By Amy Nicole Tangel
In an age where repurposing the old into new has become not just a luxury, but a necessity from shortages in wood supplies, one LI craftsman has flipped the coin with one-of-a-kind restoration in his newly-opened sign shop.
Tom Cassanello opened LI Garage Art at Barntique Village in Moriches, NY, in the early summer of 2020. With so much uncertainty for businesses during the height of the pandemic, Tom said he wasn’t even sure he wanted to entertain the idea in the very beginning and had resorted to just working out of his garage but when he looked at the space, the rest was history.
“I always did signs. I did airbrushing a long time ago,” he said.
What started primarily as specializing in signs, has now expanded to all types of custom furniture creations and refurbishes through Tom’s craftmanship. Graphics, wood working, welding and most recently, Tom has added leather working to his list of skills.
A native of Huntington, Tom has lived the last 35 years in Rocky Point and is a Navy Veteran who served four years from 1975-1979. Among fighter squadron Ghostriders and Tomcat, Tom’s service includes multiple deployments on USS America, which now rests on the ocean bottom and USS Eisenhower; one of the oldest still floating in service.
During his years of service Tom worked as an Aviation Metalsmith, but he said his main job was mostly painting F-14’s.
“When I got in the paint shop, we just stayed in the paint shop,” he said.
Following his time in the Navy, Tom worked in commercial diving, machine shop work and then as a cable splicer for 27 years until his retirement. After Tom retired, he continued to follow his passion for building and painting and went to work for a sign shop but he said he felt it didn’t have the soul he was looking for working with vinyl and knew he wanted to focus on working with wood.
Over the years whenever a friend of his would open a shop, whether it be a tattoo shop, bike shop, junkyard or welding shop, Tom said he would make them a sign for their business as a token of good luck.
Time would go by Tom said, and businesses would evolve or run their course, but the signs would live on in their owners’ garages. People would always say to him, ‘Hey, I still got your garage art,’ and with that Tom said the name LI Garage Art came to life.
Ever since Tom became part of the Barntique Village community he has been making signs for other vendor shops and said it’s like a little family there. Over the years through word of mouth and from people who have visited, it is said that stepping into the village itself is like a rare step back in time.
All of Tom’s business likewise has come simply through word-of-mouth over the years and even though Tom said social media is not his forte, he does showcase his work on Facebook and the Marketplace and is working on building an Instagram platform.
LI Garage Art is open Friday through Monday leaving Tom with the days in between for building. While most of the heavy work is done at his home garage workshop, if you come down to LI Garage Art, chances are you will find Tom in his seemingly ultimate man cave working on anything from painting to leather work or sharing stories with customers.
“It’s like a makers’ kind of place,” he said.
For LI Garage Art and every other shop in Barntique Village, they are only open in the daylight as there are no outdoor lights for evening shopping, but Tom said he is hoping to stay open some evenings during the holiday season.
Plans to decorate the village this year are in store for the holiday season with lights outside throughout, and Tom said he is looking forward to putting his artistic touches to work. Keeping with the theme of antiques, Tom said he refurbished the village Santa and wants to create an original Christmas piece in the middle of the village with every shop’s name on display.
While other people who work with wood faced shortages and sky-high prices from the pandemic, for Tom he said he eliminated that problem when he decided to begin taking old furniture and repurposing the wood he already had just as was done in the past.
He said he always explains to his customers who want multiple pieces alike they are not all going to be exactly the same; each piece is handmade and one-of-a-kind. Tom said he loves Long Island and making custom signs with the island engraved; still each island is just a little different.
“I love doing the nautical stuff,” he said.
Taking pictures all while he goes, Tom said, he doesn’t remember the first custom craft he ever made, but his favorite one is always the one he just made. Personal works of art are taken to heart with Tom who has made keepsakes for many veterans and in memory of those lost in service such as a custom sign which hangs at the Michael Murphy Museum in West Sayville, NY; honoring Navy SEAL LT Michael P. Murphy.
A craft Tom hasn’t tried his hands at yet and has his sights on learning next is working with stained glass but he said it’s a whole different thing. Eventually, he said the shop will be set-up where each craft has its own station separated by woodworking, leather and glass.
Carving the wood is done at the home garage because it’s too messy for the village shop Tom said but plenty of work is done right on-site where visitors of LI Garage Art can witness when they stop in. Tom said he initially got into leather work from making leather oil cooler covers to replace the standard vinyl ones on motorcycles for himself and for other fellow riders. He just kept thinking about it until one day he said he bought some old tools on Facebook Marketplace and started practicing different techniques.
“My stuff is a lot more primitive looking, because I want it to be,” he said.
As much as Tom said he loves talking with customers and working while he chats, he tries to avoid letting his customers see the work in progress and prefers to reveal the craft once it’s complete. Aside from the element of surprise and capturing a moment, he said during the building process the work doesn’t look like what it’s going to be, “so it just makes sense.”
Shipping has been Tom’s biggest challenge for the business with costs and weights of items, but in spite of it all Tom said right how his work is in 17 states, and he most recently shipped his first piece internationally to France. One piece at a time, Tom’s work is beginning to make its way around the world.
Looking to the future, Tom said he has so many things on deck he is never at a loss for inspiration or stories to tell. Feeling grateful to just be busy and doing what he is doing, Tom is focused on making more custom creations and the ideal he learned early on of how important a sign is for a business opening.
“They get the rent, the furniture but when they get the sign, it becomes real,” he said.
To find out more about LI Garage Art, visit www.ligarageart.com or on Facebook @ligarageart. For inquiries by phone, call Tom at 516-650-0500.