Heart and resiliency started S+L Millworks a decade ago – and they’re what continue to power it today.
Four tight-knit craftsmen make up the Tampa custom millwork company, which creates high-end, one-of-a-kind furniture for contractors and homeowners. S+L Millworks is the brainchild of Ron Sato. He named the business after himself and his wife, Linda Lee, who does S+L’s finances. Woodworkers Bill Ledger and Diego Duran signed on at the beginning and Garcia Rosa joined shortly after.
“I really love the guys here,” Sato says. “They are all very adept and qualified craftsmen.”
Born in the San Diego, California, area, Sato grew up in a farming family, working with his hands from a young age. His first woodworking job came at a high-end shop in Norwalk, Connecticut, where several lifelong craftsmen mentored him.
“I always loved woodworking, but they made it very interesting,” he says. “I enjoyed gleaning any information that I could in that group. There were not a lot of computerized machines. Everything was handdone.”
Next, Sato moved to Tampa and had a stint at small, custom woodworker Tansu Woodworks before joining Wacky World Studios, where he took on new challenges, including making wall murals and props. After that, Sato was recruited by Prestige Casework – until the company folded during the Great Recession. Sato was determined to find a way to continue his craft.
“Very few tradesmen had a place to go, so I gathered up a bunch of beat up, old tools and started doing a little woodwork here and there,” Sato says.
He took over Prestige’s space on Wilder Avenue and took a leap of faith to form S+L Millworks. Little by little, he acquired equipment and jobs. A few employees came and went, but the core group of craftsmen remains: Sato, Ledger, Duran and Rosa.
While Sato’s strength is in project management, Ledger excels at fabricating, painting and finishing. Duran brought veneering skills and unique building techniques from his gallery furniture experience. And Rosa shines with mixed media, metal work, airbrushing, organic shapes and turnings.
“We’re a very close-knit group of guys,” Ledger says. “Everything that we do here is done as a group. Everybody’s talented and has his own special niche. ”
On a typical day, Sato chats with the team, reviews and finesses projects, communicates with vendors to secure quality materials and sends clients estimates, proposals and invoices. Most clients are from word-of-mouth referrals.
“I had a philosophy early on that we weren’t going to be woodworkers to the masses,” Sato says. “We just needed a handful of clients who would keep coming back – and it’s pretty much worked out that way.”
Tampa-based Studio B Design Concepts has been one such client. Owners Corey and Bruce Merenda connected them to several significant commercial projects through the years, including furniture for rooms, dining and common areas for The Islander Resort in Islamorada; displays for several exhibits for The Florida Keys History and Discovery Center in Islamorada, and multiple furniture projects for Arturo Fuente Cigars in Tampa. In addition, the Merendas hired S+L to help renovate a home office and master bathroom.
“His quality and attention to detail are outstanding,” Corey says. “He’s a super personable, talented, creative guy who loves what he does and will go the distance for the best product. His team is remarkable as well. It’s just quality from top to bottom. They work from the heart.”
The work that S+L Millworks has done for Arturo Fuente Cigars is among the staff’s favorite projects. For Fuente’s corporate headquarters, located in a former cigar factory in Tampa, they reproduced a round desk modeled after that of Harvard’s dean of law, which a Fuente vice president had admired while attending school there. They also made cabinets for Fuente’s owner’s office, display cases for a trade show booth and a boardroom table. Most of the pieces were made with quarter sawn sapele lumber and veneer, and in several of them, they incorporated metal gears from old cigar making machines found in the factory. Fuente facilities manager Marty Sorensen says compliments pour in.
“I’m just blown away by his work,” Sorensen says. “His attention to detail is amazing. Once we found Ron, we stuck with him. All the guys are very cool, very professional and always willing to listen to what you want or need.”
Mike Urette is another happy Tampa customer. He hired S+L to make him a dresser and bathroom cabinets, as well as a writing desk and credenza for his wife, Karen, all in dark wood.
“We were thrilled,” Urette says. “They put their heart and soul in it and it shows in the finished product.”
Also in Tampa, Parker Freedman hired S+L to build an all-wood study area, chairs and credenza for his sons. It took a forklift to move the desk’s 14- foot bubinga slab up to the home’s second floor.
“He invested a lot of time with me,” Freedman says. “All the grains match, and the pieces are works of art.”
S+L has been hired for all sorts of other home projects, mostly for custom wood furniture, such as tables, chairs, an aquarium facade, a bar and a room divider.
“We love to do things in wood to show off the grain and the beauty of the wood,” Sato shares.
Projects may take weeks or even months depending on the job, including sourcing quality materials and planning logistics and delivery.
“We can start from someone’s idea through fabrication, applying the finish coating and installing it,” Sato says. “It can be a very turnkey solution for people.”
When Sato is asked what he’s most proud of making, he responds: “one-off pieces that last a long time and might become someone’s family heirloom.”
Among S+L’s most unusual requests have been secret compartments to store guns and jewelry. But there’s a clear winner – a Cinderella carriage bed frame made with ash hardwood lumber for a girl’s room in Morocco, a collaboration with local artist Jason Hulfish. Sato thrives off of unique jobs.
“Most of our projects are harder than average and make for a challenging day,” Sato reflects. “I always want to grow and keep on learning and expanding my knowledge every day. I want to keep on getting better.”
However, he wonders what the industry’s future will look like.
“There are not too many young people who like woodworking,” he says. “It’s hard and dusty work.”
So why does he love it?
“I have a passion for being creative,” Sato beams. “You take a pile of basically nothing and in a few days you have something beautiful.”
To learn about another local furniture maker, check out Made in Tampa: Built Custom Furniture Makers.