WARREN, Maine — Woodworker Paul Sampson really loves serving — and eating — oysters but has found that the often ornate glass and pottery oyster platters available in stores to present the mollusks do not hold up under hard use.
“These are quite abrasive,” he said, holding up a rough, gray oyster shell. “They scar them up. And taking a really nice platter outside — well, I’ve broken a ton of them.”
Enter his brainchild Oyster River Joinery, a company that began as a hobby and an outlet for his creativity. Through it, Sampson makes handcrafted platters out of wood that are shaped like oysters, shrimp, fish and even a chicken, complete with indentions where the oysters on the half-shell and other offerings can safely be nestled into the tray. The trays — carved from such wood as cherry, mahogany, red birch, walnut and yellow birch — have a warm glow and a festive feel.
They make Sampson happy, too. He has spent his life crafting custom-milled flooring and precise architectural elements at A.E. Sampson & Son, the company his father started in 1978 at the family farm in Lincolnville. Now five people work in the Warren factory, making flooring that mostly is sold in New England. It’s a good business, but Sampson said what puts a smile on his face is carving the whimsical trays for Oyster River Joinery.
“If I have too much on my mind, these guys put me in a great mood — they really do,” he said of the trays, adding that he wants the new company to eventually be his retirement project. “I wanted something that wasn’t tied to the building industry, which is like a roller-coaster ride.”
Oyster River Joinery recently was cited as one of the best new products at the New England Made Giftware and Specialty Food Show. Sampson said he sells as many as he can make, which is about 400 platters per year. At one trade show he attended, other people said that number should be what he produces daily. But that’s not what Sampson wants — he values the handcraft he puts into each one.
“I love making them,” he said. “I made a promise to myself not to do all the things I really regret with the other business. I want to rely on myself, not a machine. I want something to do in a power outage.”
He started with a collection of odd pieces of wood that were destined for the firewood box.
“I’d think, oh, this is so cool — I’ve got to use this,” Sampson said. “The board calls out to me.”
The roughed-out, unfinished platters don’t look too special to an untrained eye. But the woodworker knows better and chisels out the indentations before sanding and polishing with beeswax to let the hardwood’s beauty shine through. The finished platters, each bearing unique markings because each piece of wood is different, have visible striations in the wood and chisel marks from his four hours of handiwork.
“I just wanted to go to my grave knowing that I made a few things that I wanted to make,” Sampson said.