Monday, April 29, 2013

Rushing to Replace Picnic Tables Lost to Storm

A finished picnic table in Fort Totten, Queens, outside the shop where carpenters assemble picnic tables and lifeguard stands for New York City parks and beaches. The workers are making many more tables and stands to replace those destroyed by Hurricane Sandy


This spring has been no picnic for Chris Gruber and his staff of carpenters, who work for New York City and make much of the equipment used at its parks and beaches.

Hurricane Sandy damaged or ruined hundreds of picnic tables, and now Mr. Gruber and his crew are rushing to finish building 500 tables by Memorial Day, about twice the normal number they make each spring. They are also making about 150 lifeguard stands, also twice the normal number, said Mr. Gruber, 42, the supervisor of carpenters for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.

Many stands and tables were damaged at beaches, even though they were removed from the shoreline and put in storage areas, he said.

“There were places in Staten Island, we couldn’t even find them — they were just gone, washed away,” Mr. Gruber said last week, as he stood inside the department’s carpentry shop in Fort Totten, in Queens, where he had to bring on four extra carpenters in recent months to supplement his existing staff of six. The shop was furnished with various table saws and other woodworking equipment. The morning sun streamed in through the doorway, and classic rock pumped over a tinny radio.

After a dozen years of working for the department, Mr. Gruber, a lifelong resident of Glendale, Queens, has supervised the construction of several thousand picnic tables shipped to parks all over the city.

All the department’s tables are made according to one model, albeit one that has been revised over the years. For example, Mr. Gruber can guess a table’s age by its screws.

“The older ones have the regular screw heads, because we started using Phillips-head screws about 12 years ago,” he said. Also, the current design calls for cantilevered or A-frame legs, while the older tables have more vertical legs.

“If I see straight legs, I know the table is more than 20 years old,” he said, adding that picnic tables are prone to damage from graffiti or carvings.

“We had one table from Manhattan Beach that came back with this really ornate carving in it, an animal face,” he said. “The person must have spent two or three days doing it. It was a piece of art. We actually hung it up in the shop.”

Chris Gruber, left, is the supervisor of carpenters for the city’s Department of Parks and Recreation.
The small grills that many picnickers place on the tables can burn through the wood completely,

Mr. Gruber said, adding that the most chronic cause of injury to city-constructed tables is unintentional.

“The most damage comes from people dragging them, to put two or three tables together,” he said. “The table skipping along puts a lot of pressure on the joints and loosens them.”

So to fortify the legs, Mr. Gruber now uses metal brackets made at the agency’s citywide metal shop, which he also oversees, on Randalls Island.

Over the decades, wood and metal workers at the parks department have made roughly 23,000 picnic tables, not to mention more than 1,100 barbecue grills, nearly 4,500 basketball hoops and nearly 1,500 lifeguard stands, he said. Among the beaches, Orchard Beach in the Bronx has a high demand for lifeguard stands, while the vast Pelham Bay Park, also in the Bronx, consumes many picnic tables.

The tables are made with Douglas fir. The wood comes in 16-foot-long planks, which are cut in half, into eight-foot-long boards. Five of these are fitted together to make a tabletop, and the edges are rounded off to minimize the potential for unpleasant splinters.

Each table is held together by about 130 screws and bolts, Mr. Gruber said. Typically, before the legs are attached, the partially assembled tables are shipped out to other shops for staining (chestnut brown) and final assembly. But for demonstration, Mr. Gruber asked two workers to assemble a table at the shop.

Mr. Gruber watched the hammers and screw guns in action and sang along with Tom Petty’s “American Girl” on the radio. Within about 15 minutes, the workers plunked the table onto the shop floor.

“The last step is to drop it hard on the floor,” Mr. Gruber said. “Anything that’s uneven, it tends to straighten out.”

Cantilevered legs help prevent the table from tipping from too much weight on one side, he said, hopping up on a bench and bouncing to show its stability.

“To test it, we take the heaviest guys in the shop – and I’m the first guy getting on,” said Mr. Gruber, who tips the scales at more than 300 pounds. “We sit on one side to see if it tips.”

Several years ago, the table design was tweaked to include a short overhang on one side, so that wheelchair users could pull up close.

“It’s a simple design, but it’s a good one,” Mr. Gruber said as another table went out the door. “I’ll put our tables against any in the world.”

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