The South Sound area is rich with creators who can turn wood scraps into stunning works of art, and who reinvent the ordinary — like headbands — into an extraordinary business with style and grace. The region shines as a hub for artists and craftsmen who are keeping antiquated trades alive. In this issue, we highlight your neighbors who build, sew, craft, and sell some of the most interesting creations.
Alan Davis and Jeff Robinette
Distillers, University Place
Chambers Bay Distillery’s Greenhorn Bourbon is gently rocked by the lulling waves of the Puget Sound, and the yeast used in the fermenting process was captured among fully fruited trees at Curran Apple Orchard. It doesn’t get more picturesque — or Northwest — than that.
Founders and longtime friends Alan Davis and Jeff Robinette established the Chambers Bay moniker in 2012 and bottled their first spirit in 2015. Their venture started as one might expect, as a hobby. Davis, who bounced between Portland and Seattle for work as a stock analyst, would drop by Robinette’s University Place home every now and then to try his spirits.
As the bourbon aged, the two decided it could be more than a pet project and blended their backgrounds to establish their craft distillery. Robinette has spent the past couple decades working as an embryologist at fertility clinics, so he’s been the mastermind behind the science aspect. Davis’ career in finance has helped drive the business plan forward.
They’ve spent the past several years carefully crafting a range of award-winning libations that are delighting the taste buds of locals. The Greenhorn Bourbon was the first spirit they began brewing, and the recipe hasn’t differed much from Robinette’s original creation — except for the handcrafted yeast and boathouse aging. Chambers Bay Distillery released their heat-packed Ghost Dog Whiskey in June 2015. It’s an unaged white whiskey infused with smoked ghost peppers, a blend of botanicals, and natural sweeteners.
“We wanted a hot pepper, and that’s one of the hottest peppers in the world,” Davis said. “The name Ghost Dog is derived from the fact that it’s a ghost pepper infused white dog. White dog is slang for unaged moonshine.”
Slinging it back as a shooter packs a punch, but it marries well in a margarita or bloody Mary.
The Greenhorn Bourbon was released in December 2015, and spends 20 months at sea aging to perfection with a salted caramel flavor profile. Robinette collected and cultured the yeast — one of the benefits to his science background — which is unusual for a craft distiller, he said. Most buy dry, commercial yeast. Though it contributes to only about 5 to 10 percent of the flavor profile, it does make the bourbon unique to our own backyard. On most other fronts, it’s very similar to a Kentucky bourbon, but the Greenhorn can’t be replicated anywhere else.
“There’s a lot of romance to having your barrels gently rocking on the water,” Robinette said. “When the storms are coming, when boats drive by, and with the wide swing of the tides, things are always moving and gently sloshing the (bourbon) around a little bit, and that helps it interact with the wood. The wood is what imparts the flavor into the bourbon for the most part.” — SRM
Desiree Burgess Alford
Fashion Designer, Kent
It was about six years ago when Desiree Burgess Alford found herself a single mom to a 3-month-old girl, with $200 dollars in her bank account, and no home of her own.
“I was pretty much homeless. We moved in with my sister, and that’s where I started Harts and Pearls — off my sister’s kitchen table,” she said.
Harts and Pearls, a local company based in her home in Kent, sells handmade headbands for women, girls, and babies. Alford also has added hats and scarves to her ever-growing product list. But when she was starting out, all she was trying to do was make something cute — a simple headband — for her own baby.
“I was making stuff for my newborn baby girl, I was a single mom, I got pregnant out of wedlock,” she said. “When I was on maternity leave, I was making headbands for her. People kept asking, ‘Where did you get that?’ so I got the idea to try selling them.”
She started posting a few designs on Facebook, and without a clear plan or set of objectives, launched her business, which she named after her daughter, Hartley, and pearls — the timeless jewel that never goes out of style.
Today, the company sells in 65 stores in the Western United States, and ships all over the world. Her first big break came when her sister, Traci Burgess Ainsworth, made the company’s first wholesale to SugarBabies in Sumner. For Alford, that first check for $700 felt like winning a jackpot.
But the hard work was only just beginning. For the first few years, Alford made everything herself. She’d sewed all the headbands and knit the hats any chance she could. She now has a team of 12 sewers and has turned the spare bedroom and second living space in her house into Harts and Pearls headquarters. Her new challenge is filling orders fast enough. But rising to the occasion is where SHE thrives.
Looking back at where she came from, she’s amazed she’s made it this far. “(I feel) gratefulness that almost brings me to tears, if I really think about it, because Harts and Pearls isn’t just a business to me — it’s a story of hope. It’s the story of the single mom that shouldn’t have made it.” — LF
Perris Wright and Umi Wagoner
Clothing Designers, Tacoma
Historically, some might say Tacoma has never been “cool.”
Even with nationally recognized landmarks, like the Tacoma Dome or the Museum of Glass, Tacoma wasn’t a city people wanted to claim as an address. Now, it’s going through a “Tacoma Pride” revolution, and eTceTera streetwear clothing is harnessing what makes the area special.
Founders and co-owners Umi Wagoner and Perris Wright went to Tacoma’s Henry Foss High School, where they started sketching out what it means to create a brand and design accessory clothing. The two parted ways for nearly 10 years — Wright went to Eastern Washington University, and Wagoner attended the Fashion Institute of Design in Los Angeles and worked for an L.A. clothing company. But an American-made sock company, the first iteration of eTceTera, tethered them for a couple years until they started to pursue the private-label clothing brand together.
Wright’s connections locally helped drive the dream forward, as they started selling merchandise out of a Spaceworks gallery and moved toward finding their own brick-and-mortar shop.
They went through the Spaceworks program, which helps Tacoma entrepreneurs sculpt their business chops and pairs a select few with vacant storefronts. The program enabled them to draft a business plan in a timely manner. Wagoner moved back to Tacoma, and eTceTera settled into its shop on Pacific Avenue in 2014 outside the Spaceworks umbrella.
Over the years, their style has evolved from bold branding to classic streetwear styles with graphic T-shirts mixed with simple eTceTera merchandise. Tacoma and the Pacific Northwest are always the focal point, but the themes are often hushed, acting almost like a wink to the local heritage. Like the Japanese-esque Sasquatch clad in white sneakers, a “Tacoma Sonics” shirt, and a hoodie with the ETC logo. Or the Tacoma Dome, melded with the Earth’s core. Wagoner and Wright conceptualize the designs and sketch some of it out before sending them to their art director, Kevin Wong, to fill in the details.
“We’re learning how to retell the (Tacoma) history in a way that is, for lack of a better word, cool,” Wagoner said. “Tacoma has never been cool. It’s had cool things about it … and now we’re getting to that place.”
The pair is also dedicated to inspiring and encouraging area youth to pursue artistic ventures. The shop often hosts pop-ups from high school students, and open mics. Wright and Wagoner also fostered a relationship with Mann Elementary School and Henry Foss High School doing brand and design work.
Eventually they’d like to bring more of the production in-house, buy a couple embroidery machines, and keep the company even more local. But Wagoner and Wright aren’t in any rush to expand. It’s grown, little by little, in a grassroots, underground kind of way — and that’s the secret sauce, Wagoner said.
They’re not pursuing ways to publicize the brand. When people stumble upon it, eTceTera feels like a sacred find, and that’s what makes it so special. True to their word, there is very little written about them aside from an initial announcement from Spaceworks and a couple articles regarding a robbery in 2016. ETceTera’s success has purely been from a cult following that’s building a crescendo in Tacoma. — SRM
Glass Blower, Tacoma
Benjamin Cobb had a lot of jobs growing up in Newport, Rhode Island. If he wasn’t in school or enjoying his favorite pastime, surfing, he was washing dishes, cutting grass, working on maintenance crews, and repairing sailboats. So, when he answered a call to help a glassmaker down the street from his high school, he had no idea it would lead him to a lifelong passion and future career.
Today Cobb is the Hot Shop manager at the Museum of Glass, one of the largest of its kind in the region, and he works with a wide range of artists.
“I enjoy making, and I enjoy problem-solving,” Cobb said. “That is one of the great things about working here. We are always being challenged; we’re always doing something different. I enjoy having that flexibility of being challenged by everyone’s different ideas that they bring to the table.”
Collaborations are a big part of what Cobb does at the museum, but he also spends a lot of time teaching, and he said he enjoys the education aspect almost as much as the challenge.
“(The purpose of) having the Hot Shop here is to help our visitors understand what glass is,” he said. “We educate them in some way, shape, or form about how glass is made, and give them a little sense of history about glass in the Northwest and how we came to be here.”
When Cobb isn’t teaching or working on collaborative projects, he’s creating his own artwork. For inspiration, he pulls from both his interest in science and marine biology, as well as the beauty of the Pacific Northwest.
“There are a lot of artists in my family that I always admired growing up, but I never considered myself to be an artist or a maker, but slowly have come to embrace it,” he said. “I like to spend a lot of time outdoors, just looking at the world around me. Then I can create things that are meant to make people stop and look at it — maybe read the title and appreciate it for what it is — and maybe think about their place in the world.” — JK
Blacksmithing seems like an antiquated trade, but Kelly Rigg of Studio 23 in Olympia has seen a resurgence due to the popularity of the History Channel’s reality show Forged in Fire — which Rigg claims he doesn’t watch because he said it romanticizes the craft.
Rigg is more from the “teach a man to fish” school of thought when it comes to blacksmithing. After all, he (mostly) taught himself blacksmithing in the early days of the internet, before one could learn a trade by watching hours of YouTube videos. This is probably why he spends his weekends teaching others how to mold metal in his own shop and under the auspices of the Arbutus Folk School, a folk craft school that offers open studio time and a wide assortment of courses, many of which harken back to simpler times.
“There’s kind of an underlying philosophy with a lot of the antiquated crafts; you kind of are obligated to (teach) people your trade,” he said. “At least I feel that way because that is the way that I was taught blacksmithing — someone showed it to them, and they showed it to me.”
Rigg’s path to self-taught blacksmithing didn’t come easily. After inheriting a coal forge from his grandfather in 1997, he decided to give it a try in the backyard of his former South Seattle home.
“There’s a whole art to (using a coal forge), and I had no idea about that, so I had these softball-sized chunks of coal in there with wood and paper,” Rigg chuckled. “Pretty soon this black smoke is just coming out of the backyard and it’s filling up the house — my wife is up in the upstairs bedroom yelling at me that the house is filling up with smoke — and I’m thinking, ‘If I can just get it going hot enough, the smoke will go away.’ Meanwhile, the flames are getting higher.”
Trial and error were part of Rigg’s process during what he describes as a “10-year curve” — the period of time he said it takes to learn a trade and become so proficient in its execution that one could be profitable at it. Still, he said he was never afraid of failure.
“When I first started blacksmithing, I would work for hours on things, and it would just fall apart or break,” Rigg said. “You just (have to) move along because if you get frustrated easily, you shouldn’t try learning anything new.”
Though he loves the primitive nature of blacksmithing with its fire and grit, Rigg said he loves teaching blacksmithing to others even more. His greatest hope is that more women will take and enjoy his class.
“There was a woman who was probably 75 or so, and she was just very timid and awkward,” Rigg said. “I told her that to have success at this, you’ve got to hit it, just go for it, and don’t be afraid. By the end of the class, she was whacking the crap out of it, and it was just this sort of cathartic thing for her. I feel really proud to have been able to give her something like that.” — JK
Guitar Builder, Gig Harbor
Roy McAlister is in his shop across the lawn from his house in Gig Harbor, holding up one of his handcrafted guitars. He’s highlighting the detail he’s put into the neck of the instrument — the way he’s chiseled it out of a piece of wood that now can be played. “If there was a CNC machine (basically a robot) that carved this, you’re not going to feel that much difference,” he said. “I can’t tell you that my hands carving this neck is going to make it a better neck. But an instrument that is handmade has an intangible feature no machine can replicate. “It has more soul to it,” McAlister said.
It takes about five weeks to complete a guitar, with a base price of about $7,200. He sources wood from around the world and delicately carves each piece to create an instrument with a sound all its own. To create the curve of the body, he soaks a thin panel of wood in water, and then lays it on a 4-inch copper pipe he found in a friend’s plumbing truck. Inside that is a barbecue lighter.
“They don’t make these tools, or at least when I started, you had to make the tools you needed to get the job done,” he said.
Since he was a teenager, McAlister has been building things with his hands. When he was young, he was captivated by what goes into making a guitar, and all the unknown minuscule details.
“The guitar was always kind of a mystery to me. I couldn’t fathom how they went together. I really started tearing them apart and figuring it out,” he said.
McAlister likes to share his wisdom of how to build stuff with teenagers. For more than three years, he was the woodshop teacher at Stadium High School. Now, he has an apprentice program where kids come to his shop to build.
“Girls make kickass woodworkers,” he said. He thinks it’s because they’re not afraid to ask questions.
The son of a blues player who drank martinis and played long nights in the Bay Area, McAlister grew up in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California. Music wasn’t just something to listen to in the McAlister house; it was a way of life.
“I grew up (on my dad’s) lap, which I loved. We’d call them piano rides because he would play vigorously; you know, his knee would bounce. We would try to hang on as kids, and his cigarettes would be burning us. He’d have us hold his martini, which was like a glass of gin. (Those are) great memories.”
While the shop is dusted with wood chips and curled shavings that look like ribbons on the floor, his love of music — not just his craft of making instruments — is just as evident in the space. Photos of beloved musicians are mounted to his walls; he’s built guitars for many, including Jackson Browne, who called him out of the blue! No introductions were needed.
“I was such a fan of (him) growing up; I had everything he’d ever done. So, when he called me, there was no mistaking his voice. And you’re like, ‘Oh my God, he’s coming to me?’” he said.
McAlister has also built guitars for David Crosby, Graham Nash, and Marc Cohn. And while it’s a thrill to see legends rock out on something he’s made, the feeling he gets watching anyone play one of his guitars is moving. That’s another intangible — watching that soul come to life in another’s hands. — LF
Nick Terrel is a one-man show at his woodworking shop situated on the quaintly named Lemon Road in Olympia, with his two dogs, a corgi named Leo and a malamute named Maia, often posing next to projects on his Instagram.
Terrel has been honing his craft as a woodworker since he was a kid, and recently made it a full-time gig creating custom furniture and picture frames with centuries-old wood, harvested and reclaimed from the area. But his bread and butter, and what made him famous on social media, is stunning, rustic replicas of mountainscapes.
If there’s anything one can learn from his success, it’s that uncertainty about your post-college career can lead to a pretty fruitful and creative venture.
He attended Central Washington University and earned a bachelor’s degree in art and studied wood design, sculpture, and photography. Upon graduating, he picked up work remodeling homes at his dad’s construction company while trying to figure out his next steps. He always wanted to work in a woodshop, but was never sure how to go about it.
The pair were demoing a home in West Seattle, tearing out the old plaster and lath walls. Chip and Joanna Gaines from HGTV’s Fixer Upper are famed for using repurposed shiplap, which is common in the South, Terrel said, but in the Pacific Northwest, many old homes were built with plaster and lath. The thin, skeletal wooden boards are often dumped in a landfill or burned, but Terrel decided to take it home and create something.
“I used to hike a lot and the mountains always intrigued me, and I snowboard quite a bit,” Terrel said. “Going to Central, I’d escape quite a bit to the hills with my dog, Maia. … That’s what inspired me to make something like that, so I started doing mountain range scenes.”
His first piece was of a mountain layered against a two-toned backdrop for his wife, Jessica, in 2015. The harvested lath he uses is never stained or painted. The varying shades of dark and light are naturally created from the white plaster used in walls and dark soot coating ceiling boards. After posting a picture of it on Instagram, his design took off, and requests for orders started pouring in.
A few months later, he and Jessica moved to Olympia, and woodworking became his fulltime career, with customers as far away as Japan requesting his art. He’s typically got a custom furniture piece going each month and at least 10 mountain wall mounts at a time. During the holidays, though, that number easily quadruples. His turn-around time for projects is typically four to six weeks, but people don’t seem to mind waiting for something unique and authentic. He and his wife are also opening a mixed-used store in downtown Olympia with some friends that will operate as a small coffee shop with Northwest-made clothing and artwork.
“(I love) knowing that the wood is saved and it’s going into someone’s home for display for years and years to come, hopefully another 100 years,” he said. “It’s sad to see the wood people just throw out or burn when there’s so much character to it, and me, being a creative guy, I don’t see why not make something out of it.” — SRM
The South Sound is an Etsy Hub
The South Sound is full of many talented artists, which is evident by the array of museums and public art displays that dot our streets. However, many artists’ works won’t be found hanging on a gallery wall or adorning a public bench (though maybe they should). Instead, these makers quietly toil away in their own home, plying their trade on Etsy, the digital marketplace for handmade goods.
Tacoma-based shop owner Sarah Woodson clearly has a love for her hometown because her made-to-order mugs have Tacoma written all over them, literally. $38
Looking to proclaim your love of the Pacific Northwest with a stylish trucker hat, patch, or T-shirt? This shop provides awesome, local designs with nontoxic ink handmade in a Tacoma garage. Prices vary
Dave Cohen has the purrfect Etsy shop for crafty cat parents. He’ll send you the materials and instructions to make your own adorable catnip toys. Don’t worry: all products have been cleared by Cohen’s feline co-workers, Clementine and Arlo. $12.99
Emily Davis of Emily’s Handmade Soaps in Des Moines is a mom entrepreneur making a collection of bath products with sustainable ingredients. “It’s half chemistry and half art,” she said. She even has a soup that looks like Mount Rainier. Prices vary
Where to Buy Local
Looking for the perfect gift for someone (or even for yourself)? Compass Rose offers a huge selection of quirky items from local artisans and promises something for everybody — locally made jewelry, clothing, accessories, and more. Compass Rose also gives back to Tacoma and beyond by donating about 10 percent of its earnings to local organizations and international nonprofits focused on alleviating poverty.
Voted Best Boutique in the South Sound in 2016 and 2017 by our readers, Evolve has an eclectic and unique mix of locally made decorations and clothing for women. The boutique was founded in 2014 by a Tacoma businesswoman who selects high-quality local items for her shop while keeping the styles and preferences of Washington women in mind.
Whether you’re looking for locally handcrafted items like Aroma Soap Lab’s natural scents or locally grown goodies like L’Arche Farm & Gardens’ berries and flowers, you can find them every Thursday at the Broadway Farmers Market starting in May. For more food items, the Proctor Farmers Market is open every Saturday and offers a wide variety of produce, teas, prepared meals, and more.
Featuring products made in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and British Columbia, this Proctor shop has just about every PNW-related item you could ask for. Find everything from glass ornaments made with ashes from Mount St. Helens to an extensive selection of Bigfoot paraphernalia.