Carving Out a Partnership
How a Chelsea couple turn a basswood log into 2,000 "folk-arty" sculptures a year
by Shelley Daily
From the November, 2017 issue
Inside Marlene and John Dusbiber's timber-framed saltbox house in Sylvan Township, dried flowers hang above the brick hearth while a flock of wild turkeys grazes just outside a window on a fall afternoon. The couple, married for forty-five years, sit at the same table where they launched their full-time wood-carving business twenty years ago. Samples of their handiwork are displayed in the room: colorful birds hang from a tabletop tree; a dainty sandpiper and other seabirds stand on a table; and dogs, chickens, foxes, and pumpkins and other Halloween decor line shelves.
Marlene says she began creating the "folk-arty" carvings in 1985 and "slowly and gradually built [the business] up," selling mostly at local craft fairs. Then, in 1997, a story in Country Home magazine featuring her artwork changed the Dusbibers' life--and their work. Polly Minick, a member of Marlene's rug-hooking group, was a contributing editor at the magazine who'd encouraged Marlene to market her products nationally. When the magazine's holiday edition came out with a two-page spread featuring Marlene's hand-carved ornaments, the Dusbibers' phone started ringing, and it didn't stop for months.
John, also an accomplished wood-carver, had sometimes helped Marlene, but he had a longtime job as service manager at an Ann Arbor auto dealership. When they knew the magazine article would be coming out, he says, they thought long and hard about going into business together--"it was a make-or-break type thing." He quit his job in April 1997, and by that summer he had already carved 100 little snowmen in anticipation of the upcoming holiday rush.
When Marlene was carving as a hobby, she sold handmade pieces for as little as $7.50 each. Looking back, she thinks that reflected a kind of a "women's craft show mentality, where apparently we don't value our time enough." Once "it became our only source of income," she adds, it was a different story. They raised prices into the $25 range, and for months they carved from
sunup until "after David Letterman"--stopping for the UPS pickup around dinnertime--and filled orders from around the country.
With two daughters, Maggie and Catie, still in grade school at the time, they appreciated the flexibility of working from home. Their girls kept horses on their fifteen-acre property, and they enjoyed the country life they'd long dreamed of. They built their farmhouse in 1987 to match the eighteenth-century Samuel Daggett house in Greenfield Village (the house was featured in another Country Home spread). And the Dusbiber barn was constructed by the couple and a team of two dozen during a barn-raising workshop in 1990 (the subject of a Country Life magazine article). The home's worn pine plank floors once served as a makeshift Rollerblading rink for their daughters--and one of their ponies even made its way inside before it was escorted out, Marlene laughs.
The Dusbibers carve basswood, and use about a tree a year. A local farmer delivers the tree, which is milled on site, then dried out for about five months in their barn. Then, Marlene and John sit across from each other and pass a piece of wood "back and forth, many times," Marlene says--cutting, staining, painting, and buffing to completion. "I handle most of the detail work, and John does the broader cuts, but he can make anything," she says. "John is even-tempered. I'm crabbier. He's patient," she says about how they work together. John explains that "we're best friends--we do almost everything together."
A small TV keeps the Dusbibers entertained as they work--"baseball games are best--you only need to look up every thirty seconds or so," John laughs. "Most movies are good, and football is good too because there are replays and crowd noise so you know what's going on."
Once they cleared the backlog of orders from the Country Home article, they took a shop owner in Pasadena up on her offer to sell their work. She offered suggestions for new pieces that sold well, and at one point took 70 percent of their production. That store closed a few years ago, and today they've streamlined to about eight dealers, including La Maison in Chelsea and 16 Hands in Ann Arbor. They also sell directly via their website (marlenedusbiber.com), Facebook page, and semi-annual open houses.
John estimates they carve about 2,000 pieces a year. Marlene says she's inspired by her surroundings: her first bird carving was based on an albino house finch that had visited her feeder. Birds continue to be popular--they offer about two hundred Michigan varieties--as well as wooden plaques with interchangeable seasonal carvings. They take custom orders and have even used photos to carve a customer's family dog.
Marlene grew up in Colorado with a geology professor father and a homemaker mother and moved to Michigan when her father took a job at EMU. She and John met in high school, when they both worked at his father's Ypsilanti toy store. They dated through college--she studied anthropology at U-M, and he studied biology and geology at EMU (where he took classes from her father).
They've been creating together for years--early in their marriage, it was wooden herb racks and "blanket cranes" (traditionally used to dry or warm blankets near the hearth). Then they worked together at a company that made sailboat hardware.
"We've never been rolling in the money," explains Marlene. "We are frugal." But demand hasn't waned. "You have to find a unique niche--the wider you go, the harder it is to get recognized and remembered--you have to have one unique style," she says.
John picks up a handwritten list of their to-do items for the week from the worktable: "We haven't been able to produce enough--we're always behind," he says.
They're in their mid-sixties, and Marlene's hands are beginning to feel wear with "some pain and the start of arthritis." But, she says, "I still love to carve"--and plans to keep working for at least the next five years.
The Dusbibers will sell their work at All the Trimmings Holiday Show, Saturday, December 2, at the Chelsea Fairgrounds.
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