Woodworker's transformation was 'organic'

·7 min read

Know thyself!

That's pretty much been Bram D'Hoest's approach to his life and career.

He knows the kind of lifestyle he wants, and when opportunity knocks, he's listening and cheerfully willing to take the plunge.

A software architect by training, D'Hoest has re-invented himself as an environmentally conscious woodworker, using sustainably harvested wood to create baby toys, home décor items and custom furniture.

Every baby toy is made from anti-microbial wood that’s safe for a baby's mouth. He also has a treee planted for every baby rattle he sells.

"That's my legacy, planting a forest for tomorrow for kids today to play tomorrow," said D'Hoest.

Partnering with One Tree Planted, a Vermont-based charity with a mission to help global reforestation, D’Hoest donates one U.S. dollar from the sale of each baby rattle he makes to plant a tree either in a place of his choice or where it's needed.

So far, D'Hoest has planted 250 trees; his goal is to plant at least 1,000 trees.

Meanwhile, D'Hoest works hard at wasting as little as possible.

“We have a big organic vegetable garden now, we have egg-laying chickens, meat chickens, and we have honey bees. We're trying to be self-sufficient," said D'Hoest.

Waste from the workshop is carefully reused. Heating with wood, all the offcuts from D'Hoest's wood shop go to fuel, while ash from the wood stove goes into the vegetable and bee gardens, and wood shavings go to the chicken coop.

Going from software architect to studio woodworker with no training in the latter was all about confidence, attitude and determination.

"Bram is the kind of person who does everything 150 per cent – and sure it's really easy to get overwhelmed but I knew that he'd work really hard at it and I thought it would be more aligned with who he was," said Angelina Dunn, D'Hoest's wife and partner.

Born and raised outside Bruges, Belgium, D'Hoest initially came to Canada on a one-year work visa in 2009. He speaks English, French, Flemish/Dutch and understands German.

One of the first jobs he took when he arrived in Canada was at the Wildoat Bakery and Cafe, an organic bakery and vegan friendly cafe on Bank Street in Ottawa. While there, he applied for a job in Saskatchewan to work with horses and cattle.

"I grew up with horses, dressage, jumping, that kind of thing, did that my whole childhood, but had never experienced working with cattle on horseback. That was an experience I wanted to try," said D'Hoest.

Before leaving the Wildoat he met his work replacement at the café – Dunn.

"I went from Saskatchewan, to Vancouver Island working on farms, but then I returned to Ottawa shortly before it was time to return to Belgium. I hooked up with Angie, and never left," said D'Hoest.

Before taking the year off to travel, D'Hoest just happened to have experience with software that was still new in Canada. With attraction fuelling a desire to remain in Ottawa, he got a job as a software engineer with an Ottawa company that wanted his skills badly enough to sponsor him to stay in Canada.

"Everything kind of happened organically; nobody knew this programming language here in Ottawa, so they were willing to hire Bram on the spot," said Dunn.

Together Dunn and D'Hoest, set up in a tiny apartment in Ottawa. On a whim, D'Hoest picked up a small wood lathe that he set up on their balcony.

"I just started doing. My Dad was a wood shop teacher, my maternal grandfather was a carpenter, and paternal grandfather was a cobbler, so I'd always been around it. Everyone I knew had a workshop, but I had never done anything like this until I came here," said D'Hoest.

He started making small items on the lathe – wooden pens and baby rattles. Soon friends were asking him to make cutting boards and bowls and were buying up anything he made.

"It was all very organic. I never had a business plan. It was all small stuff I could do on the balcony. It was not a winter thing, so it was purely a hobby," shrugs D'Hoest.

Then he started doing the craft shows like Signatures in Ottawa and the One of a Kind, and Outdoor Art Fair in Toronto, along with all the little shows in Manotick, Merrickville and Burritts Rapids.

At the same time D'Hoest and Dunn knew they wanted to move out of the city.

"I grew up outside Bruges, and I've always lived with forests and nature, and Angie also wanted to live in the country," D'Hoest said.

The two scoured the countryside around Ottawa for a house they could call their own. In 2012, they found a rustic, modernized farmhouse built in 1830, on Wood Road between Merrickville and Smiths Falls.

A small shed was converted into a wood shop. For the next three years the two young newlyweds commuted in and out of Ottawa. D'Hoest was still working in IT and Dunn was teaching photography at Algonquin College.

"In 2015, I left the software company and started working from home," said D'Hoest.

Shortly after, Dunn decided to do the same and go back to being a freelance photographer. She photographs all of D'Hoest's work for social media, websites and handouts.

Now free from the long commute, D'Hoest and Dunn, both possessed of incredibly positive attitudes, turned their attention to their property and their passions.

"There's always an element of challenge when you're self-employed, but Bram is happy, even with these challenging times, he's grateful. We all know how short life can be, so you've got to do what you love," said Dunn.

In 2018, D'Hoest built himself a spacious, insulated workshop. It was in this new space that he started to make furniture. In the same year D'Hoest partnered up with second-generation Merrickville glass blower Michael Gray.

"We hit if off from the start. He wanted to open another store in Merrickville, because his studio is far from the other stores and people often don't walk that far. We figured his glass and my wood products look good together, so we decided to open a store on the main drag," said D'Hoest.

D'Hoest's one-off furniture pieces formed the basis of the store furniture with Gray's hand-blown glass adding colour and variation to the displays.

The simplicity, craftsmanship and design of D'Hoest's furniture didn’t go unnoticed.

"About a year ago I was in Merrickville and saw his pieces in a shop. They were absolutely gorgeous, beautiful, well made, affordable and style-conscious," said Dennis O'Connor, owner of O'Connor Gallery in Gananoque, who currently carries a few of D'Hoest's pieces.

A few months later, O'Connor was approached by a client looking for a conference table. He immediately though of D'Hoest, and convinced his client to opt for a custom table.

"Bram was lovely; he created the table on time, and went to great lengths to have it delivered to Kingston, and the client was impressed," said O’Connor.

According to O'Connor, D'Hoest's furniture is classic rather than trendy.

D'Hoest's repertoire of furniture includes credenzas, coffee tables, boardroom and dinning tables.

D'Hoest ran the store with Gray for two years, and in March 2020 their lease came up for renewal. Time constraints led them to decide to let it go, and then COVID hit.

Although D'Hoest still makes custom furniture and household décor items, they are no longer his main focus, and only a few area stores display his furniture. He still shows a few pieces at Gray Art Gallery in Merrickville, and at O'Connor Gallery in Gananoque and the Art Hub in Smiths Falls.

Since the arrival of COVID he's switched his focus to baby toys.

"I'm really trying to push into wholesale now because all the shows are cancelled; we just need to build broader awareness," said D'Hoest.

He also makes wooden signs and stamps for municipalities and businesses in the area.

His baby toys can be found at numerous stores across the country, from Nova Scotia to British Columbia, with the bulk of stores in Ontario from Ottawa to Hamilton. More information is available at tinytreewoodco.ca.

Heddy Sorour, Local Journalism Initiative, Brockville Recorder and Times