Frank's: A Sign of Decorating Tradition

Longtime highway's lawn ornament shop is a workshop and way of life for for husband and wife team.

If you'd like a grazing reindeer that you won't have to toss out with the leaves and will last for Christmases to come, you need to visit Frank and Rita Puglisi in their little roadside woodworking haven.

They're pretty easy to find. After all, they've been in the same unassuming spot for years. You've probably whizzed by the shop a few dozen times. This time, stop in.

Take a drive west on Route 36 in North Middletown. Look for a roadside swath of lawn strewn with all sorts of one-dimensional characters: deer grazing and playing, a keystone cop flailing his arms, a rower rowing like mad from a shark, a cartoonish grey rabbit, black dogs, pumpkins, ghosts, reindeer and a host of other signs of the seasons and whimsy.

There they are, posted outside the humble, one-story, white and mint green building west of the Thompson Avenue intersection.

It's known as Frank's Wood & Sign Shop. Once you get past all the friends on the lawn, a wooden stork, perched in the picture window of the shop greets you as you enter. While you're there, you can order a white reindeer, either standing tall or feeding on the grass, to place on your lawn at Christmas time.

The pumpkins, reindeer, black dogs and other lawn ornaments will last for years of use because they are constructed from solid wood according to Rita Puglisi, who co-owns the shop with her husband Frank.

Frank comes up with the patterns and then meticulously carves and paints all the signs, Rita said. Although the Puglisis' products might cost more than plastic lawn ornaments sold at big box retailers, consumers will get more bang for their buck buying Frank's solid wooden ones, hand-carved with care.

"It's the quality of the workmanship and it's wood. It will last," said Rita, who helps her husband by drawing and paint the sign's lines and finer details. "One of our customers has had signs he bought from us 15 years ago."

"We have people who have bought our Halloween signs, adding more from year to year," she continued.  "Then they do the same with Christmas (signs)."

A curious sight, the Puglisis' shop has stood at the corner of Rt. 36 and Atlantic Avenue in the North Middletown section for about 45 years — or at least as far back as any local can remember.

On a chain-link fence adjacent to the shop, assorted wooden airplanes, birds and windmills are displayed. Wooden propellers and wings spun wildly even in a gentle breeze and in the wake of vehicles speeding on the highway.

"They're called whirly-gigs," Rita said of the airplanes, windmills and other creations, which also include a boater attempting to escape from a shark, a lobster, and a lumberjack.

Though lawn ornaments and other creations can be customized to one's personality, sense of humor or milestones such as weddings and storks for newborn deliveries, the Puglisis prefer to make several of the same type of sign at once.

"It has to be something that we think can sell," Rita said.

Nonetheless, the Puglisis have been happy to accommodate individual favorities — particularly when it comes to birds and animals. Inside and outside the shop, a collection of seagulls, mallards, blue jays, cardinals, pelicans, and pheasants join dogs, cats, ducks, squirrels and penguins in the small display room.

Storks to announce a boy or girl's birth can be customized with either the blue or pink sack.

"We have funny signs for patios and pools too," Rita said.

Each sign is crafted upon a one-half to one-inch thick piece of flat wood with a post and covered with a topcoat of primer, she explained.

"[Frank] uses a wood primer to make them last," Rita said. 

Jars of paint on shelves inside the workshop are labelled according to what item, such as pumpkins, ghosts, or birds, they are used to color. Each sign is painted by hand, often using watercolors, Rita said.

Winnie the Pooh and his friends Tigger, and Piglet have their own jars for their distinct colors labelled "Pooh paint," "Tigger paint," and "Piglet paint." Like an assembly line, white ornaments shaped like a hopping Tigger stood ready for their paint jobs at one work station in the shop.

A former construction worker, Frank began carving the signs and lawn ornaments out of wood as a hobby after sustaining a permanent injury on the job. That accident happened when he was on the crew building the PNC Bank Arts Center in Holmdel in the mid-1960s. At that time, the entertainment center was known as the Garden State Arts Center.

Initally, Frank constructed and sold wooden dog houses and picnic tables inside the wood shop. That morphed into a successful venture.

Age eventually took its toll.

"As we got a little older, [dog houses and picnic tables] got too heavy to handle," Rita said.

Instead, Frank started making the less-bulky lawn ornaments for Halloween in the shapes of jack o'lanterns, ghosts, witches, bats and other spooky creatures about 15 years ago. The wooden decorations were a hit locally.

"We had a very good year with that," Rita said. "We decided to extend our business into Christmas that year."

Frank began carving out one-foot-high and three-feet high white wooden reindeer along with Santa Claus figures, toy soldiers, and snowmen. He even created a custom-made Rudolph with a red nose. 

The Halloween customers came in to buy Christmas items as well. The Puglisis have sold the every holiday since.

Rita advises potential customers looking to buy reindeer to order them as far in advance of December as possible. The couple prefers to have all the reindeer carved and painted before the temperature drops below freezing.

"When it gets too cold, we can't paint them outside," she said. "The waterpaint freezes."

Customers should come in now to get the best selection of Halloween items which this year including some pumpkins made out of curved, solid wood.

The shop is open weekdays, year-round. After Christmas, they create hearts for Valentine's Day, shamrocks for St. Patrick's Day, and bunnies and eggs for Easter. American flags and yellow ribbons are sold year-round.

Individual country flags from Italy, Ireland, and Germany are also in stock.

Frank usually works about five to six hours per day in the shop with Rita coming in to assist.

"He's happiest when he is out here," she said.

At times, they change the outdoor ornaments according to season and take down and clean up the birds, airplanes and other crafts facing the highway.

The Puglisis will keep the business going as long as they can.

"We'll stay here as long as we have just enough to keep us busy," Rita said.

Frank's does not have a Web site, because it's an old-fashioned kind of place. But the telephone number is 732-787-7069.







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