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Drew Skuce, left, and Barry McClelland in the workshop. Drew Skuce: “Everyone looks through glass, they never look at glass.” (Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)
Drew Skuce, left, and Barry McClelland in the workshop. Drew Skuce: “Everyone looks through glass, they never look at glass.” (Dave LeBlanc for The Globe and Mail)

In Paris, Ont., Drew Skuce finds good karma in old stuff Add to ...

“I like owning this business,” says Drew Skuce after showing off his tidy workshop, Paradigm Shift Customs, where pieces of architectural heritage – windows, mostly – are brought back to life. “I want to have a business that’s karmically sound; it should be a labour-based business versus selling products.”

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Located where Paris, Ont., ends and the endless checkerboard of Southwestern Ontario farmers’ fields begin, a great deal of good karma is generated in this 2,000-square-foot space. And the main product: expertise.

Despite his laid-back surfer’s demeanour (the expression “cool beans” comes up a lot), ever-present baseball cap, and a birth certificate issued only 30 years ago, Mr. Skuce is quietly making a name for himself in heritage circles. After taking the leap into full-time restoration a little over two years ago, he’s already won an award from the City of Hamilton for the Art Moderne Hambly residence (featured here in April, 2011), and he’s added a few National Historic Sites to his growing portfolio.

Just as there are “soul surfers” who can achieve a Zen-like state on their boards while surrounded by the ocean’s roar, Mr. Skuce’s workshop has a meditative quality even when the power tools are screaming. Perhaps that’s because the work that goes on here is of a healing nature. And despite the mortising machine, planer, joiner, router, table saw and scroll saws (one a vintage Canadian beauty from 1948), much of the time the sonic assault takes the form of the gentle tap-tap-tapping of old putty being removed from muntin bars, the sscccccc-craping of ancient paint layers, or the quiet caress of imported Swedish linseed-based paint being applied to century-old handiwork.

It’s slow, methodical work that demands patience, and a respect for what came before.

Mr. Skuce learned those traits a quarter-century ago working with his grandfather, a self-employed contractor who had been building houses since the 1930s. He remembers also working alongside his mother – “she’s totally into this stuff, too” – on window repair, as well as learning old house terminology by daily osmosis in an 1879 home his parents still enjoy today. “I was always jealous of my friends who had all these new houses that were awesome, while I was living in this old beat-up thing,” he laughs.

That jealousy didn’t last long. After studying woodworking technology at Conestoga College, he got a job installing home theatre systems in new subdivisions and quickly had a revelation: “Modern construction scares the crap out of me!” he says with a laugh. “Yes, I’m sure it’s probably to code, but I’ve seen two-by-four walls fall over on some sites, and then there are these old homes where you’d swear you could let off a small nuclear weapon and you’d just scratch the paint.”

By 2005, while working as manager of a big box hardware/automotive store, he started Paradigm Shift Customs part-time. “No one was taking care of this stuff,” he says, his voice rising just a little. “The whole idea is just ‘rip it out, replace it, new is better, old is garbage,’ but then I realized if old is garbage, how come it lasts 130 years, and the new stuff, you’re lucky if it lasts 10 or 20?”

It’s not uncommon to find a window that’s well over 130 years at the shop. Currently, a large 1840s residential window rescued from a local demolition site sits at the back of the finishing room. Because of the handmade manganese cylinder glass and delicate muntin bars, it will be donated to the Paris museum after being fully restored.

Recently completed cylinder glass windows for a client’s 1850 home in Waterdown await delivery in another room. Since cylinder glass isn’t manufactured in North America any longer, Mr. Skuce had it shipped over from France. It costs more, he says, but purists want the imperfections – blemishes, rake-marks, waves and air bubbles – that never appear in modern float glass. “I love cylinder glass because the house sparkles when you drive by it,” he offers.

Speaking of drive-bys, tall racks house an ever-changing ‘parts bin’ of items picked up on garbage nights by Mr. Skuce and employee Barry McClelland, including doors (which they repair also), crumbling wooden window frames, dusty panes of glass, wonky 1950s aluminum storms and bits of metal hardware.

Of course, always in house at PSC is passionate conversation. Topics this day include: this is a “never gets boring” business because it combines “arts and design, chemistry and water management”; that restoration-types feel trapped in a race against the “vinyl pirates;” and that some people still don’t realize a restored wooden window and storm is “just as energy efficient as anything on the market now.”

Hopefully, Mr. Skuce’s next endeavour, a series of workshops for handy homeowners and contractors (check his website, paradigmshiftcustoms.com, in the spring) will debunk a few myths while spreading the passion.

In the meantime, his profile will rise, one house at a time. “I would love to be able to show my grandkids some really cool stuff someday; I don’t want it all shredded apart by the guys doing renovations, the guys doing window replacements,” says Mr. Skuce.

“I want to be proud of it, I want to show where we came from.”

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