Bruce and Mary Ansell have a set of cozy chairs carved from wine casks sitting on their porch which has a lovely view of Birch Bay and a pleasantly cool breeze. A contoured coffee table made from a wine barrel lid fits snugly between the chairs.
But that’s not all: a cursory look around the house will reveal barbecue racks made of old wine staves, lazy Susans crafted
out of barrel lids, benches still stained purple beneath their varnish, wind chimes made from old bottles and dangling corks and even an artsy metal orb made from hoops taken from old barrels.
The Ansells are the owners and operators of Un-Wined Barrels of Hope, a small non-profit business operated out of Bruce’s wood shop. Nearly 100 percent of the business income has gone directly to charitable causes. The Ansells have no interest in setting up a shop or selling functional art on commission. They’re just looking to do some good.
“I’d much rather spend 24 hours sanding barrels in my shop than spend one hour out in a booth at some farmer’s market,” Bruce said.
Ansell worked as a firefighter in Bellevue for 30 years, and when he finally retired in March of last year, he found himself looking for ways to give back to the community in his free time.
“I’ve been a medic and a firefighter for all of my career,” he said. “Helping people is in my blood.”
He’s also been an avid woodworker since high school, and even built his family home in Duvall. Habitat for Humanity seemed to be a perfect fit, so he and Mary volunteered to help build a house in Blaine. That project wound up being delayed indefinitely, so Bruce started looking for other ways to occupy his time.
Shortly after his retirement, he and Mary accompanied their friends Ken and Jill Peck on a vacation to Italy, and in a small Tuscan village they came across a set of sturdy, comfortable chairs made from wine barrels.
“I thought to myself, ‘I can do that,’” Bruce said.
Fortunately for him, the Pecks are the owners of the Dakota Creek Winery in Blaine, and they happened to have a few spare
wine barrels for him to work with. He made two chairs and a dog bed for the Pecks out of their first-ever wine barrels, a sentimental gift for friends that led to him crafting wine racks, coat hangers, benches and anything else he could think of. It didn’t take long for him to convert his hobby into a charitable venture.
“I started to realize that this was something I could do right now, on my own schedule, to help people out,” he said.
He and Mary established the business last November, and since then their creations have raised several thousand dollars for charitable causes.
The Ansells have auctioned off items to benefit F-Factor, a Seattle-based charity that helps foster children and abandoned youth build confidence and creativity through fashion. Recently, they raised nearly $2,000 at a Dakota Creek auction, and donated all of it to benefit firefighters in Oso and Darrington, who have been contending with the terrible damage done by the mudslide on March 22. Firefighters in Oso are almost all volunteers, and the station was running short on funds to get the equipment they needed.
“You know, I can give money to the Red Cross, and I do, but there’s something satisfying about giving money directly to people who need it,” Ansell said.
Ansell only takes a very small fraction of the proceeds to pay for materials, such as nails, finish, saw blades and, of course, wine barrels. Dakota Creek Winery has donated the majority of the barrels for Un-Wined Barrels of Hope, but finding additional barrels that haven’t succumbed to rot or built up crystals of tartaric acid has proven to be a challenge.
The Ansells are choosy about their charities. They want to be sure that the money Bruce’s creations earn is going to charitable causes that fit into his company’s mission statement. Specifically, Bruce endorses humanitarian causes, fire and rescue service workers, vital Whatcom County issues and disaster-relief efforts.
Bruce said he and his wife aren’t interested in making a bunch of money. He doesn’t want to exhibit his functional art pieces and he doesn’t want to open up his wood shop to tourists. He just wants to use his talents to help those in need.
“Sure, I’d love some extra money,” he laughed. “But if I were profit-driven I’d be stressed out and driving myself crazy instead of enjoying my retirement.”