By Emma Kent
Photos by Lauren Wood
As the old adage says, if you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life. Riley Blackford hopes that will ring true for him. The 18-year-old from West Point has started his own woodworking business, Southern Wood Chips, making and selling handmade wooden utensils, bowls, vases and other items.
It turns out he’s not the only entrepreneur in the family. His sister-in-law, Vanessa Blackford, has been making all-natural candles under the moniker Blackford River Company for about two years.
“I wanted a hobby that could make money, and I wanted something fun to do,” Vanessa said.
With her business off the ground, Vanessa began helping Riley turn his hobby into a profitable activity, too. She’s been selling things all her life, starting with Girl Scout cookies, and she’s figured out she has a knack for it.
Vanessa spent about a year just experimenting with scents. She gave her prototype candles to family members to test, trying to find the perfect formula for a high-quality, natural candle.
“Finally, about a year ago, we got one that we actually really liked so we started selling, and it has really taken off,” she said.
Blackford River Company candles don’t contain any synthetics. They’re made of 100 percent natural soy wax made from Mississippi soybeans. The candles’ scents come from high-quality fragrance oil, and rather than using wicks that release potentially harmful chemicals into the air, Vanessa chose clean-burning cotton wicks.
“They’re all very natural, very simple ingredients that we’re comfortable burning around our own family,” she said. “I wanted something that naturally came from the earth.”
Not only are the candles all natural, but Vanessa said candles made with soy wax burn 50 percent longer than traditional candles made with paraffin wax.
For a little while, Riley and Vanessa worked together under the Blackford River name, but with Riley’s woodworking becoming more popular, he’s now creating his own identity as a craftsman under a new name: Southern Wood Chips.
Riley has always been interested in woodworking, but he says he got serious about it about two years ago. He and his brothers began making wooden spoons after being inspired by a craftsman they met at an arts festival.
“I just took it from there and have gone from spoons to doing bird houses, and now I’m doing bowls and vases and things like that,” Riley said.
His process varies depending on what he’s making. Spoons and kitchen utensils are pretty quick projects, but other items require more time.
“For a spoon, it probably takes 15 minutes to half an hour,” Riley said. “Bowls can be an hour to two-hour project — bowls can take a long time.”
Between filling orders, his school work and playing football, Riley, who is a high school senior, stays busy. The 18-year-old doesn’t mind, though, because for him, woodworking is a passion. He loves to spend time working in his shop, which is in his grandmother’s backyard.
“I’ve always wanted to do woodworking. I would love to do it for a living,” he said. “We’ve always done it as a family, and I just love it.”
Riley is one of eight siblings, and his parents, grandmother and Vanessa and her husband all live within a few minutes of each other. With so many people around, there’s always an extra set of hands to help with candle-making or collecting wood.
Riley’s younger brother has even begun making pottery, and Vanessa is playing around with the idea of using some pieces to hold her candles. Both businesses are a family affair, which is how they like it.
“Everybody can come together and work on a craft and everyone can bond as a family through that,” Vanessa said.
Blackford River candles and Southern Wood Chips handmade pieces can be found at local shops like The Bus Stop in Houston, Sentiments and Sundries in Ackerman and Farmhouse Market in West Point.
“I’ve been selling a lot,” said Riley. He also gets custom order requests through the Southern Wood Chips Facebook page.
Vanessa and Riley each have hopes to expand their businesses online in the near future.
Right now, they take orders on their Facebook pages. Riley is working on creating an Etsy page for his business, and Vanessa eventually hopes to purchase her own website domain to build an online shop.