SMITHFIELD — One Thursday afternoon in April during an interview and photo shoot with The Herald Journal, Joe Vande Merwe proudly displayed his coasters, made from all different kinds of woods and medals.
You read that right. Medals, as in the prize of marathon runners; not metals in the copper or stainless steel variety.
That’s because when he’s not working at Utah State University, Vande Merwe carves wood to make items for resting beverages and inlays the winning prize of marathon runners into them.
“For me, the real thing behind this is it gives you a chance to get your medals out and use them, to relive the race every time you have a drink,” Vande Merwe said. “It’s like pulling out the photo album.”
Vande Merwe started his business, Handcrafted Coasters, last summer. Since that time, he has gone from making one coaster for his marathon-running daughter to several dozen at a time for races like the Gran Fondo and LoToJa.
Not even two years into Vande Merwe’s hobby business, race directors have taken notice of his craft. Officials include Gran Fondo race director Troy Oldham, who said the race’s 2018 second-place winners were given coasters embedded with their finishers medals.
“They were unique and it was a way for the rider to make their finish special,” Oldham wrote in an email to The Herald Journal.
Oldham noted in Gran Fondo post race surveys, “unique and new prizes” are listed as top reasons riders say they plan to return.
“Joe provides a great service and his handiwork is high quality but reasonably priced,” he wrote.
Kami Ellsworth, operations manager for the St. George Marathon, said Vande Merwe’s coasters were provided to the race’s first- and second-place male and female winners.
“They’re very unique … and they … are useful as well as something that prompts a memory,” she said. “If I had a medallion of a race that I won and I had coasters … of course I would look at those and remember that I had just won this big event.”
MAKING HANDCRAFTED COASTERS
Vande Merwe has lived in his current Smithfield home near the Bear River Mountains for five years. He quickly added on a third garage, which he uses as a workshop to make coasters.
“All of the medals are different. I prepare all of the coasters by hand,” Vande Merwe said in a video posted on the Handcrafted Coasters website.
Before he even sits down to make one, Vande Merwe purchases wood in bulk from a Salt Lake City-area lumber distributor. The wood varies among six types — oak, alder, maple, walnut, mahogany and sapele.
Once he brings the wood home, Vande Merwe mills it for the right size to make coasters. His typical coaster is 4.25 inches square and .375 inches thick.
“Anything smaller and a lot of the medal wouldn’t fit within the wood,” wrote Vande Merwe, who told the newspaper in an email he experimented with differently sized coasters before settling on the measurements he uses now. “Anything bigger and the set got unwieldy and was overkill for a coaster.”
When he gets medals from customers, Vande Merwe measures them and imports those measurements into a computer program.
In his workshop, Vande Merwe hooks the computer up to a machine so it can cut a precise hole into the wood based on the measurements the program provided. The method, known as computer numerical control, has only become available to small business owners like him in recent years, he added.
It takes only a few minutes of intense drilling — and buzzing — for the machine to do its job and cut the hole precisely shaped like a medal.
After the wood is lightly sanded down, Vande Merwe places the medal into the coaster and then applies a liquid coating on top of it that later hardens to protect the medal.
In a final step, the back of every coaster is branded with the Handcrafted Coasters logo.
The process of making these coasters, from beginning to end, can be quite an ordeal for Vande Merwe.
“I come back in the house and I’ve usually got a blood blister somewhere or slivers or my back hurts,” after coaster making, he said in his website’s video.
A customer’s request usually involves not just one but a set of up to half a dozen coasters, he said. It can take up to four days to finish them all, Vande Merwe said.
FROM IDEA TO BUSINESS
Vande Merwe first got the idea to start Handcrafted Coasters after talking to his daughter, who runs marathons.
“She says, ‘I race for the medals,’” Vande Merwe said. “She did one race and said, ‘Oh, I have so many medals but they’re just hanging up. I wish somebody could do something — make me a coaster out of these.’”
Since Vande Merwe’s daughter uses coasters regularly, he volunteered to make one with a medal for her.
“I said, ‘I can make that,’” he said. “I think it’s a brilliant way to use these race medals.”
Vande Merwe’s first attempt at embedding a medal from the Ragnar Relay Series into a coaster took six months.
“I hand-cut them,” he said. “But it’s just so time consuming … especially since some of the medals are so intricate, it just wouldn’t be practical.”
What drove Vande Merwe to turn coaster-making into a business is his passion for working with wood.
“So it wasn’t a hard decision,” he said. “A lot of people really love to do the races, they really love their medals.”
Vande Merwe said he decided he’d transform medals into coasters because of the “utility factor.”
“They’re manageable; they won’t take up a wall in your house,” he said.
Vande Merwe hopes the coasters invoke a discussion between family and friends.
“Most people, rightly so, are very proud that they’ve done a marathon,” he said. “I’ve met very few runners that don’t like to relive their race.”
Marathon runner Katie Cutrer first heard about Handcrafted Coasters while running the St. George Marathon. She liked them so much that when she got back home to North Carolina, she mailed off five medals for Vande Merwe to make into coasters.
“There are runners that do hundreds of marathons in a year — and it starts to accumulate,” Cutrer said. “Runners as a whole are always looking for, ‘What are things we can do with all our merchandise we get?’ I’ve never seen the coasters; I thought that was a really neat thing to do.”
Cutrer views her medals as valuable and doesn’t want them to get lost.
“Converting it into something like a coaster, you can see it and use it every day,” she said. “But it kind of protects it as well.”
Vande Merwe estimates he has made close to 250 coasters since he launched Handcrafted Coasters — and he doesn’t plan on stopping.
“What we’re selling is the memory of the accomplishment,” Vande Merwe said.