Small Business & Startups and Travel & Tourism

Navigating the path to success

New hand-carved walking stick business grows in Grand Rapids.

December 11, 2015
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Kenneth Bornert
Kenneth Bornert turns pieces of wood into functional art for clients, who are able to collaborate on the design of their custom walking sticks. Courtesy Kenneth Bornert

If you can imagine it, Kenneth Bornert will carve it onto a stick of wood and then sell it to you.

And if you’re a Dr. Who fan, you’re in luck because that’s his new specialty.

About six months ago, Bornert took his hobby of whittling walking sticks and turned it into a side business he runs out of his home: Happy Trails Walking Sticks. You can find some of his sticks at Painted Teal in Grand Ledge, and he’s also trying to get involved with Pure Michigan. He has no storefront and no website. He does have a Facebook page, a supportive word-of-mouth client base, and plenty of wood.

“People usually will find me on Facebook … and then contact me through my email or my phone. And then I just set up the process, find out what they want carved onto the stick. I meet them somewhere and we exchange the stick for money,” he said.

“My purpose and design is that I want to get people back into nature — get them off the couch, get the kids out from video games and reconnect people with nature and God.”

The craft of carving a stick into a specialized walking tool was something Bornert taught himself, although since he’s a natural artist and has loved to draw his whole life, it wasn’t too tricky to learn.

It all started years ago when he was bored and looking for something to do in his spare time. His daughter happened to be going to a Renaissance Fair for a class trip, and he decided to make a present for her.

“They were going to be walking around for a long time so I wanted to give her something that would help her walk over rough terrain. So I got a stick and carved her name in it, and then while I was at it, I threw in some roses. … I used the contour of the wood to bring out the roses,” he said.

“She brought it to the fair and a lady … who was selling sticks said to her, ‘I will give you two sticks for that stick.’ My daughter didn’t want to sell it because it had her name on it. The lady said, ‘I don’t care. I want that stick.’ My daughter came back and told me that. I started making more.”

He learned more about the craft from library books and now has been carving sticks for years, mostly for family and friends — especially those who need walking assistance, such as a friend who had knee surgery.

He gets a lot of pop culture requests — he’s made a Batman stick and a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles stick. But his most recent and favorite piece involves a certain British time lord.

“There was one for a woman who wanted to surprise her husband for Christmas because he’s a — I guess the term is a ‘Whovian.’ He’s a major ‘Dr. Who’ fanatic,” he said.

Bornert put about 20 hours of work into that stick, which was made from maple and sold for about $150. He even used glow-in-the-dark paint for a Dalek — an extraterrestrial mutant — and the wording, “Don’t worry, I’m a doctor.”

A normal walking stick, which he likes to make out of hard woods such as maple, black walnut or oak, takes about four to five hours to make and costs about $40.

As much fun as he has making the walking sticks, Bornert admitted he’s a bit concerned about whether the aging population’s interest in wooden walking sticks will continue. Many trekkers don’t want a three-pound stick, he said. They want something lighter, like titanium.

“I kind of have a worry that the titanium trekking sticks — they’re the new rage; everybody wants the titanium. They’re like ski poles. That’s kind of when people start looking at how much I ask for a walking stick versus what they’re going to pay for titanium poles. They would rather have the lightweight poles,” he said.

“I’m just after a traditional walking stick feel that gives people help with their balance when crossing over a stream or a bog.”

Even with the wood versus titanium conversation, Bornert’s business is going well as a fun side job. But he also has a full-time job: Since 2002, he’s been a full-time federal screening officer with the Transportation Security Administration at Gerald R. Ford International Airport.

He’s also the man who “wrote the book” for the TSA on how to use sign language with hearing impaired passengers. His wife is hearing impaired, and his passion for sign language led him to revolutionize the system that was in place.

According to last year’s fall edition of the Gerald R. Ford International Airport’s quarterly publication: “He contacted the publishers of the ASL dictionary to obtain permission to create a manual based on encounters TSA officers have with deaf passengers. The manual covers everything from dropping off checked baggage at the security checkpoint to communicating the process of taking out liquids, removing shoes, and walking through the screening equipment.

“Bornert then began offering a two-hour class to teach local interested officers the 70+ signs that are in the manual. From there, a video featuring Bornert was distributed to TSA training programs around the country. So far, more than a dozen airports have contacted Federal Security Director Max Harnish to receive the video, and TSA Headquarters in Washington is planning to incorporate Bornert’s program at the national level.”

To learn more about Bornert’s walking sticks, visit facebook.com/HappyTrailsWalkingSticks.

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