By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, June 14, 2009
Creating a work of art is not enough for Meilie Moy-Hodnett. "It's wonderful to make a piece of art, but then if it collects dust, you can't really show it off," she says. Instead, she makes products that she knows will be used and seen: wooden walking canes. "To me, a cane can be a usable, portable art form."
Meilie, 51, was born in Hawaii, grew up in Washington and wound up in Rockville, in a house with a woodworking shop for her husband, who is employed in the defense industry, and a garden for her. She had a job as a receptionist at a law firm and exercised her creativity outside the office, she says. "I would come home and do things like tile my kitchen." A few years ago, when her husband, Michael Hodnett, started having trouble with his hip and knee, he found that the canes he was purchasing were too short or too tall, and that their handles weren't strong enough or large enough. So he decided to make a couple of canes for himself.
Meilie was intrigued: She likes three-dimensional art forms, she says. Nowhere is that more evident than in her living room, which displays sculptures by her father and a collection of ceremonial African masks. Michael taught her some techniques, and she was hooked. "I decided that I really could start getting into this," she says. "Then I did some research, and I realized that there's nobody doing what I can do to incorporate into the designs the concepts of comfort, sturdiness and aesthetic appeal."
At first, she continued to work at the law firm and made the canes on the side. She also limited herself to a few combinations of woods and sizes. But with her husband's encouragement, she decided to try designing new handles; she has one fat handhold she calls "the potato."
In August 2007, she quit her job, took over her husband's woodworking shop and "dove into this." Because she already had a place to work, she estimated her start-up costs for her company, Big Stick Canes, at $20,000 for new equipment, tools and fancy woods.
She works with many hardwoods, such as cherry, Osage orange and tiger maple; a storage room wall in her basement is stacked floor to ceiling with wood she has purchased locally and online. She uses a table saw and band saw to cut the wood down to size, then employs hand tools such as spoke shavers, files and scrapers instead of a lathe to round the wood. "I don't want the symmetrical look in my work; I want the handmade asymmetrical look," she says. A tung oil mixture gives the canes either a shiny or a satin finish. She signs and numbers each of the canes, which sell for $180 to $1,800, depending on the wood and design.
Meilie sells her canes on the Internet and at craft and health shows. (She uses a wheeled golf bag to transport the canes and covers the handles with black socks from the dollar store.) Her sales have been around $40,000, with a profit of about 50 percent, which has gone toward recouping her start-up costs.
Meilie also makes canes to order. She designed a thicker cane with a bigger handle for a customer who weighed more than 350 pounds. She crafted a wide handle with a catch for a customer whose hand sometimes slipped; she named that the Harrison, in his honor. She also designed a cane for a client in the Midwest who could not straighten his fourth and fifth fingers. He sent photos of his hand holding a clay form that was comfortable, and they communicated back and forth until she had it right; it became the Larson handle.
"That's the beauty of it," she says. "I can change any design I want to. There's no limitations except the limitation of my abilities and creativity."