Wooden Wonders’ little playhouses offer plenty of room for big imaginations.
By Nancy Heiser
Photographed by Cait Bourgault
[B]ig Merry, who lives at a lumberyard in rural Waldo County, gives me a wink. I can’t help smiling. Its open “eye” is a round window under an arched “forehead” of cedar. The circular door looks like a mouth in a state of happy surprise: O!
This whimsical wooden structure with something akin to a human face seems to belong in a fantasy world. It resembles a fairy cottage or a nook for woodland pixies. In the real world, it’s a playhouse, designed, crafted, and sold by Wooden Wonders, a company started in Thorndike five years ago by Rocy and Melissa Pillsbury. I imagine children dashing in and out of it, hosting tea parties, parleying with pirates, or acting out scenes from Middle-Earth, the fantasy realm of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings novels.
“Adults were intrigued by the hobbit-hole design too. It was unique, it was attractive. People took notice.”
And indeed, Melissa and Rocy call their distinctive curved-roof structures “hobbit holes,” borrowing the name from Tolkien’s central character, the pint-size, human-like being who lives in a cottage built into a hillock. Rocy, 41, has combined his love for fantasy fiction with his design and carpentry talents to create this line of imaginative structures. The small edifices have various uses — from playhouses, chicken coops, and doghouses to custom-built, adult-size outbuildings that become art studios, sheds, and saunas.
The Pillsburys got into the playhouse business after their first child was born and they were looking for a way to avoid Rocy’s long commutes in the construction trade. In 2009, they brought two prototypes to the Common Ground Country Fair, where the playhouses were overrun with ecstatic kids.
“The most valuable takeaway was that the adults were intrigued by the hobbit-hole design too,” said Melissa, 36. “It was unique, it was attractive. People took notice.”
For the first few years, they created only custom playhouses and marketed locally. But the couple soon realized they needed to be more business-minded and offer a ready-to-assemble product. Wooden Wonders now offers kits for three hobbit holes (Big Merry, Little Merry, and Bag End) and four chicken coops, with doghouses about to launch. Last year, they produced, sold, and shipped about 110 kits, many of them to buyers out of state. On the drawing board are designs for a sod-roofed playhouse and a full-size shed.
Wooden Wonders’ custom work continues as well. The company has recently been building three adult-size structures for a rustic event space in Tennessee. Each will have 200 square feet of living space, insulation, and sod roofs to make it appear as if they were built into the hillside. The Pillsburys will install them personally, as they do with most of their made-to-order structures. They’ve traveled as far as Georgia and Minnesota.
Every aspect of the structure has been meticulously designed, from how the forged iron door hinge is attached to how the trim is placed.
Wooden Wonders has just three employees — Melissa, Rocy, and Rocy’s brother Zach — but it’s had as many as seven. “We’re evolving to try to find the right fit, scale-wise,” Melissa says. They work in a massive, three-story warehouse brimming with playhouse sections. Every aspect of the structure has been meticulously designed, from how the forged iron door hinge is attached to how the trim is placed. The builders use a 20-ton hydraulic press to bend cedar planks, lending the dwellings’ their distinctive curve. To make the wavy-edged roof shingles, they cut clapboards from 1-by-8 cedar boards and sculpt each one individually. These are the details that give the hobbit holes their unique charm.
While trim and fascia involve several layers of cedar, Rocy conceded to an interior of plywood, to keep costs down. Even so, the playhouse kits are about $1,700 and $2,500, depending on size. The chicken coops start at $995 and are proving popular now that keeping backyard chickens has grown as a hobby.
Wooden Wonders shares its warehouse and lumberyard with a timber framer on an isolated dirt road in a region of Maine known for self-sufficiency and homesteading. “We want to have a work life that allows us to teach kids a certain lifestyle, and we want to have something to give them too,” Melissa says. “To do that in rural Maine you have to be extremely lucky or work extremely hard. We’ve had some luck, but we work really, really hard too.”