When Doug Tolson crafted a cutting board out of a selection of exotic and domestic woods, he didn't think he was doing anything more than making one very handsome Christmas present, and doing it the old-fashioned way.
He cut the wood, arranged the pieces, smoothed the edges, buffed out the imperfections, held it up to the light, ran his calloused fingers over each and every inch of the wood, and then rubbed a thick coat of mineral oil into the board, bringing out the variety of grains and colors.
Happy with his finished product, the lifelong woodworker hobbyist put a photo of the cutting board on his Facebook page.
"By the time I got home," he recalled with a laugh, "I had messages from 24 people who wanted a cutting board."
Tolson, who lives in West Sacramento with his wife and three kids, is a licensed contractor by profession. The economic recession had hit him hard, and when he got wind of the reaction to his cutting board, he saw a chance to supplement his income with a potentially rewarding side business.
"By the time I had those 24 boards done, I had another 22 orders," he said. "I was selling the boards for $30, but I was just doing it for my friends. People started contacting me, and all of the sudden I'm shipping cutting boards around the country."
Then he got serious. He and his wife, Tana, put up a website, got a business license and, after a good bit of soul-searching, came up with a name Sol Boards, a nod to the couple's love of the outdoors.
Tolson also had to hone his operational efficiency, manage his time and, more than anything, arrive at a retail price that made sense. The boards, which can be ordered through www.solboards.com, cost $50 for a 10-by-12-inch board; $60 for 10-by-16.
"My competition is other little guys like myself or big, stamped-out junk from China," Tolson said. "I can't compete with that price, but there's nothing special about a mass-manufactured cutting board. No two boards I make are the same and I make sure of that."
Some customers find the boards so beautiful that they're reluctant to use them.
"I wouldn't cut certain things on it," said customer Britni Arguelles of Rocklin.
"My friend had bought a cutting board of Doug's and showed it on Facebook," Arguelles said. "I said, 'Oh my gosh, those are awesome.' It's such a unique cutting board with all of the different types of wood. They're beautiful."
Arguelles was so impressed, she went on to commission Tolson to build a 9-foot outdoor dining table using reclaimed wood from a 60-year-old barn.
A recent visit to Tolson's tidy garage workshop found him working away on the latest orders. He lines up various species of hardwoods side by side in a template he built, glues them together with a food-safe adhesive, and clamps them overnight. There's plenty of touching up along the way until the eye-catching boards are glistening, smooth to the touch and ready for use.
Though his cutting board business is only two years old, Tolson, 46, has been "building anything and everything out of wood," as he likes to say, since he was a kid. For his 16th birthday, he received a band saw that only recently went kaput. He made Christmas ornaments for his teachers and saved up to buy a drill press. These days, his garage is outfitted with tools large and small.
"I'm one of those people who has to put things together," he said. "I'm like that Winchester Mystery House lady I have to keep building stuff."
Fans of home improvement TV shows might recognize the outgoing, energetic Tolson. He's a regular on "Yard Crashers" on DIY and can be seen in small roles on other shows like "Yardcore" and "Turf Wars."
After the initial surge in interest in his cutting boards, Tolson says he and his wife got a handle on their production efforts by dividing tasks and working together.
Even so, the orders could be overwhelming. At this scale, everything is hand-done, personally inspected, packed in the family kitchen and then shipped out to homes throughout the country.
To grow the business, Tolson would have to hire and train employees. Then he would be obligated to rent a commercial workshop. The business, he said, would begin to get away from him. Expenses would go up, and quality might slip. So he's going to keep it small and personal and, for better or worse, busy.
"Last December, I was coming home and doing this every waking moment," he said. "I was sanding on cutting boards Christmas Eve. We made over 150 boards last Christmas, and we've made about 1,200 boards total."
He purchased a dual-drum sander off Craigslist to help speed up the finishing touches.
Tolson's boards have a 1 1/4-inch hole drilled into one corner. Why? Because he thought all cutting boards had a hole. Perhaps he was thinking of an artist's palette. He's a woodworker, not a chef. Nevertheless, the hole has emerged as a signature detail.
Though there are vivid, contrasting colors on the boards, Tolson does not use dyes or stains. The variety of hardwoods he selects adds up to a multihued board that gets plenty of attention.
Asked how the recession has treated contractors like himself, Tolson let out a heavy sigh and said, "It's brutal out there."
Right now he's lucky, he says, to be building one of the few new houses going up in Yolo County. And in his spare hours, the popularity of Sol Boards means things are a little less brutal.