Schrieber, Ontario is located on the northernmost point of Lake Superior along Highway 17 . With a population of approximately 1100, the motto is “Engineering our Small Town Dream”. Local residents Elizabeth and Allan Hill, creators of Northwood bentwood rings, are doing just that. In fact the Hills are handcrafting their small town dream one ring at a time. You will find a wide selection of their rings on their beautiful website, where you can see many more styles and designs*.
Inspired by their natural surroundings and conservationists at heart, Elizabeth and Allan are creating one-of-a-kind bentwoood from a large variety of tree species. I was totally wowed by the beauty and simplicity of these rings at first glance, and instantly wanted to know more. I recently tracked down Elizabeth Hill peppered her with all sorts of questions. What I discovered was a passionate and dedicated couple, every bit as delightful as their beautiful rings.
Q. Tell us about Northwood Rings:
A. We are a husband and wife run business. We make bentwood wooden rings by taking thin strips of wood, steaming them, and then wrapping them around a form. After they’ve dried we then proceed to make the rings through a long process of gluing, shaping, finishing and sanding. We also use other natural materials like stone and sand to inlay into our rings. We maintain a practice of being vegan friendly so that our rings can be enjoyed by everyone.
Q. What do enjoy most about it?
A. For myself, it’s the creating part. I love sketching new designs and helping customers come up with something personal. When someone contacts us for an engagement ring it’s always fun to choose the woods based on meaning. We had one ring commissioned that involved Canadian Maple for his home country, American Walnut for hers, and a strip of Hawaiian Golden Koa through the centre as he was taking her to Hawaii to propose. He had integrated their story into his ring choice.
For my husband, Allan, it’s discovering new woods. We source our woods from other woodworkers, choosing to use pieces that are too small for other projects so we’re not consuming unnecessarily. We get a rough piece of wood and you can see a little of the grain, but once it’s steamed and wrapped it’s in pretty rough condition. When he begins to polish and sand the ring down to it’s final stage, somewhere around the sixth stage of sanding the grain and character of the ring just pop out and you can see the final product. It’s never the same and it’s that reward at the end of a long process that keeps every ring interesting.
Q. What inspires your work?
A. We’re both inspired by the natural world around us. We both grew up on small hobby farms and find we’re most at home when out of the city. We love the freedom to walk in the woods on a sunny afternoon or sit by the lake as the sun sets. We feel it’s these times that inspire us the most, watching the world as it creates and changes. You can go into the woods every day and something will always be different and new.
Q. How did your business get started?
A. It was a happy accident. When Allan and I were engaged we chose not to spend money on an engagement ring and rather put the money toward creating a great experience for the guests at our wedding. When we got married it was the first time I’d worn a ring short of trying it on at the store. I discovered too late that I was allergic. During the next three years I could never find another ring that I thought could be a replacement for the one I wore on my wedding day. They were pretty, but none compared to the one I’d so carefully chosen and they just didn’t seem like ‘me’.
When I stumbled on to a blog mentioning wooden rings, I knew I had found my solution. The hobby farm I had grown up on was named ‘Lot of Oaks’ and the oak has always been a symbol of love and family for me. Rather than buy a ring, I wanted to create one from a piece of the land I grew up on. We started experimenting and trying new techniques and eventually came up with a ring that was wearable and then kept going and inventing better ways, it became a hobby for us and something we enjoyed doing together. As family and friends saw the rings they’d mention them to someone else until we had our first set of customers and Northwood Rings was born.
Q. Any new things happening at Northwood?
A. We are really excited to have our rings being placed into two galleries in Thunder Bay; at the Painted Turtle and the Baggage Building Arts Centre. We’ve also been contacted by an eco-friendly wedding company that would like to carry our rings in Ontario. We are hoping to branch out into more stores across Ontario in the coming year.
Q. What are few things you wish people knew about bentwood rings?
A. We’d love for people to know the durability of bentwood rings. We often find we’re explaining the strength behind our rings and battling the misconception that wooden rings can’t last. It’s true that if you purchase a wooden ring that’s just been cut out of a piece of wood that it won’t last very long, but by bending the grain over and over itself, as the bentwood technique does, we can create a ring that will last. It’s about the quality of how it’s made.
Q. What are some unique aspects of Northwood?
A. One of the most unique aspects of creating wooden rings is the diversity. Every ring, even if it’s the fiftieth ebony ring, comes out entirely different. Just like our customers, every ring has a story of its own. We are always open to creating something new and personal and most of the rings we create are designed to match that customer’s own story or tradition, like myself and the oak or the customer who had us recreate a tucum ring to remind him of his time in El-Salvador. (A tucum ring is a ring worn by Catholics who are part of the liberation theologists movement and dedicated to the poor.)
Q, How did you get started making rings?
A, Neither Allan nor myself has any background in art. When we started creating rings we found other jewellery artists and woodworkers and asked tons of questions. We took what we learned from these experts and mashed them together to develop our own technique. Before the rings, we were running a small weekend coffee cart in a market in London, Ontario. Allan is passionate about his coffee and has been roasting his own for fifteen years. We shut down the cart to focus on the rings full-time, but it’s still his coffee that fuels us!
Q. What do you like to do when you’re not making rings?
A. We’re conservationists at heart. We don’t like to add to the destruction already happening in our world. We try to live simply and cleanly and appreciate the beauty that the world around us has to offer. Eventually we plan on building our own off-the-grid rammed earth home, in the literal sense, and we’re working on learning the techniques and practices that will make the job possible. We both also love woodworking. Once we started making rings our interest in wood didn’t stop. In our off time we’re usually still found in the workshop. Allan loves the lathe and is experimenting with wood turning, and I’ve got plans to fill my home with my own handmade furniture.
Q. What local businesses would you recommend?
A. Schreiber is a pretty small town but if you branch out into the surrounding areas there is a great restaurant in Rossport called the Serendipity Gardens Cafe. They feature local art and sometimes have live bands. They have a studio attached in the summer for local artist, Douglas Hunt who creates amazing paintings. We also love our local hardware store, Cebrario’s Hardware is that small town hardware store that has everything you can think of, and the kind of place you don’t leave for an hour after you’ve walked in to get just one thing.
*Editor’s note: Since we published this story, the Hills have moved to Nova Scotia.