Orient woodworker draws inspiration from the soundtrack in his head

Ricky Saetta outside his Orient workshop with his rocking dinosaur creation. (Credit: David Benthal)

In a detached garage off a private road in Orient, woodworker Ricky Saetta is hard at work on a number of projects simultaneously, both creative and commercial.

The 38-year-old artist (who eschews that label) spends day and night in this space, warmed by a wood-burning stove and powered by the vintage soundtrack that runs through his head.

“I get these late ’70s and early ’80s songs in my head, like ‘I Guess That’s Why They Call it the Blues,’ ” he said of the mental jukebox that fuels his creativity. “ ‘Oh Sherrie’ is another one, or ‘Everybody Wants to Rule the World.’ ”

Those songs, he said, evoke a nostalgic emotional feeling that influences his work, a collection of mostly personalized wooden keepsakes for the MTV Generation.

A carpenter by both trade and DNA, Saetta began working with his dad, Robert, and his uncle Richie in 1999, when he was fresh out of Greenport High School. He bounced around a bit, spending some time at SUNY/New Paltz and a period living in Arizona, and working at other local companies — but always stuck with wood.

It wasn’t until about a year ago that he truly began shifting his focus from the practical but often mundane work of building things like decks to the kinds of projects that now fill  his mind with inspiration.

On a recent visit to his workshop, he was found chipping away at a handful of projects, including  an exterior sign for an apartment complex in New Jersey, which will help pay the bills, to a collection of painted-over cameras that hadn’t fully taken shape. The one thing they  have in common is that their creator is focused on getting them both just right.

“It’s just an obsession,” Saetta said of the work, which has gotten him notoriety through his Instagram handle, @estd.1981. “I finish a project and get that feeling of completing a goal. Then that satisfaction disappears and I want it again.”

Saetta hard at work in his workshop. (Credit: David Benthal)

It’s agony when he can’t quite find it, but that drive is fueling some really interesting work that people have taken notice of.

Fellow late ’90s Greenport graduate Marc LaMaina was among the first to see the potential. Saetta’s craft is visible at both of LaMaina’s Lucharitos restaurants, in the “Mexican food” sign that incorporates a beach cruiser bicycle in Aquebogue and the new luchador busts over the bar in Greenport. He also created the logo sign at North Fork Brewing Co., which, like the Mexican food sign, can often be spotted in guests’ instagram photos.

“Ricky’s a rock star,” LaMaina said. “All it’s going to take for that guy is to be able to mass market one great idea and he won’t be doing renovations for long.”

Therein lies the challenge for Saetta, who adds personal touches to each of his projects project and spends a painstaking amount of time perfecting them. Take, for example, the jaw-dropping camping trailer bed he made for his 3-year-old daughter Dakota, which is modeled after a similar trailer he owns and is lined with maps that will likely inspire her to travel the world one day. Finding a way to mass produce such a piece at a price people would be willing to pay would be difficult.

Another popular item Saetta created, one that’s more easily mass produced and that he hopes to sell at local stores, are carvings of cassette tapes made from driftwood. The labels usually display local hamlet names. Like a lot of his work, he arrived at this project through trial and error. He initially made a batch of 30 cassettes out of walnut and mahogany and released them into the water at a local beach. The experiment was in part a unique marketing idea for his work — in the style of a message in a bottle — but also to see how the wood would be reshaped in the water. When he saw very little change, he began using actual driftwood instead.

A single dad at an age when his friends are also having children, Saetta designs many pieces these days for those friends and their kids, like a dinosaur rocking chair he first made for one friend’s son. He also designs intricate name signs, which draw inspiration from the parents’ interests, often using  upcycled materials influenced by music. Vinyl records, turntables and televisions are just some of the old products he’s incorporated into his designs. One of his current works is being made using skateboard decks.

A gender studies major in college, he’s admittedly not a graphic artist, so the design process can be grueling. 

But that degree does come in handy in the way he arrives at the designs.

“I like to play on masculine and feminine themes,” he said. “If it’s a sign for a female, I think ‘Let’s male this up a bit.’ ” And vice versa.

Combining modern and rustic elements into a single sign is something else he tries to do, while always striving to add multiple layers of depth to each creation. These aren’t just name signs; they’re messages on top of objects that tell more of a story about the person he’s creating the piece for. This way of thinking gives each of his signs a unique and personal touch.

“He’s really talented,” LaMaina said of his former classmate. “It’s great to be able to work with someone with such a skilled niche like that [in the community]. It just doesn’t come around much.”