Rhody Maker: High Hope Woodworks

Learn how local husband and wife team Michael and Erica Smith built their custom wood product business up from the ashes.
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Courtesy of High Hope Woodworks.

Point to any piece of wood in Michael Smith’s home shop in Hope, Rhode Island, and he’ll tell you not just the species, but where it was sourced.

“This is Curly Maple from in front of my house.”

“That’s Red Oak from Richmond.”

“I got this Cherry slab from up the road.”

“This is Osage Orange. I got it from Koszela Lumber in in Coventry. The owner, Julie, is awesome. I don’t have a purpose for it yet, but I’ll find one.”

“This is actually Walnut from a tree that fell in 2001 at a farm in North Scituate. The guy was selling his farm recently and the people buying it didn’t want all the wood, so I took it off their hands. They didn’t realize how much it’s worth.”

To be fair, Michael himself didn’t know how much wood would be worth to his own life until the last few years.

A New York native, he grew up helping his dad with contract work from time to time, but it wasn’t a career he envisioned for himself at the time. Instead, Michael enrolled at the University of Rhode Island as a Political Science major with expectations of someday becoming an attorney. A post-grad internship later helped him realize that particular career path wasn’t the right fit — he now manages apartments for a living — but his time at URI made an impact in other ways. The biggest was meeting his wife, Erica, while working together at Arturo Joe’s in neighboring Narragansett. The two eventually moved in to a house off Mineral Spring in Fairlawn, Pawtucket, together, and that’s where Michael says it all began.

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Michael and Erica Smith. Courtesy of High Hope Woodworks.

“That house was built in the 1920s and we redid the entire thing,” he says. “I’d have people come to me and say, ‘Oh, I saw that you did the molding in your house, can you do mine?”

He admits he didn’t love working on other people’s houses, but the occasional side project did help him afford different woodworking tools.

“I worked out of a tiny single car detached garage back then — it was 12 x 20 feet. Every single waking moment I wasn’t at my real job, I was out in the garage or in the driveway making stuff. Our neighbors probably hated us,” he says with a laugh.

The production only amped up in 2013 when he and Erica decided to create different elements for their wedding. Around the same time, they also utilized his skills to craft personalized gifts for family and friends.

“I surprised our first friends to have a kid with a toy box. I left it at their house, and she put it on Facebook, like, ‘Look at this amazing gift I came home to!’ Everyone was commenting asking, ‘Where did you get it? And ‘Where can I buy one?’” he recalls. “Next thing you know, I’ve made fifty of them. That’s all I did for a while — that and random small stuff — because, realistically, I didn’t have the right size shop to do more, and I didn’t have all the tools I have now.”

When Erica became pregnant in 2017, they knew it was time to find a more suitable space.

“He wanted the bigger garage, and I wanted 8,000 other things. So, when we came to look at this house, it was funny because he was like, ‘Alright, this is fine.’ Our realtor, who is a good friend of ours, thought he was all set and didn’t want the house, but he just wanted to jump out here and look at the garage. We basically bought this house for the garage,” Erica laughs.

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Courtesy of High Hope Woodworks

They both figured it would be a good opportunity for him to expand upon his hobby. But then, a year and a half later, tragedy struck.

“We had a wood burning stove in here — it was the only heat source at the time, and it wasn’t very well insulated — and one day we had a chimney fire,” Michael explains.

He and Erica weren’t home at the time — they had chosen that day to take their eighteen-month-old son back to their old stomping ground sin North Providence for lunch at Uncle Tony’s. When the neighbors caught wind of the fire, they immediately called both them and the fire department, but by the time the Smiths rushed back, everything inside the garage had been destroyed.

“The rock plaster walls saved the building itself. Thank God it didn’t get to our house… Our dog was inside. That’s what we cared about most,” he says. “But it was still heartbreaking. All the tools I had worked so hard to get were melted. And I lost a few Polaroids and about 300 CDs I can never get back — most of them were mixes I had made in High School or that we had made each other for Valentine’s Day. They all had specific memories attached, so that sucked.”

Luckily, one sentimental and irreplaceable item did miraculously make it through unscathed.

“When the fire happened, I came in here looking for a draw knife that my father had given me. My grandfather’s great-uncle had handmade from a tree branch way back when,” he says. “There’s a bit of a burn mark on it, but I was really happy to find it that day.”

Another silver lining: the insurance payout.

“It sat empty and a mess for weeks, and when we got the insurance, we had the conversation, ‘Okay, what are we going to do,” Michael says.

“That’s when we were like, ‘You love being in here, let’s make something out of it. We didn’t know what yet, but something,” Erica adds.

They rebuilt the space to Michael’s liking, including higher ceilings, a more open layout, more storage and more power capabilities.

“I planned everything out to a T. When else are you going to have the chance to build your dream shop?” he points out. “And then I replaced all the tools I had lost and then some.”

The shop was back and better than ever by March of 2020.

“Of course, right before COVID hit. But I think it worked in our favor as far as how we built up the business together because we had nothing else to do,” Michael says. “Friday and Saturday nights we were coming in here and figuring out different things. It was legit our date night. If we were going to make a cutting board, I’d lay out all the different options and she would take a look and say, ‘Okay, this looks best,’ and so on. It was fun.”

“And that’s how it started. Just to get our name out there, he was making a lot more up front, like ash trays or boards or other things you can find on our website,” Erica says. “It’s kind of evolved since then. He still makes stuff to sell, but a majority of our work is custom.”

High Hope Woodworks — a name born from their address and the couple’s vision for the company’s future — officially launched that September. In the two years since, Michael has made everything from a 3×3 foot anchor for the side of a house in Westerly and signage for multiple Thirsty Beaver locations and Brewology in Smithfield, to custom ring boxes, trophies, decor and more. When we visited the shop this past August, he was in the middle of creating a bespoke cover to match a customer’s outdoor sink in New York, a three-dimensional American flag with a 4×6 photo carved into the stripes, and logo-engraved flight boards for Twelve Guns Brewing in Bristol.

“That’s what sets him apart, too, the personalization,” Erica says. “He can take a logo, a photo, a drawing, what have you, and engrave it in the wood.”

“It’s not as easy as it looks,” Michael explains. “Everybody thinks you just hit print on the machine and it works, but I have to trace everything out, put it into my software and then figure out the tool paths — which basically means I teach the machine to use the different bits to carve sections out, cut against the grain to make the outline, and so on. I didn’t go to school for this – it’s all self-taught.”

“His work speaks for itself,” Erica adds.

Erica is also a big part of the business. She not only helps with design ideas and consultations, but also takes care of High Hope’s packaging, website maintenance, photo taking, social media posting and email fielding.

“Usually someone will come to us with an idea, and we’ll figure out the sizing and the type of wood. That’s where a lot of people have no clue, they’re just like, ‘I like dark wood’ and we’ll go from there. If it’s custom, he’ll do a rendering online, send a digital proof and then we’ll go back and forth until the design is finalized. Once we get the approval, they’ll pay, and go and make it,” she says. “We usually tell people about four to six weeks, because you never know, someone could get COVID, something could come up with our son, or Mike’s job… But he’s an animal, so he usually gets it out faster [than the deadline].”

Anything on the website can also be customized, and those projects often take less time because they already are half finished. The couple also often encourages customers with bigger projects in mind to come out to the shop so they can see the wood for themselves and pick it out. They also like to take every opportunity to prove why wood matters, as their custom hashtag proclaims.

 

“People will come to us and say, ‘I saw this on Etsy, can you do something similar?’ We can do it better. The type of wood and the quality matters. When you get something [from Etsy], you’re usually a little disappointed because it’s not as solid,” Erica points out.

“And the other problem with Etsy, what it’s turned into, is it’s now a lot of giant overseas companies manufacturing in warehouses. You have big plants sending thing out and making it seem like its handmade. It’s not,” Michael adds.

High Hope Woodworks can tell you what type of wood they’re using for your project, where it came from, and why it’s the best wood for the job. For instance, they know which woods hold up best in an outdoor environment or can advise you to pick a closed grain hardwood for a cutting board to prevent bacteria from infecting the surface.

“We also just believe in being as local as possible. When you’re in Rhode Island, you want Rhode Island wood. Any domestic wood we use is Rhode Island wood, and anything outside of that we still source in Rhode Island,” Michael says, “Of course, we can’t do everything in Rhode Island, or even the U.S. but we try really hard. The epoxy we use is TotalBoat from Bristol. And we make our own conditioner — we work with a local beekeeper and use their beeswax and mist it with a US-made mineral oil.”

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Courtesy of High Hope Woodworks

They also focus on sustainability.

“I’m not just going around and cutting trees down because I want to. I get the wood from lumber yards or fallen trees. If I do ever cut a tree down it’s because it needed to be cut down anyway and then I’ll try and save the wood,” says Michael.

Erica likes to joke that he’s a hoarder.

“When people come here, they’re usually overwhelmed by just how much [wood] we have. Some of it I’ll never be able to use; it’s too small or thin, even to make a bottle opener or a coaster, but I can’t throw it out. It kills me,” Michael says.

Right now, the High Hope Woodworks team is gearing up for the holidays, everything from creating spooky stock for Halloween to sourcing more wood for upcoming Christmas gift orders. While you can occasionally catch them at local craft shows or the Providence Flea, the best way to get in touch is through their website. There you will be able to either order a pre-made product or reach out about a custom order.

“We love custom work. The challenge, getting creative with the design, working closely with clients, seeing the finished product… That’s probably the most rewarding part of what we do,” Erica says.

Rewarding enough to go full time?

“Right now, it’s a side thing,” Michael muses. “She keeps saying she wants me to do this full time, but I don’t want the pressure of it. At least, I don’t think. I still don’t know… Maybe someday. But it’s been enjoyable, it’s been really nice so far.”

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A client commissioned High Hope Woodworks to immortalize both hers and her grandchild’s hands along with their favorite saying onto a beautiful wooden sign.