Homes for our feathered friends

Furniture restorer also creates special birdhouses of every description

If it's wood, Susan Yager knows how to fix it. When she sees a bird, she wants to build a wooden house for it.

What started as a small birdhouse industry in her home 18 years ago has grown and evolved into a thriving furniture restoration business, but she still makes birdhouses for relaxation.

While working for 20 years in the food service industry managing catering teams -- and building birdhouses for fun -- Yager often went to estate sales and flea markets with a friend.

"I gravitated toward wood and furniture and things that needed restoration," Yager recalled.

When she and her husband separated he left behind the table saw he had used to cut the patterns for her birdhouses.

"If someone gives you lemons, you learn to make lemonade," Yager mused. "If someone gives you a table saw, you learn to make sawdust."

"I love tools, I like the empowerment that I feel," she said. "I can do anything that needs to be done."

She took a woodworking class through the city of Pleasanton to get started. At first she wanted to redo her kitchen cupboards, but one improvement led to another, until today not only the kitchen is redone but she's installed five-panel doors throughout the house. The door to her office is solid oak with a reeded glass center, as traditionally have graced professional offices. Her front door is a 100-year-old Victorian she refinished.

But usually Yager is so busy renovating other people's furniture that her own has to wait; she was recently balancing 15 projects.

"I work seven days a week," she said. "This business was built from an ad in the Pleasanton Weekly. I wanted to get myself out there, but in a classy way. Plus I wanted to target my area where I live.

"I've built a client base that way, then by referrals."

She keeps people involved in the restoration, sharing photos of each stage of the process on the Internet for clients to look at and share with other family members.

"At my last catering company, I learned a lot about business," Yager said. "It sparked my creativity, for instance, turning a warehouse into a ballroom, and everyone appreciated us. I got thanked every time I went to work."

When she was injured and had to leave the physical demands of catering, she wanted to pursue a new career that would likewise spark her creativity and please clients. She has found it with her furniture business and named it Labor of Love.

"It's a business of the heart," Yager said. "I want to preserve memories. I get tears -- and hugs."

She is aware that the old pieces people bring her to restore are worth much more than their replacement value.

"I love that I can see potential in every single piece," she said. "As the business evolved I was doing more and more repair work. People would say, 'I was going to take this to the dump but I thought I'd try giving it to you first.'"

"Don't take things to the dump," she advised. "Re-purpose them."

In her home, an old wooden ironing board serves as a sideboard in the dining room. An old birdcage holds a plant in the back yard.

"I love to figure things out," Yager said. "For every problem there is a practical, logical solution."

"Another part of the business that is really special is going into their homes and them sharing their stories," she added. "Or they come into my home. It's a really personal business. Every client is a new friend."

She continues to make birdhouses, which are popular as gifts. She also make birdhouse-type mailboxes, planters, keyholders and bird feeders.

"Birdhouses are very homey," Yager said. "They bring fuzziness to people's hearts. Plus birds nest in them. You get to watch until the nests have baby birds."

Her front and back yards have dozens of the little houses.

"I've noticed they use three nesting materials: animal hair, string and cloth, and twigs," she said. "Every spring and summer I rehabilitate them or the birdhouses fall apart. The weather gets to them. I've had some 18 years.

"I build them for longevity, with a removable bottom and vented roofs," she continued. "They are an environmentally friendly production. When wood starts to swell and separate, nails loosen, so I use screws."

Her birdhouses are carried at the Berry Patch on Main Street and Angela in downtown Pleasanton, and Yager is there during the 1st Wednesday Street Parties to talk to people about them.

Her new "giant line" has houses 28 inches high, and 14 inches wide and deep.

"These are 'birdhouse statements,'" she said with a laugh. "I've incorporated some of the exposure I've had to antiques -- hand carvings and embellishments -- and decorated them with antique hardware, and things that are very unusual. I wanted something that is really unique."

She uses recycled wood, sanding and finishing it to look refined, she said. She uses pocket-hole joinery, screws and glue, and covers the screw holes with buttons so they last.

"I've gotten so many compliments on my carpentry," Yager said. "It's rustic in a very refined way. One of my antique clients came through and saw one and said, 'My goodness, this isn't for any old bird, it's for a very classy bird.'"

"I take pride in the quality of my workmanship," she said. "Where else do you get such value for your dollar? Or someone who will stand behind their merchandize?"

Yager knows many people who already have birdhouses they love, but they aren't well made and begin to fall apart, so she is also in the business of birdhouse restoration.

But creating new birdhouses is a type of joy in her life, she said.

"I have so much work and I'm passionate about my work but it's not always fun because it's always challenging and sometimes physically challenging," she explained. "Birdhouses are not physically challenging and I can use my creativity. There are no limits."


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