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"There's no stress in this business'

Bill White thinks tiki huts are cool because they're not hot.

"If it's an umbrella versus a tiki hut, there's just no comparison," said White of St. Petersburg, who has been building tiki huts for homes and hotels since 1979. "The heat just goes up through them, dissipates right through the fronds.

"An umbrella or a gazebo, some built-up pavilion or anything, the heat is trapped as it would be in your attic, so unless there's a vent, it can't get out. This is a lot cooler."

Tiki huts are cool also because they're _ well, they're cool.

"People think they're on a tropical island" when they're relaxing under a tiki hut, White said. When he's working on a hut at a resort or hotel, "the tourists all come talk to you. Everyone's envious that they're paying for a vacation and you get to work out there. We've made a lot of friends over the years from all over the country and Canada."

Some of his hotel clients took out their tiki bars when they remodeled, opting instead for umbrellas. "The regular customers came back in two instances and put up a fight," White recalled. "They said, "I come here because the tiki hut is here!' " and in some cases the hotels brought back the tiki huts by popular demand.

"When I first started, people called me "the Hut Man' and "Gilligan,' " as in the TV series Gilligan's Island, "so we started Gilligan's Tiki Huts back then." White, 50, now shares the business with his son, Jason.

White once lived in Jamaica, where he sought relief from the hot sun under tiki huts. When he moved to Florida, "we saw them out at the beach, and at the beach bars that's where people would congregate." Trained as a carpenter, he also did pool work and finally built a hut at his home, and that was the start of his business. To learn the American Indian techniques involved in building the huts, he visited Indians in Tampa and on one of the reservations, "where they were very helpful and still are." (White himself is part Iroquois.)

The basic umbrella takes just a day to construct. White uses cypress or pine for his tables and benches, but he uses pressure-treated wood for the supporting poles because he has found that cypress decays in both damp soil and cement.

"I do a lot of real elaborate bars and things at people's homes," he said. "Not your basic tiki hut umbrella." He can add sinks, refrigerators, shutters, shelves, fans, lights, trash receptacles, even barbecues. "Some of these are real elaborate that people could live in."

White gets his palm fronds from arborists and landscapers who trim palm trees. He also trims some sabal and cabbage palms himself. He can use only green, pliable fronds, which he folds and inserts into the framework.

"In about a week they will have laid down, and they take on the contour of the framework," he said. Until then the huts are spiky and bushy, looking as though they're having a string of bad hair days.

He sprays his huts with an insecticide, a fire retardant and a penetrating water seal "that puts some oils back into the palms so they remain pliable" and last longer.

Unlike a fabric umbrella, a tiki hut won't fade in the sun. "The older it gets, it still looks natural," White said. "All the storms up and down the beaches, there's never been anybody's tiki hut blown away. You may lose a palm frond, but the hut stays there." He warrants his work for three years.

The framework should last 30 years, and a hut on the beach or on open water should last four to five years before it needs rethatching, he said. A basic 650-pound umbrella hut with a table that provides 10 feet of shade costs $795, White said.

Tiki huts are cool because the people who buy them are cool, White said. "People who want one have been under one and have a good attitude. Everybody I've worked with over the years is just as nice as can be. There's no stress in this business. Everybody's just a nice person."

Gilligan's Tiki Huts can be reached at (813) 822-0399.