survived due to his passion and drive. With a sufficient backlog, its future looks bright. It’s also one of the city’s many entities helping shed positive light in an area historically known for bouts of economic depression.

Reyes works on a sign commission at his shop in Erie, Pa.

Reyes works on a sign commission at his shop in Erie, Pa.

“There’s a big shift happening in Erie. Part of the change that’s going on is there are a lot of new businesses, a lot of new people, a lot of energy to revitalize the city. The city has a new push for economic development. A lot of exciting things are happening,” says Reyes.

While only in business for four years, Reyes has an optimal setup in his spacious shop to work on residential and commercial jobs throughout the county. He recently hired his first employee and is offering workshops through his Lake Erie School of Woodworking that have been well-received by the community.

A hobby no more

Reyes’ grandfather moved to the U.S. from Mexico in 1956 and made his way doing woodworking and small projects and passed the skills on to his seven sons. This came in handy for many of the family members who owned apartment buildings in Chicago and left an impression on Reyes.

“I was always a hobbyist woodworker. My grandfather was a woodworker, my uncles, my father, all did woodworking. They had basement workshops for taking care of homes. Nobody ever did full-time woodworking, but they all had a passion for it.”

While in high school, Reyes decided to attend trade school to become an auto mechanic. He found employment with Audi in Erie and says, “It was a wonderful job. I never anticipated not doing that anymore.”

The career change just kind of happened. After setting up shop in the family’s garage, a hobby snowballed quickly.

“I started turning the small projects I was doing for myself into ones for friends and family. I started getting more experience and getting better and people were noticing. With social media I would post projects that I was working on and new things that I was doing, and friends of friends and family started asking for things, so I started making more things. Eventually that kept growing. I figured I’d start a website and social media page and see where it would take me.”

Reyes has one employee, Carlos Ruiz.

Reyes has one employee, Carlos Ruiz.

The leap of faith

By 2018, Reyes found himself burning the candle at both ends, repairing cars by day and making furniture and cabinetry projects for his new side business on nights and weekends. The following year, he quit his job and moved into his current shop to complete a large commercial project.

“In the fall of 2019 I was approached by a new distillery opening in town, the Altered State Distillery, and they asked me to first build some cabinets and shelving for their space and I agreed to that. A few weeks later they asked me to take on the entire project, so it turned into a bar and tables, cabinetry and shelving. I knew I couldn’t build out of my garage, so this is when we found this commercial space, moved in and started getting to work. It was kind of the turning point for me to finally get to leave my full-time job and take the plunge.”

His 1,700-sq.-ft. shop features an X-Carve CNC machine; SawStop table saw; Grizzly 12” jointer and 19” band saw; South Bend helical head planer; Shaper Origin; Festool Domino, track saw and sanders; Makita cordless tools, and Fuji Spray Q5 Platinum HVLP system.

Erie has a bunch of empty buildings and parking lots reflecting its once-vibrant industrial past. But there’s a spirited flare to go with that backdrop, from modern storefronts with bright signs to tasteful hand-painted murals that signify an evolving city that appreciates a job well done.

“Erie is very much a word-of-mouth type place, so the more we can get involved with things, not only with customers but with other businesses and community organizations and knowing people in the city government, that’s all helpful to what we’re doing. We’ve done little news segments where they include small businesses, the next day people say they saw us on the news. The more we can get involved with people surrounding woodworking and be more of a hub working in the community that will help grow our name.”

Recent projects have included this living room built-in with a barn beam mantle and a 3D wall art panel.

Recent projects have included this living room built-in with a barn beam mantle and a 3D wall art panel.

A promising demographic

Reyes’ target area is most of Erie County which spans a 60-mile radius from New York to Ohio. It has a growing population of prospective clients seeking high-end work including furniture, millwork and commercial solutions. Growth in medical and educational segments has helped the local economy.

“We have two major hospitals and so there are a lot of doctors and nurses, and a few major universities so there are a lot of professors and higher educated people. The one thing that we have lost is a lot of manufacturing. A lot of people who were working manufacturing have since lost those jobs. There’s a pretty big income spread because the zip code that we’re located in, which is 16501, in 2019 was the poorest zip code in the U.S.

“But again, we still have this influx of the very wealthy, and there’s a lot of generational wealth here. For all of those companies that shut down, now you see the lineage of those family names around here.”

Jobs are favoring residential and run the gamut from rustic to modern. A recent customer wanted a different look the fireplace. “They had a very decorative mantel with crown molding and carvings but they didn’t like it, so we pulled all that out and used big barn beams for the mantle, and floating shelves, and all that was done with reclaimed materials,” says Reyes.

Lake-Erie-abstract

Longevity is the goal

After the initial Covid pandemic outbreak in 2020, Reyes experienced a significant lull and even worked on the side at a friend’s remodeling business which had plenty of work. But he bounced back in 2021 with 30 jobs, leading him to hire his first employee, Carlos Ruiz. And there’s plenty of work in the pipeline this year, reflected by a four- to six-week backlog,

“I’d say 2021 was our first full year in business. Right around the new year in January, I started getting phone calls and emails, and jobs coming through the website again, and eventually sold enough projects it was time for me to come back to this, and my friend was very understanding.”

He plans to continue working on the company’s brand and image, promoting it through social media channels. Reyes also wants to expand on his school to be a credit to the community as a whole. He offers individual and group lessons.

“We started a local woodworking group and started teaching classes and want to bring people in here if they need help with something. I just want to be open and accessible. A group contacted us about helping kids in the juvenile system and asked if we’d do a workshop with them, I said ‘yes, absolutely.’ So, I want to expand on that. Part of our limitation is obviously the size of the shop. We can only be doing one thing at one time.”

Reyes, who turns 40 this year, enjoys spending time with his family outside of work. His wife is a program director for an after-school program and they have two children, ages 10 and 7. He’s confident he made the right choice by switching careers.

“I did love my job, but after about 15 years into the automotive career it starts to wear on you, and the industry was changing. I thought this was the great opportunity and what better way to live your life than pursue your passion. So, I figured it was time to take the jump.”

Contact: Lake Erie Woodworks, 1113 Walnut St., Erie, PA 16501. Tel: 814-5668072. lakeeriewoodworks.com 

This article was originally published in the March 2022 issue.

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