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Ford gives etching business a challenge

SHADY COVE - Ford Motor Co. recently looked to stone-etching entrepreneur Randi Hodges and her crew to produce a key component of a nationwide advertising campaign highlighting the 2002 Ford Explorer.

Hodges has operated Northwest Stone Wise Inc. for six years, embedding inspirational messages on river rocks of all sizes. Ford's order of 131,000 business card-sized etched stones was a challenge, Hodges admits.

It meant combining resources with Gold Hill stone supplier Stonehenge and another Eugene-based stone-etching business to pull it off. The job took 53 workers laboring 39 days in two shifts to complete, Hodges said. The last shipment left for New York Wednesday.

"That's a lot of rocks," Hodges says with a laugh, holding a photo of the crated stones ready for shipment.

Hodges decided to learn the process of stone etching after discovering a river rock with the word "Imagine" on it in a Seattle gift shop.

"I saw it and I just knew," she says.

She left her position as an outside salesperson in the gift and garden industry in Southern California to build her business and spend more time with her 5-year-old daughter.

For production advice, Hodges went first to engravers working in the memorial industry. They offered up their help in limited doses.

"They were working with polished stone," she remembers. "That's all they could show me."

But natural river rock is Hodges' canvas of choice.

"There just weren't any teachers out there," she adds. "I needed to know how to deal with the curvature of the stone and the interior temperature it needs to be, and those kinds of things."

Just as Hodges eventually perfected the methods used in Stone Wise's creations, she has decided to produce and self-publish "The Art, Technique and Process of Natural Stone Engraving," due out the second week in May.

Hodges works closely with her sister, Laurie Taylor, and three other employees to design, market, produce and ship Stone Wise's creations. Last year the company produced more than 85 tons of finished product, which is sold in retail garden and gift shops and directly to customers.

Stone Wise has grown steadily over the past six years, outgrowing a shed next to Hodges' home further down Indian Creek Road where she now leases a shop with a sandblasting room and a loft office area.

With consistent growth of about 34 percent each year, Hodges says she became overwhelmed with logistics and business management tasks. Husband Randy stepped in to lend a hand. Using his business background, he designed the colorful hand-drawn work flow chart that still hangs on the office wall - right above a box holding a snoozing cat nearly hidden in packing material.

Hodges says Stone Wise will continue to produce the popular etched river rocks which have carried myriad messages across the country, but it now will expand to more finite work like etched glassware and awards.

She'll likely leave the bigger boulder work to those who have developed that market.

Stone Wise also will continue to market memorial stones with gentle messages customers have consistently purchased in place of conventional grave markers, usually placing them in gardens or beside a memorial tree.

"Today, a lot of people aren't in the graveyard," Laurie Taylor says. "They're ashes are in the wind and the river."

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Ford gives etching business a challenge