When a tree encounters some kind of stress, such as an injury, illness or infestation, a burl may result—a bulbous protrusion of peculiar and highly figured wood, prized for its beauty and uniqueness.
Burls, which occasionally will grow quite large, are sought after by artists, furniture makers and wood sculptors. Although its wild-looking grain can be difficult to work with, burl wood is unusually dense and resistant to splitting.
Because Jesse Rhines sees his own life’s journey as a prized result after years of stress, when he struck out on his own and started a woodworking business four years ago, he named the venture Burly Man Wood Specialties.
“And the double meaning doesn’t hurt,” the Orange County artisan added in a recent interview, with a smile.
That day, Rhines, 33, was reeling from the death a few days before of his niece, 6-year-old Maddie Hartman of Herndon.
“She was sitting on my knee when my wife and I announced to the family we were having a baby,” the Rhoadesville resident recalled. “She was a great kid. I can’t believe she’s gone.”
Maddie was living the healthy, normal life of a 5-year-old until, one day in January, caregivers at her daycare center contacted Maddie’s parents, telling them she was ill, with symptoms similar to a stroke.
“They found a mass and confirmed about a week later it was cancer,” Rhines said.
Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG, is so rare only about 300 children between the ages of 4 and 11 years old worldwide will receive the diagnosis this year. Maddie was one of them. The survival rate for the disease is 0 percent.
In Maddie’s honor, Rhines wore a T-shirt for his interview with the Culpeper Star-Exponent that read, “She is strong, she is fierce, she is valiant, she is a badass. #madstrong.”
Rhines, who hopes to draw attention to finding a cure for DIPG, said that although the family’s loss has been acute, he knows they will draw together and be stronger because of it.
“Like the stress of a burl, if we learn from it, eventually good things can come out of it,” he said.
Rhines has had a fascination with creating things out of wood all his life.
Around his neck, Rhines wears a tiny fish he carved out of a twig when he was 5 years old.
“It’s a lucky charm,” he said. “There’s a satisfaction that comes from working with my hands.”
Now, with his 5-year-old son, Silas, Rhines spends hours working with the boy and sharing his woodworking craft with him.
“I’ve been enormously blessed in these early years to be a big part of his life,” Rhines said.
He and his wife, Courtney Rhines, who works for Spotsylvania County as director of laboratory services, share childcare responsibilities.
The death of his 93-year-old grandmother several years ago prompted Rhines to leave the construction job he had at the time and to start his own woodworking business.
“I had a conversation with her before she died, and she told me, ‘When you look back, you don’t think about your accomplishments. Only regrets are left,’ ” he said. “She advised me: ‘Try to make your list of regrets shorter. Figure out what’s really important.’ ”
Following an interest he’d had since childhood, Rhines began working for a local woodworker, learning the craft, peeling back the mystique, sorting out a potential business model.
“The more I worked with different kinds of wood, the more I loved it,” Rhines said, describing the beauty and joy that comes from exposing the grain of curly maple or black walnut, and creating something useful from it.
And he had a knack for it.
“People really started admiring my work,” Rhines said. “I love every new challenge. When someone asks me, can you do this, my reaction is, ‘Let me try.’ ”
Over time, as he’s worked with different professional woodworkers in the region, Rhines has established Burly Man Wood Specialties as an independent entity, selling his wares at local art markets and festivals.
“But what I’d really like is to set up a storefront where people can watch what I do—to see me as I work my lathe and watch whatever they’ve ordered take shape,” he said.
He envisions beginning with a space as small as about 200 square feet in front of a window in a downtown shopping district, where people on the street could stop and see him at work.
“Eventually, it could be a complete shop, where people could take classes, and artisans could work there for the joy of it,” Rhines said.
Rhines, who is significantly younger than most of the woodworkers in the area, recognizes that business models are changing according to the interests and needs of newer generations. Millennials, for example, have a strong interest in one-of-a-kind, personalized objects, and this has begun to transform the artisan industry.
“If you want people to come into your store, you need to create an experience that makes it worthwhile to make the trip,” Rhines said.
With so many products available instantaneously as online purchases, the effort of visiting a retail space needs to provide something more than simply buying something.
“Human interaction is key,” Rhines said. “I want to provide a way for people to buy an experience, and create a memory of connection. That is the surprise, the joy of art today.”
That kind of connection was what drew Jerry Bouches to order a custom sign for display on his driveway near Lake Anna, to help visitors know they were on the right road.
“We had tried to order something online, but it was very thin, not good quality,” Bouches said.
As Bouches wandered through a craft fair in downtown Fredericksburg, Rhines’ Burly Man booth and the products he displayed caught Bouches’ eye.
“I went over and started talking to him, and he was great to work with, very outgoing, and understood immediately what I wanted to have done,” Bouches said.
The end product was just what he was looking for. “And he did it very quickly, too,” he added. “Overall, it was a great experience.”
Though many of his goals are yet to be realized, Rhines continues to seek like-minded business people who are interested in collaborating on a similar vision.
“Like a burl, like the loss of a loved one, I’m confident that my journey in woodworking, as challenging as it is, will result in something truly beautiful and ultimately successful,” he said.