Turning driftwood into art

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, February 22, 2023

Some of the Roberts’ creations from Ohio River Driftwood. (The Ironton Tribune | Rachael Layne)

Chesapeake couple turn driftwood into business

By Amanda Larch

For The Ironton Tribune

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To say the Ohio River is important to Clyde and Denise Roberts is an understatement. The couple, who live right on the water in Chesapeake, started their own business surrounding the river, and, more specifically, its driftwood.

Ohio River Driftwood was born a few years ago, after Denise took home her first piece of driftwood.

“I had found a twisted piece of wood that I thought was cool, so I connected it to a two-by-four, stained it and took it to work,” she laughs at the memory. “Everybody loved it. They went on and on about this piece. Eventually, we started messing around with the driftwood.”

The Roberts started crafting their pieces as a hobby in their home workshop. They received their first customer almost unexpectedly — someone came to their home to originally buy a table, but couldn’t resist the driftwood sculptures they had displayed and asked to purchase them.

The Roberts then realized the potential of starting a business.

Now, I’m meeting with the couple on the banks of the Ohio River in South Point, where they’ve found countless pieces of inventory over the years.

“Our sculptures are original pieces. You will never find another one like it, because we literally pick them. That’s our supplies right there,” Denise says as she points to the riverbank.

“When the tide goes down, inventory’s up,” Clyde adds.

Ohio River Driftwood’s pieces come with a letter of authenticity personally signed by Clyde or Denise. Each piece is named and numbered and one of a kind.

“The letter tells you what we used on that piece, like the type of stain,” Denise says. “It also tells you if we got it in Chesapeake, South Point, Aberdeen, Gallipolis. We travel the whole river.”

Once the Roberts take home a promising piece of driftwood, it generally has to dry on their drying rack for at least 30 days. Then, the couple cleans it, including every hole and crevice, with a Dremel tool to remove sand and dirt and any little critters that might be living inside. The next step is to disinfect the piece and finish sanding. Aside from this process, the piece will not be changed.

“Mother Nature’s doing the work. We’re just       enhancing it,” Clyde says.

“When we say we do driftwood sculptures, people think we’re making horses, owls, things like that, but we’re keeping it natural,” Denise says. “I don’t know how many people have stopped and said they would have never thought to pick up an old piece of driftwood and stain it, so hopefully we’re inspiring people.”

Some of the Roberts’ creations from Ohio River Driftwood. (The Ironton Tribune | Rachael Layne)

Ohio River Driftwood also accepts custom orders, as many people may have driftwood at home that they’re unsure how to preserve. Once finished, these also come with a letter of authenticity.

“They might have a piece of driftwood Grandpa gave them; I’ve heard the stories,” Denise says. “Bring it in, and we’ll get it mounted, stain it and make it nice and something that can stay in the family for years.”

Since 2021, the Roberts have mainly done vendor shows, and that’s where Denise’s idea of making jewelry stemmed from. They needed something small on their table that would both help bring in customers as well as help them make their money back from the cost of the booth.

“We were going to do a show, and I said we needed something small on the table because our pieces are not inexpensive. You’re looking at three to nine months of work,” she says. “We were down here on the river looking around, and I thought this would make cute jewelry.”

Denise ordered jewelry-making supplies and got to work. She’d never made jewelry before and says it’s been a trial-and-error process. She uses glass, fossils and stones found washed up from the river, which she cleans and disinfects before setting into a chain and adding a charm.

“It took off faster than the driftwood did,” she says. “We were just picking up rocks and stuff out here, and I was taking it home and experimenting.”

Much like the driftwood sculptures, each piece of jewelry is also one of a kind, and now Denise has incorporated a build-your-own stand for upcoming vendor shows, so customers can choose what specific pieces to include on the jewelry they want.

“I can’t make two pieces the same,” she says.

The reception to their business has been nothing but positive and supportive so far. They’ve even had customers educate them on the stones and fossils they’ve found, and they enjoy learning as they go.

“It’s really fulfilling,” Clyde says.

“When you do art, it’s what you like. But to sit it out there and have somebody else look at it, that’s intimidating because you’re thinking of all the little issues that you don’t like,” Denise says. “Then they come up and say, ‘This is gorgeous. That’s beautiful.’ You’re just like, ‘Wow, I did do something.’”

While the main goal for the business now is to build the customer base, Denise has big plans for the future: she wants a gallery.

“I’d like to find a place and make it for artists, just artists in this area,” she says. “There’s nothing like that here in southern Ohio. We could have big artisan shows like the vendor shows that we go to now: all artists. That’s the plan eventually.”

Because their business started as a hobby, it’s still just as fun for Clyde and Denise. Each weekend, the couple can be found traveling along the river in search of their next piece, and after work during the week, they unwind by spending time together in their workshop.

“It’s a really good experience for us. It is basically a hobby that got out of hand,” Clyde says.

The Ohio River is so special to the Roberts that they even got married on the river a few years ago — their wedding arch was made of river driftwood — just before officially launching the business.

“I’ve lived on it all my life,” Denise says. “I grew up in Burlington, and now I live in Chesapeake on the river. And I wouldn’t live anywhere else.”