The old belief goes that in the world of small business startups, restaurants are most prone to failing in the first year. In the online world, though, blogs hold that dubious honor. Many blogs crop up every day, started on a whim, never to be updated again. Or they stick around for a few months, only to fizzle out as the audience never materializes. But one Alaska woman has been quietly building a blogging empire from her home in Delta Junction, and a new book featuring her homebuilt furniture designs may soon help her become a household name.
“The Handbuilt Home” is a collection of plans and instructions for creating more than 30 different pieces of furniture, from kitchen and bathroom storage to indoor and outdoor dining tables and even beds and mirrors. It’s a woodworking rookie’s dream, as the plans are simple, require minimum cuts and tools, and are laid out in a straightforward, step-by-step guide. It’s being released nationally on Tuesday.
Behind the book is Ana White, a peppy, brunette 32-year-old mother from the Alaska Interior, who began building furniture out of necessity, not as a business plan that now nets her a reported four million views every month on her blog and has amassed more than 100,000 Facebook followers -- numbers any digital business would kill for.
How it all began
White grew up in the area of Fairbanks and Delta Junction. In the late 1990s, she left Alaska to attend school out of state.
“I did leave as soon as I was old enough to get out of here,” White said. “I went to college, got a corporate job. I thought that was the ticket to a healthy life, and quickly discovered that I was actually sort of miserable.”
One day in 2002, she was sitting in her office in California’s Silicon Valley and watching gardeners and landscapers working outside, “tending flowers and cutting the lawn and joking around.”
“I actually felt really envious,” she said. “Like they had a better life than me.”
So she quit her job and briefly returned to Alaska before becoming what she describes as a “ski bum” for about a year.
“I didn’t really know what to do with myself,” White said. “I felt like a failure.”
She then returned again to Alaska before meeting her husband, Jacob, whom she married in 2005. They began building a house, by themselves, on a property they owned with nothing more than a garage. That’s where they stayed while they worked on construction from summer of 2006 to the fall of 2007.
But when the house was finished, they didn’t have money left for furniture, White said. Jacob had been laid off from his job in the electrical field, and their daughter, Grace, had been born. They had little time and little money, and they were using a card table for dining, and their mattress sat on the floor of the bedroom.
“Eventually I thought, ‘if we can build a house, why can’t we build furniture?’” White said. “So despite having limited knowledge and very little experience with tools, I decided I’m going to try to build my own bed.”
That bed became the “Farmhouse Bed” White’s first and signature project. She and her husband still use that bed to this day, she said, but getting there was a process of self-education.
“I didn’t have any woodworking experience, and no books or anything to draw on,” White said. “I would study the furniture in stores and in catalogs. We would go to people’s houses, or go out to eat, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to climb under the table to see how it was built.”
She bought $80 worth of wood from a home improvement store, laid out a plan using the simplest woodcuts she could, and worked on the project while her daughter slept in the car, sitting outside the window of the garage where White could keep an eye on her without waking her with the sounds of construction.
“I couldn’t believe it,” White said of her bed when it was finished. “Still to this day I go into our bedroom and think, ‘oh my gosh, I built that?’”
The start of something big
That, White said, was when she went “crazy about furniture,” and furnished their entire house with DIY projects, with the exception of upholstered pieces like couches.
But with her newfound passion, White still hoped to find an outlet to share her discoveries. Then, while on a playdate one day, a friend of hers mentioned blogging. White signed up for a blog of her own in 2009.
She shared her story and her designs on her blog, and didn’t fall victim to the frustration that comes from building a blog from the ground up, seeing few if any readers in the early weeks. She posted project after project, then about three months in, she woke up and saw that the blog had been viewed 68,000 times in one day.
“From that month on, the blog was being seen a million times every month,” she said. And it kept going, in large part thanks to White’s devotion to building furniture and sharing it with the world. She began trying to complete a project every day, often drying fresh finish and paint with a hair dryer so she could get it online faster.
Her work is targeted toward other people who otherwise wouldn’t have the experience, time or money to build their own furniture. Most of the pieces in the book can be completed with simple hand tools and a couple of easy-to-use power tools like a circular saw and drill.
White said that building your own furniture is especially practical in Alaska, where shipping costs can often be as much as the item itself -- if it can even be shipped this far north.
Eventually, though, with so many projects, White began to run out of room in her home for furniture, and she wasn’t interested in producing furniture just to sell it. So she began collaborating with others who would contact her looking for plans for a specific project. She would come up with the plans, and the collaborator would work on building it, while they would troubleshoot issues together.
The finished projects look great, too, many along the lines of upscale mass-market furniture brands like Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware.
In “The Handbuilt Home,” many of the projects were built by other bloggers from White’s plans. White said that this is because the process is entirely one built around community. One of the big demographics for White’s work is other moms and “mommy bloggers,” a major blogging niche. Many of the projects are also for children’s furniture or play sets, targeted toward housewives and mothers.
So what’s next for White? She’s preparing to embark on a book tour to promote her book, and continuing to blog and design new projects. She’s also focused on building what she’s dubbed the “Momplex,” a from-the-ground-up home they’re building for her mother and her husband’s mother.
“I really just feed off of what my readers want of me,” she said. “I’d love to take it to television at some point, but I’m not really excited to leave Alaska again.”
In the end, she said, her new passion is its own reward, especially after her years of aimlessness in the wake of her leaving her career in California.
“After being a mom, I can see now that it’s the most important job I’ll ever do,” White said. “But there was a time I never thought I’d have a career again.”
Ana White will be doing book signings in Alaska during the month of November, including a signing beginning at 7 p.m. Nov. 6 at the Barnes and Noble bookstore in Fairbanks, and another at Barnes and Noble in Anchorage on Nov. 10, beginning at 2 p.m.
Contact Ben Anderson at ben(at)alaskadispatch.com