Dover man discovers hidden woodworking talent

Richard Harpster of Dover displays his handcrafted wooden American flag that has become the most popular item from his new business Harpster Designs. Mr. Harpster, 49, realized he had an aptitude for woodworking just last Christmas. (Delaware State News photo by Marc Clery)

DOVER — Making a career out of creating custom wood furniture and designs was just about the last thing on earth that Richard Harpster thought he would ever do.

Yet somehow, at the age of 49, he unexpectedly discovered his hidden talent last year while working on some Christmas presents that he had designed for his mother, sister and brother.

Not only did the custom wooden American flag wall hangings that Mr. Harpster made for his family members turn out to be a hit, it also turned into one big unexpected present for himself as he discovered an uncanny knack for creating, staining and finishing wood designs.

Nowadays, he can’t get enough of it while working out of his garage in Fox Hall West in Dover.

“Oddly enough, over the holidays I wanted to come up with a gift idea for my mom and my brother and sister and I decided to make a (wooden) American flag for each of them,” Mr. Harpster said. “As I normally do, I usually post what I’m doing online on Facebook like a little blog … here’s a pile of wood and here’s what it’s going to turn into.

“So, I did that with the flags and people really responded well to it. It took off and people started making requests. It just propelled from there. I’m so busy now I can hardly see straight.”

Suddenly, he was the owner of Harpster Designs, his very own burgeoning custom-made furniture and design company.

“I’m working harder than I ever have in my life, but I’ve never had so much fun,” said Mr. Harpster. “It’s nothing for me to be up until 2 o’clock in the morning working on something and I have to be careful not to make any noise because I’m in a residential area. I’m usually doing the quieter things at that hour.

Richard Harpster is the owner of Harpster Designs, his very own burgeoning custom-made furniture and design company. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

“Who knew? I had no idea at all. In fact, everybody that knows me knows I have no business around power tools. Oddly enough, I didn’t know what a miter saw was a year ago and now I own one. I have a nice full-sized table saw now along with a joiner and all of the woodworking equipment you need.”

His custom-made American flag wall hangings have suddenly turned into his most popular creations.

It all started with a hope and a dream — and a farm table — last May.

“It just happened one day,” Mr. Harpster said. “I used to be a teacher at Central Middle School with the Jobs for Delaware Graduates program and just decided I had enough. Teaching just wasn’t the thing for me and seventh and eighth grade are tough grades to teach.

“I thought, ‘What am I going to do? I’ve got to do something and I’m too young to retire.’

“Then something popped in my head — make a farmhouse table and matching bench. I may have seen it online, so I did a little looking and found some designs and said, ‘Well, you know what? I can do that.’

“So, I got the cut list, went out to Lowe’s and bought the lumber and had them cut the lumber. I didn’t even own a saw at that time.”

A couple of weeks later, Mr. Harpster’s neighborhood hosted a community yard sale and he got a chance to see how his new work measured up.

“There was an Amish gentleman who came by to pick up an old toddler bed that we had sold in the yard sale and he saw the table because it was still sitting in my garage that I had just made,” he said. “I asked him to give it a look over and I asked him where I could improve on it and he looked it over and said, ‘That’s darn good work.’

“So that kind of encouraged me and I started getting into different things, making headboards of different sizes — king, queen, full — and matching nightstands, different styles of coffee tables that I made for myself, and it started taking off.

“The next thing you know I was doing this for a living. People like it.”

Melissa Harpster, Richard’s wife of 11 years, laughed and said their first fight came when she couldn’t get him to fix a broken toilet in their house and he kept complaining that he didn’t know how.

“My father was a custom woodworker all of his life, so I’ve been exposed to it,” she said. “Rich never touched a tool ever. I would always fix everything in the house and then, all of a sudden, he started on a couple of things, and was like, ‘I’m going to do this,’ and I’m like, ‘Yeah, right.’

“But he’s more focused on this business than I’ve ever seen. I’ve always said he’s an ideas man. He always has ideas and I’ve always thought to myself, ‘OK, we’ll see how long this lasts.’ It turns out that he has never been so sure about something in his life and the conviction that he has to make this business work and his excitement — that is what has been so motivating to me.”

On Saturday, Mr. Harpster unveiled a POW/MIA chair at Mission BBQ in Dover that he crafted that will sit empty in honor of prisoners of war and those soldiers left missing in action. (Delaware State News/Marc Clery)

Mr. Harpster credits the owner of Paul’s Antiques in north Dover for taking the time to teach him all about the custom wood business.

“I spent probably no less than 100 hours with him donating his time to me teaching me how to properly topcoat using different topcoats, whether it be shellac, a lacquer, polyurethane, linseed oil, all of the many different options available. So I’ve learned from the best,” he said.

“He taught me how to finish things properly and really, at the end of the day, after you’ve gotten your stain down and put your piece together, it’s the finish that really makes a piece beautiful. If you can’t get that right, then you’re wasting your time.”

Mr. Harpster doesn’t seem to be wasting any time diving head first into the custom wood design business.

On Saturday, he unveiled a POW/MIA chair at Mission BBQ in Dover that he crafted that will sit empty in honor of prisoners of war and those soldiers left missing in action.

He normally works from around 9 in the morning until 2 a.m. and is already looking to move to a non-residential area and build a pole barn where he can do his work.

Mr. Harpster said that for him, this new endeavor is not about the money. He said he is a man of faith and that his work goes deeper than just mass-producing products.

Every one of his creations is unique. He said that he talks to each of his customers to create a piece that is “uniquely perfect for them.”

“None of us are promised tomorrow. What do you really leave behind?,” Mr. Harpster said. “As silly as it might sound, the idea that something I make is going to be in someone’s home and handed down from generation to generation, that is very important to me.

“In some little way, I’ve become an important part of that person’s family. How awesome is that? It’s probably the thing than means the most to me.”

To view his work, visit www.HarpsterDesigns.com.

Delaware State News staff writer Mike Finney can be reached at mfinney@newszap.com.

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