As a train filled with lumber roars by, Versatile Wood Product’s mill foreman, Jeff Vasey, takes a break from his normal duties to share his story with me. Jeff is the longest-working employee for Versatile and started with the sister company, Arciform, in 2001. Beginning as a field carpenter, he worked with a small team of four carpenters who built the original Arciform building in North Portland off Skidmore Street and Interstate Avenue. The business owned by Richard and Anne DeWolf’s quickly outgrew that location.
“Arciform outgrew the original shop right away,” says Vasey. “So they bought a second building in the industrial area off North Randolph Street.”
The Arciform shop space was originally only ¼ of the size it is today, and much of it was rented to other tenants. “AWOL Dance Studio would have aerial dancers hanging from the ceilings in one part of the warehouse,” remembers Vasey.
Arciform Acquires Versatile Wood Products
Then, in 2011, the merge happened. Arciform acquired the 30-year-old custom wood manufacturing company, Versatile Sash and Door (now Versatile Wood Products). The aerial dancers no longer dangled from the ceiling and Vasey played a major role in the expansion of the workshop.
Jeff’s devotion to Arciform and Versatile and his pride in his work becomes clear to me as he talks about developing the space.
“As a field carpenter, you’re sort of a jack-of-all-trades. This came in handy for me as an employee of Arciform and Versatile. I helped wire the new building’s shop-space and created a piping/dust-collection system. In addition I remodeled, built and moved equipment as our space and services expanded,” says Jeff.
Jeff Vasey’s Story
“I’ve always had a mechanical-type of brain,” Jeff reflects. He remembers participating in the soapbox derby when he was 9 and 10 years old, where he won the awards for best constructed as well as best designed car.
Raised in Fargo, North Dakota, Jeff Vasey moved to Portland in 1985. I learn that Jeff is not only a carpenter, an engineer and a mechanic, but he’s also an artist.
Art brought Vasey to his wife, Vicky DeKrey, as well as to Oregon. Vasey and DeKrey met at North Dakota State University, where they both majored in art. At first living with a cousin in Washington, DC, they finally followed their favorite professor, Jerry Vanderline, who was originally from Portland, Oregon. As a result, when Vanderline moved back to Portland, he invited them for a visit.
“We toured over 11,000 miles of land on the way. Oregon was by far the most beautiful of all the places I’d been.”
It’s a familiar story to me. My own parents grew up in the flat lands of Oklahoma. When they took a road trip to the Northwest they were completely wonder-struck by the tall trees and lush greenness of it all. Perhaps it is a place that attracts artists.
However, once in Oregon, Jeff Vasey painted less and less. He got into photography, created electronic music, hiked and backpacked. He also started fixing a friend’s home in exchange for living there. After a while he learned of Arciform from a friend who worked there.
Jeff’s Work Today
As we walk through the shop, Jeff explains to me what different tools do.
“This one is probably the oldest machine in the shop. It must be over a hundred years old and is built like a battleship.” Jeff says. “It drills this groove into the window frame so you can fit these two joints together.”
He holds up two sash frame corners and slides them smoothly into place. It’s called a mortise and tenon joint.
Jeff is no longer a field carpenter because he has grown into the shop manager at Versatile. When I ask Jeff what his favorite thing about his job is, he says it’s the variety of projects they work on. He likes the details of some of the historical-style carpentry work. He fondly reflects on his days as a field carpenter.
“I miss getting to see the end result of my work as much as I did when I was working in the field. I loved getting to work directly with Anne and Richard on projects, because having the designer or architect so accessible while working on a project is a treat. It’s a collaborative process here.”
I learn that Jeff Vasey is known as the resident wood expert at Versatile. Asking him what his favorite type of wood is, he shakes his head and says, “No, I couldn’t choose just one.”