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Creative Woodworkers Open Businesses on Pike Street

Two separate businesses are creating very unique products inside a building on West Pike Street in Downtown Covington.

On one side, Steven Sander makes metal and wooden pieces of furniture and other objects, which have an artistic element. On the other side, three sisters make wooden signs, homemade gifts, and framed art as part of two businesses that they own and operate.

On Sander's side, the space looks like a standard industrial work space with various pieces of large machinery here and there, shelves of boxes with wooden and metal materials inside, and half-completed projects strewn about the room.

“I enjoy making different objects and to do that you need a large space where you can be loud. I have space to think and to try things,” Sander said.

Sander and his father bought the building six months ago and renovated it to accommodate both his work and the work of the sisters to whom he rents.

“They do similar things so I think it will be a good comparison. We'll share a gallery space as well,” Sander said.

He makes mainly things from wood and metal but he hopes to incorporate other materials to his process as the business grows.

“I enjoy making anything that I can. It doesn't just stop at furniture. I've got a motorcycle, I've got all sorts of projects with stuff I do, combining metal. I make shelf brackets, support legs, decorative spacers for things like wine racks. I use those two materials mainly because that is what I have the equipment for. The other materials I would like to use are acrylics and solid surface, anything that you can build something out of, but as of right now, those are the two,” he said.

After Holy Cross High School, Sander went to a Pennsylvania college for a few years where he was trained in traditional woodworking techniques.

“That school was mainly a trade program and you're supposed to just go get a job at a cabinet shop or something else, then I transferred to the Herron School of Design in Indiana where they didn't really have a technical background, but they had a very strong design background, which I didn't know anything about design. So I started using technical training to do very weird shapes. For a while I was just making things to display different shapes. I would have an idea for a leg and then build the table around the leg.”

He says that he likes to create those kind of inspired projects in his free time, but the work he does for others is more on an order basis.

“People want specific objects. They want a TV stand, they want a kitchen table, or a bar, they want whatever, so I do everything I can to make it unique but I don't have the luxury of designing a single element and building off of that unless it's just for myself or if it's going into the gallery,” Sander said.

He showed a leg that was used with what he called a split-turning technique which was used as a molding for cabinets and doorways.

“So what they would do is turn a pattern or detail, whatever it's going to be. It would start out as a square block and you turn the profile and then cut it in half, flip it over and glue it back together, turning it the whole time and reshape the outside to make it in to more of a piece of furniture.”

He says he enjoys his work because it is a throwback to how everyday objects were made at the turn of the 20th Century. “It's like re-purposed knowledge using something that people don't do anymore. To make things people don't see anymore.”

A lot of the orders for his work come from people who own historic homes and want to keep that old-world charm to what they own.

“I'm also recreating molding right now, because there are a lot of historic homes. So that's been an interesting challenge,” Sander said. “You would have a piece of molding that you want replicated for your home, or whatever, and I would trace the profile and then you would grind a knife head that matches that profile and cuts the negative. You would feed your material through and adjust the height according to the thickness and you can recreate your molding that way.”

“There's been a lot of requests for bars, some tables for a restaurant, that sort of thing. There's been a lot of questioning about how the recreating of the molding would go through the process.”

His equipment is large and expensive and has come from as far away as California. Some of it requires writing code to instruct the machine to make specific cuts and Sander said that some of the technical aspects of the machinery has had a rather steep learning curve.

“I'm just jumping in with both feet. You're either going to do it or not going to do it.

One of Sander's trademark pieces is a couch that he made composed of many small wooden sticks that are stood up vertically and sink into memory foam when an individual sits down on them. It was showcased at the Indianapolis State Museum. He said that he plans to make an ottoman size piece of the same style.

“As long as I can make it, I enjoy making it or enjoy figuring out a way to make it,” he said.

Holiday Pop-Ups Lead to Permanent Space

On the other side, three sisters—Melyssa, Michele and Christine Kirn—are opening up their space to facilitate their two businesses. Grainwell is a woodworking operation the Kirn sisters have run outside of their home and intend to house entirely in their new work space on Pike Street. There, they will make artistic wooden signs, interesting maps of Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, wooden coasters, and other inspired gifts, all from wood.

The space at 316 West Pike features a gallery and retail area in the front, office space in the middle, and a large former garage where the women intend to produce their pieces.

The other business the Kirns have started is called Olivia Lane Designs where they make unique accessories for weddings and other events.

Michele started Olivia Lane Designs as a side hobby when she was in graduate school. The effort brought extra money as she made personalized gifts and monograms.

“About a year ago, we decided to all come together and re-brand Olivia Lane to make it more wedding, event-based because people would come to us wanting to do signs and different things,” Michele said.

The sisters set up shop at the City Flea in Cincinnati and incorporated more wood design that featured Cincinnati in it, like maps and cutouts in the shape of the state of Ohio. They also showed their work at the 801 Holiday Pop-Up Shops late last year. 

“From there, we kind of realized that there was a market just within wood signage, so then in September we launched Grainwell,” Michele said.

Grainwell already has work commissioned with Braxton Brewery, which will open this year on West Seventh Street in the former Covington Arts space, to produce tiles with the names of their Kickstarter investors.

“It's fun that we're helping a local company and they're helping us,” Christine said. “A lot of people have contacted us about getting their logo cut out in wood. We realized after the holidays, which were crazy but really good for us, that we needed our own space. We did the pop-up shop so that helped give us an idea of keeping a store filled.”

“Our goal too is to get into other local and one day, nationwide stores and do the wholesale side, too, but right now we're focusing on collaborating with Steven for a nice gallery, show people the boutique where the retail will be, and building our brand,” Melyssa said.

The sisters say that once the business is up and running, they hope to have classes where they can teach interested individuals about their machines and how to make their own signs.

The family lives in Fort Wright and the three attended Notre Dame Academy. The father of the three sisters owns P&R Auto Body in Covington where he has been since 1980.

“We've been pairing a lot with automotive paint for the signs we make, so a lot of our signs my dad's painters have been painting with super high gloss and they look really sharp,” Michele said.

“We see the potential in Covington,” Christine said. “Even though we're not in the main part, I still think that it's good we're close by. We looked at spaces for months, and when we saw this place, we knew it was exactly what we wanted.”

Melyssa and Christine have decided to work full-time at their business while Michele is still working as a nurse part-time.

“We all decided that in order for this to go somewhere, we need to focus more on it. It was too hard to get all of our products and handle all of our orders and to develop new ideas,” Christine said.

The next step for the sisters is to acquire more stationary equipment for their space like table saws and miter saws, but they already have what they believe is a good base of equipment necessary to begin producing right away.

The sisters pride themselves on being open to new ideas and credit that to the reason they were able to start both Grainwell and Olivia Lane Designs.

“We're creative and always wanting new challenges,” Christine said. “Also, I think what's unique about our businesses is that we do make it all ourselves. We're all so different that I think you can see the differences in our design. Nobody is the same so I think it kind of reaches more people that way.”

When customers see Grainwell's goods, they aren't immediately aware of where it comes from. “I think when people see our stuff, they don't realize that we make it ourselves until we start to talk about it,” Melyssa said.

Grainwell is shooting for early April to have a grand opening where they will invite the public to come in and see their products and how they make them.

See their website: www.grainwell.com/

Written by Bryan Burke, associate editor