“The perfect campfire” wasn’t planned.
The Pattersons, a Brewer family of four, were toasting marshmallows over their custom-made campfire ring at Southwest Harbor’s Smuggler’s Den when neighboring campers took notice of the unusual sight and approached the Pattersons’ roaring fire.
Typical campfire rings aren’t much to look at. After about a year of use, the thin metal begins to warp, rust and crack. But the Pattersons had brought along their own creation, a ring of thick steel with a personal touch. Flames flickered through the graphic cutouts of a moose, a white-tailed deer and the letters “M-A-I-N-E.”
“There’s something mesmerizing about a fire,” said Fred Patterson, who built the special campfire ring for his family to enjoy on their many camping trips. “Someone sits at a fire and all their cares go away.”
By the end of their camping trip, six neighboring campers had requested to purchase one of their custom campfire rings. Thus, TPC-n-Smore, LLC, was born in 2003.
“We tend to be people who, when opportunity knocks, we take it,” said Fred’s wife, Monica Patterson, who takes care of the administration part of the business.
Fred, who has worked with steel for more than 25 years, designs the campfire rings, draws the graphics and manufactures the products at a local fabrication company, where he works full time.
The couple met at a high school party in 1983, back when Fred was a Hampden Academy Bronco and Monica was a Bangor High School Ram. They married two years later and now are parents to Andrew, 25, and Greg, 21.
Over the past nine years, the Pattersons have done steady business, selling about 140 campfire rings a year at prices hovering around $200. Typically, news of their product travels by word of mouth, and their biggest customer base is Maine. Today, people can find TPC-n-Smore campfire rings at Katahdin Shadows Campground in Medway, South Arm Campground in Andover and Acres of Wildlife campgrounds in Steep Falls.
“On Chemo Pond, one lady bought two, and a bunch of her friends bought one, and then she bought another one. Everybody wants to keep up with the Joneses, and that’s fine by me. I think it’s great,” Fred said.
Yet people from all around the country have found “the perfect campfire” on the TNC-n-Smore website. The Pattersons have shipped campfire rings to base of Mount Rainier in Washington, to Florida Gulf Coast University and to homes in Hawaii.
The couple also showcases their products at a number camper and sporting shows throughout New England.
“We’ve done a little better each year,” Monica said. “But because we’re a small business, we get out of it what we put into it.”
In addition to the business, both have full-time jobs. Monica is the manager of The Pampered Chef Ltd. in Brewer, and Fred works at the fabrication company.
A campfire ring starts with a drawing.
The business started with just five graphics: a moose, bear, buck head, two does standing and a fish. But over the years, from customer requests and Fred Patterson’s own creativity, the graphic list has grown to 116 graphics, not including lettering and specific graphics that aren’t popular enough to put on the list.
Many of the graphics reflect the life of Mainers: a turkey, pop-up camper, Mt. Katahdin, lobster boat, pine tree, cabin, tractor, snowmobile and blueberries. But then there are the other graphics, many of which he created for customers from the West Coast — parrots, palm trees, retro flowers, beach chairs, cactus and peace signs.
“I was never much of an artsy guy,” Fred said. “But I’ve worked with this program for a long time. And if you play around with something long enough, you become more proficient at doing it.”
The graphics have certainly gotten more complicated, he said, pointing out the skidder, backhoe, outhouse and dog sled.
“I did a boat graphic I’ll never forget,” he said. “A guy wanted his style boat with a tube being towed behind with a rope. I found the boat online, drew it the best I could and sent it to him. He just thought I was the man.”
The graphic was so long, it spanned halfway around the campfire ring.
“Many families have each child pick a graphic so that each graphic represents something for each person in the family,” Monica said. “We think campfires really bring people together, and the ring tends to be a conversation piece.”
Fred draws the graphics and letterings on AutoCAD LT drafting software, and a powerful plasma cutter machine cuts the design out of the steel sheets, which are then rolled with a rolling machine, bolted and welded.
He designed the campfire rings to be durable (heavy-duty 3/16-inch steel) because like most Mainers, he values the functionality and longevity of a product.
They weigh 80-90 pounds, depending on the size. To pick the larger rings up, he stands in the center of it and hoists it up like a hula hoop.
“All I can tell people is that the first ring we made 9 years ago is still fine today,” Monica said.
Over the years, Fred has also designed a line of useful campfire accessories — a dutch oven hook, grill assembly and safety rail and foot rest. Customers can also opt to have a bottom and legs welded onto their rings so they can build a fire off the ground.
In the Patterson’s garage workshop, they clean and coat the rings with high-temperature black paint. Maine customers usually stop by their house to pick up their orders rather than pay for shipping.
And if they happen to show up at the Patterson’s around dusk, odds are they’ll find Fred and Monica sitting by their own “perfect campfire” on their backyard patio, surrounded by tiki torches and listening to country music with friends and family. Since the first campfire ring Fred manufactured, he has designed several others for his family. The one they’re using this year reminds them of their family vacations in the tropics. The top edge ripples like waves, and fire glows through cut-out palm trees and a popular quote: “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere.”
For information, visit www.tpcnsmore.com or call 989-3473.