Hands-on approach pays off

  • Overcoming obstacles:  Paul Alves working on a piece of furniture (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
  • Paul Alves working on a piece of furniture (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
  • Caner Paul Alves (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
  • Hard work pays off: Paul Alves, who was born with a spinal defect, has founded Island Caning (Photograph by Jessie Moniz Hardy)
  • Paul Alves (Photograph by Akil Simmons)
  • Paul Alves (Photograph by Akil Simmons)

Don’t be alarmed if you see Paul Alves on his hands and knees, his wheelchair littered nearby.

The 37-year-old, who was born with a spinal defect and is paralysed below the waist, is used to overcoming obstacles.

“I work my way around things,” he said. “I am used to finding unconventional ways to solve problems.

“Most places have wheelchair access now but when there isn’t, I’m not afraid to get out of my chair, on to the floor, and crawl up and down stairs.”

It’s a mindset that helped after his job was downsized two years ago.

“I’d worked at Grotto Bay as a tennis pro for ten years,” he said. “I loved working with visitors. I went from coaching full-time, to teaching preschoolers two mornings a week.”

He quickly realised it wasn’t enough to make a living, and started thinking. Furniture restorer Bermuda Stripping & Refinishing seemed an easy solution; as long as he could remember he’d liked “anything that involves working with my hands”. “In high school I loved carpentry, art and graphic design,” he said. “They didn’t have a job for me but they told me there was demand for someone who could cane chairs. Chairs made with wicker often need reweaving.

“They said the person who did it left the island two years ago and they were turning away customers looking for the service.”

The Devonshire company gave him some tips and an old chair to practise on. He then turned to YouTube, and companies overseas.

“I linked up with one of them in California and they were able to give me some advice,” he said. “They sent me some pamphlets and I have learnt from there.”

He soon fell in love with the work. The next step was finding clients.

“I didn’t have any money for advertising in the newspaper,” he said. “I called myself Island Caning and got some business cards made up. Then I went door-to-door, the old-fashioned way, asking if anyone needed help. I did it around my neighbourhood in Devonshire and in other neighbourhoods.

“Some people weren’t home and I left a card in the mailbox; other people were home and were interested. I also left my card at Bermuda Strippers and several furniture stores.”

He added: “I believe I am the only one doing it on the island. It can be a little tedious but I enjoy the challenge of trying to figure out how to do it. Caning has become, for me, not just a job but a passion.”

In less than a month he got a phone call from a furniture store. They had a client for him.

“I felt very excited and surprised that very little advertising paid off,” he said.

When he finally received the chair he felt nervous.

“It had been in the client’s family for 90 years,” he said. “The wood in antique chairs can be quite brittle and breaks easily and when you moved the chair it had this creaking noise.

“I knew I had to be very gentle so it was a little nerve-racking. I took my time and looked over every detail before I started taking things apart.”

It took him two weeks to finish the job.

“I felt really proud that I’d been able to accomplish the task,” he said. “The client was pleased and gave me a referral.”

Since then he’s had four more clients and a fifth on the horizon.

“The biggest project so far was restoring the wicker in 16 chairs,” he said. “Right now I am working on an outdoor furniture set.

“I’d like to eventually have a proper business, but it has been slow going. There are a lot of other things like tables that are woven, so there is room to expand.

“My ultimate goal is to have a sustainable business where I can make a living doing this.”

Contact him on 336-6452 or