For six months in 2015, EJ Duff worked on a construction project in Fishtown. She installed drywall and light fixtures. She painted rooms and carried bags of rocks and piles of ceramic tile up and down four flights of stairs.
Although she enjoyed working with her hands and outside of an office environment, the work was too demanding for her 5-foot-4-inch body. But from that job, Duff’s tool collection had grown to include a circular saw, a crowbar, a hammer, and a drill/driver.
She used her tools to build a shoe rack with wood from recycled pallets that she had found on the roadside in Manayunk. When friends noticed it in her living room in Allegheny West, they asked Duff to make them one, and through word of mouth, orders began to pile up.
Duff created an Etsy account to keep up with requests, and, “the more orders I got for shoe racks, the more I invested in heavier equipment,” Duff, 31, said. “I started making small coffee and dining tables.”
Four years and dozens of commissions later, Duff outgrew her 300-square-foot basement workshop, set up shop at a co-working industrial building, and officially launched Hurricane Woodwork — a collection of handcrafted furniture and home decor made from recycled wood she buys locally.
For North American woods, like walnut, maple, pine, elm, and ash, Duff shops at the Lancaster-based lumber supplier Groff & Groff. For Latin American wood, like canary, cocobolo, and mango, she orders from Diamond Tropical Hardwoods in Sellersville.
Duff said she is drawn to the infinite variations of grains, textures, and colors. When she receives a new slab of live-edge, unrefined wood from a supplier, “I let the wood tell me what it wants to be. A lot of the times, the wood will tell you where the movement is going and where the curves will align.” Other times, she takes her cues from clients during the design process.
She builds custom bed frames, tables, and shelving for clients and also offers a collection of smaller items like spatulas, chopsticks, cutting boards, and plant holders on the Hurricane Woodwork website. Large or elaborate pieces can cost at least $1,000, “but I also have pieces for $35 that’s ready to walk out the door.”
Solitude, and a setback
“I love working alone,” Duff said. “Being a queer female in this trade is difficult, at best, but especially so when you’re working with other people.”
At a construction site, Duff once stepped into an elevator and when the doors closed, she noticed a coworker had written an antigay slur on the inside of the door. She immediately erased it using the fabric of her sleeve. The coworker who wrote it explained that he was only joking, but Duff didn’t find the message humorous.
A study released this year by the workplace research group Catalyst found that more than half (53%) of LGBTQ employees, in general, heard lesbian and gay jokes at work in 2018, while 37% heard bisexual jokes and 41% heard transgender jokes.
“I love not having to deal with that anymore. It’s fantastic,” she said.
In June, just as Hurricane Woodwork began to hit its stride, Duff’s co-working space was robbed. On the night of the incident, Duff had gone home early, excited about a big order that had been recently placed. The next morning was brutal.
“They took everything,” Duff said. “It was my entire life’s savings. It was my livelihood, and my retirement plan — all gone within a few hours.”
When news of the robbery reached her clients and peers in the woodworking community, they rallied to support Hurricane Woodwork with donations of money and equipment. Duff rebounded quickly.
“People from Canada and people from all over the U.S. sent me either new tools from Amazon or tools that they didn’t need anymore,” she said. “I was able to restock my shop within three weeks. I get welled up talking about it because it just blew me away.”
Going forward, she said, “I would like to be at a place where I can make a couple of big pieces and a couple of small pieces a month to pay for me and my partner and our plethora of fuzzy children,” she said. “I don’t want 30 employees. I don’t even want two. I want to be self-sustaining.”
One satisfied customer
Before her woodworking career, Duff had worked as a dog walker for Queenie’s Pets in Mount Airy. There, she met Andrea Bradbury, who became one of Hurricane’s early supporters.
In 2014, Bradbury broke her leg when she slipped on a sheet of ice, and as she healed, Duff had been the primary walker for her American bulldog, Rowan. When Duff left Queenie’s to grow her woodworking business, Bradbury put in an order for a black cherry-stained credenza.
Now, Bradbury owns at least a half dozen Hurricane pieces, including a black walnut bed frame and two canary bedside tables with custom ironwork.
“I like wood for certain things like tables and plant stands,” Bradbury said. “To find someone who makes such quality products and a great person, what more could you ask for?”