Taking Panes

Hamlin has been a “glass act” most of his life

tom_hamlin_DSCN0022highresTom Hamlin learned the glass business working for his late father, who retired as one of the owners of Able Paint and Glass in 2001. He started Hamlin Glass in 1997 to make extra money to support his growing family, and works from a 1,200-square-foot addition to his Colchester home.

by Virginia Lindauer Simmon

T om Hamlin is a man of few words: a friendly guy whose quiet voice requires some attention to hear. But when he says something, it’s to the point.

Hamlin is the owner of Hamlin Glass, which he operates from a 1,200-square-foot workshop attached to his home in Colchester. His home’s doors and windows are examples of his craft.

Eighty percent of Hamlin’s work involves replacement windows in existing residential homes — “windows or doors,” he adds. The other 20 percent comes from screens and screen repair, window sashes, double-pane insulated glass replacement, “anything that’s a window or window component.”

He usually uses Harvey windows, which he buys from a distributor. “I generally try to be on the jobsite by 9. A lot of what we do is inside,” he says. “It’s nice to give customers a chance to get the beds made and curtains down.”

Hamlin hasn’t always had his own shop, but glass has been part of his life since he was a youth. His father, the late Robert Hamlin, had left a vice presidency at Chittenden Bank in 1973 to become the comptroller at Acme Paint and Glass. He worked there until leaving in 1990 to found what is now Able Paint, Glass and Flooring with partners Chuck Alberts and Larry Cross. He helped run it until he retired in 2001 and the company was sold.

The Hamlin family moved from Winooski to Colchester when Tom, the third of their seven children, was 4. “During middle school, probably from age 12 on, I was at Acme part time after school and weekends doing work my father found for me,” Hamlin says. He started in the paint department, working about three hours a day. “When the guy on the window bench saw me, he’d hand me some tools and say, ‘Get to work, kid.’ So that’s how that started.”

After Hamlin graduated from Colchester High School in 1980, he took advantage of a full-time opportunity at Acme. “The company had a lot of commercial work going, so it was good, steady work for pretty good pay.” He stayed until 1987 when he took a sales job for a few years.

He had married Deborah Halnon, in 1984. “I hound-dogged her for about two years, and she wanted to get me off her back, I guess,” he says with a typical straight face.

Asked when they met, he laughs. “That’s up for dispute. Her father coached Little League, and he coached an All-Star game and I met her there when she was 11 or 12. She doesn’t remember it but I do,” he adds.

Hamlin hung out with her brothers and cousins — “the Brigantes out here; her mother was the youngest Brigante girl — and we got closer in high school.”

After his father started Able in 1990, Hamlin worked for him until 1997. “At the time I had three kids in daycare, and the bills were getting expensive. I said, ‘I can make enough money on the side and make up the difference nights and weekends,’ and thought when the kids started in school, I’d get back full time with somebody.”

It took him about five years to get things to where he was comfortable financially, “then it leveled out for probably another eight or nine years,” says Hamlin. “But it was very comfortable. It’s the price you pay for being a one-man shop. And it was more comfortable than having people pay me for employment, because the glass industry here in Vermont is seasonal, and nobody likes to lay people off. Things have dipped a bit in the last four years with the economic turndown, but right now, the phone is ringing a little more than it has been.”

This fluctuation is the only thing that really gets him down, he says. “It’s generally not a steady course: You’re really busy and getting backed up or you’re out there scrounging for work. There doesn’t seem to be any halfway in between.”

Hamlin has the advantage of a reputation that helps him get and keep customers. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” says Lee Silver, “and his name is Tom Hamlin.”

Silver has a house in Colchester “about 10 feet off the lake with 60-some-odd windows, and most of them face the lake. Tom has been my chief cook and bottle washer since I had all the damage from the flood in 2011. He’s replaced many, many, many windows.”

After the flood waters receded and things started to dry out, many of Silver’s windows and doors began to “change their complexion,” he says. “A lot of them warped, you couldn’t close them, couldn’t work the sliding doors. We have now changed probably 30 to 40 windows. You’re talking over $10,000 worth of windows.”

Hamlin has been Silver’s guide regarding things such as which windows to work on first. “He’s been meticulous. He cleans up, you don’t know when he’s here, he comes when he’s supposed to come, and we always walk around and talk about where to go next.”

In addition to residential customers, Hamlin does screen work for stores such as Aubuchon Hardware and Bibbens Lakeshore Ace Hardware. He also does the occasional subcontract job for his father’s old company.

“Tom is straightforward, very knowledgeable, and extremely talented when it comes to windows, doors, screens,” says Scot Sweeney, the president of Able Paint, Glass and Flooring. “He’s basically the best in the business. And a good soul A to Z — very down to earth.”

Although Able doesn’t sub jobs out when it comes to windows and doors, Sweeney says, “the only person we have in our back pockets to use, basically, is Tom. He’s the only one to use in those crunch situations. He leaves his jobs 100 percent finished, clean, and is a good communicator when it comes to customers.”

The Hamlins now have four children: Angella, 26; Tommy, 24; Lilly (Elizabeth is her proper name, he says), 20; and Bobby, 17, “the baby of the family at about 6 feet 4 inches. Tommy has been working with me since middle school, and we’re getting Bobby on track to do that, too. When he got old enough to do it, that’s when the economy slumped. He’s not reluctant, it’s just that the work wasn’t there.”

When he has spare time — February and March during the off season — Hamlin likes to pull out some of the antique window frames he has saved from earlier jobs and refinish them, sometimes inserting mirrors. “A lot of them are 60- to 80-year-old window sash, and I’ll make them into decorative pieces,” he says.

“The kids keep me pretty busy when I get downtime,” he says. “I like to hang out, see what’s going on with them. We play horseshoes, bring out the board games.”

Deborah is a speech-language pathologist at Malletts Bay School. Each summer, the family takes a camping trip to Brighton State Park in Island Pond.

Asked if he thought his life was going to be what it turned out to be, he pauses. “You know what? I did, actually. I guess my only surprise — I’m trying to figure out how to phrase this — I’ve known my wife pretty much ever since we were kids. Once we started dating, we knew we were gonna get married — knew we were going to have a lot of kids — so that’s not a surprise. I’m a pretty boring guy. I’ve always been a pretty steady guy — no surprises are good surprises.”