Paul Birkey: A Whole in the Water Surrounded by Wood

Paul Birkey:  A Whole in the Water Surrounded by Wood

“My whole working career has been centered around the waterfront,” confessed Paul Birkey, the owner of Belina Interiors. His company specializes in yacht interiors, building everything from wheelhouses and galleys to freestanding furniture. Wander their web site and you will see flawless antique reproductions, fine upholstered furniture, and stunning wood interiors, all of which make waves among the finest yachts sailing the seven seas.

Naturally, someone so thoroughly devoted to these watery crafts must have grown up with the sea in his veins, right? Wrong.

“I grew up in Jackson, Wyoming, a landlocked area, and came out here after college at the University of Wyoming in order to be a ski bum. I was an English major, a background which provides the perfect training for such work,” Paul chuckles, tongue firmly in cheek.

“Initially, I tried to work in Vancouver, British Columbia, but could not get a work permit. Instead, I decided to stick around in Seattle, but my timing was awful. I arrived around 1974, right in the middle of a major Pacific Northwest recession. Things were so bad, largely due to massive layoffs at the huge Boeing plants, that locals claim someone put up a billboard saying ‘Last one out of Seattle, turn out the lights.’ It was the perfect time for me to be looking for a job.

“I thought I might be able to get on a ship, and wandered down to the waterfront. I ended up at Vic Franck’s boat shop, where workers were busy building a 90-foot hull. I looked around, smelled the smells, and decided this was what I wanted to do, and set out to get hired. As embarrassing as it sounds, I actually said the words ‘I don’t have any experience, but I am a quick learner,’ which is surely the most trite expression in the history of job hunting. Finally, I managed to get a job at a company that made custom boats. There, I learned boat building and did pretty much every job in the process.

“Soon after, the owner, George, moved his shop down to Tacoma, and convinced me to go with him. Naturally, George lost most of his experienced crew, since many were unwilling to move. As a result, even though I was just a beginner, I wound up being permitted to do a whole lot that I normally would not have been given to do. During this time, I read everything I could get my hands on about woodworking, joinery and boat building. It became a passion from which I have never recovered.”

“After about two years, George went out of business, and I went to work for Tacoma Boat, a steelyard building tuna clippers. Tuna clippers are essentially very efficient fishing machines and, sadly, are largely responsible for over-fishing the region. Of course, at the time I did not know that. These days, no one around here is still building them.

“I worked there as a carpenter and mainly built interiors. However, part of the carpenter’s job was launching the boats, which meant packing tons of twelve by twelve timbers and thousands of fir wedges in order to transfer the weight of the boat onto greased and waxed skids. It was a grueling task, but was nonetheless very enjoyable.

“In the cabinet shop, I worked with a very high-energy Norwegian septuagenarian named Oscar, who even at that age could outwork two men. At lunchtime, he’d take off his shoes, put his feet by the heater, and read his Bible,” Paul recalled. “That’s the sort of people who worked this business.

“After that, I went to Jones Goodell, who was considered the Cadillac of custom boatbuilders in the area. I rose to foreman but, after seven years, got laid off due to another downturn in the economy. I decided to go out on my own, and the first job I landed was rebuilding a rotted 30-foot Navy World War II Liberty launch. Interestingly, there is now a movement afoot to install that very boat in the Working Waterfront Museum in Tacoma.”

The name Belina came about the same time. “When I went to get a business license, they asked me the company name. At the time, the only thing I could think of was Belina, the name of a boat I was building for my wife and myself. My wife, Debbie, had come up with the name, thinking, mistakenly, that it was Italian for whale. Ironically, I never did complete building that boat, and to this day it languishes unfinished in my garage.

“The first five years, I worked mostly alone, doing whatever work I could get. I did kitchens, cabinet work and furniture, but I was mainly focused on boats. I’d take my portable steam box down to the waterfront, bend new frames, replace planking or do whatever else was needed. I had a wide range of skills and expertise. Around 1988, I had been building a collection of high gloss black lacquer furniture pieces and was experiencing burnout from overwork when I arrived one day to find the building next door on fire. I went to work anyway, but that made me realize something had to give. I also realized that one of the luckier things that happened to me was that I married someone who was comfortable with uncertainty and willing to be supportive of this tenuous lifestyle.

“I went back to work briefly for Jones Goodell to regroup and restore. About a year later, after making a call or two, I landed a job doing a store interior. I called a friend about renting space and, on a handshake deal, I rented his shop with just enough money for one month’s rent, and the current business was launched. Over the years, Belina grew, mostly through referrals. Around 1993, there was a surge in the boat industry, in part because of the repeal of a luxury tax, and we got a big shot in the arm.”

Today, Belina Interiors employs over 100 people in seven departments. The facility fills over 60,000 feet of working space in two buildings. “We build everything made of wood inside a boat, from decks and walls to cabinets and fittings, and have a separate veneering plant that not only lays up veneer for us, but also lays up custom sheet for outside woodworkers as well. There’s also a metal shop that makes handrails, stairs, hardware, light fixtures, adjustable table mechanisms that we designed, and whatever else is needed, including tooling, jigs and fixtures for the other divisions. Another section makes furniture, mostly for boats, and still another does upholstered pieces.

“Over the years, we’ve done everything from Asian minimalist motif to some of the flashiest over-the-top styles imaginable. We just finished our part of a 236-foot motor yacht, reputed to be the largest built in North America, that was recently shown at the huge Monaco boat show. One of my favorite jobs was a boat that housed the cerejeira antique reproductions shown on the furniture page. The interior was built like an English library, chockfull of fine wood in full architectural style.”

With regard to employees, Paul points out that Belina is a lot more freeform than one would imagine from such a large company. “We hire people who are self-motivated problem solvers, and we don’t micromanage. We hand our employees plans, ask a few questions, and let them loose to figure it out. We want this company to consist of people who know what to do and have a highly developed sense of judgement as to what is right and wrong.”

Not surprisingly, community charities are a big part of Paul’s and Debbie’s life. They are major supporters of Puget Sound Revels; Habitat for Humanity; the Working Waterfront Museum; My Sister’s Pantry, a group that feeds the hungry; and a host of other charitable causes. “We are an easy mark for those in need,” they admit a bit sheepishly.

Clearly, though, it is the work that sustains and buoys Paul’s spirit. “At every level, woodworking has the joy of solving problems, improving your patience through a host of little meditations that are part of our work. The main thing is to just enjoy it all and have fun.

“I have been at this for more than three decades,” Paul admits, “and I look forward to going to work every day. Sometimes I feel so lucky that it seems unfair.”

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