August 16, 2018
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UMaine student turns woodworking passion into unique, handcrafted cribbage boards

By Natalie Feulner, BDN Staff
Updated:

A self-described tinkerer, inventor and artist, Bangor resident Travis Higgins has quickly made a name for himself among local store owners and cribbage enthusiasts selling his custom-built, Maine-themed cribbage boards.

Cribbage is a game of strategy, using the cards you have to make the best of the situation, giving each round of play its own subtle differences. Cribbage boards, which the 29-year-old Higgins handcrafts, are similar — each a unique piece, crafted based on experience and intuition.

What started as one board — a gift for his mom for Mother’s Day earlier this year — has grown to include dozens of customers, a thriving Etsy website and stores in Bangor selling several of his creations.

A natural ‘tinkerer’

Higgins is a new media student at the University of Maine, finishing up a few general education courses and a minor in art before graduating in the next year.

As a child and teen, he enjoyed creating, tinkering and robotics. After graduating from Bangor High School in 2003, he turned that passion into work as a college student where he focused his classes on computer programming, art and design.

For his capstone project last year, he built an iTorch, a flashlight-powered projector that works as a media sharing device, and during the process, he taught himself how to use the laser cutter and other tools available at the university’s IMRC Center. Students like Higgins must pay a fee to use the equipment at the center.

“I’ve always enjoyed artsy things, crafting, drawing, working with my hands,” Higgins said.

When Mother’s Day came around this spring, he needed a gift for his mom, an avid cribbage player. So, he put his new skills and the center’s laser cutter to the test and created a personalized cribbage board for her in the shape of France.

She showed it off to friends and co-workers, and the rest is history.

Higgins finds himself perusing the aisles of Home Depot in his spare time for the flattest pieces of birch in just the right thickness for his boards. Looking back at that first board, Higgins only sees flaws, but it was good enough to catch the interest of new customers who admired the fine lines and attention to detail.

“A couple of people started asking if I could make them custom stuff, so I did,” he said. “But now I’m using better materials, and I’ve learned a lot about using the laser engraver and cutting machines, so overall they just look a whole lot better.”

So good in fact, they gained the attention of Jennifer Wilson, an employee at the Rock and Art Shop in Bangor.

Business takes off

Wilson remembers the day Higgins came by asking if the store would consider selling his wares. She said she immediately noticed the craftsmanship and their potential to appeal to her customers, many who come to the store looking for a keepsake of Maine.

Higgins’ boards are all representative of Maine culture and destinations. For example, one is designed to look like a lobster trap complete with cutout lobsters, netting and glass pieces that look like water. Another features a three dimensional map of Mount Desert Island. The pre-made boards range in price from $120-$200, but he also takes custom orders.

“They’re amazing,” Wilson said. “They’re carved from hand, big enough that they make a good gift. … They’re Maine-themed, but not kitschy or cheesy.”

Wilson said the store plans to send many of the boards to its Bar Harbor location and a few are for sale at the Bangor shop. She said the customers who have been interested in them appreciate their Maine connection and the quality of the work.

That work, which takes days to complete, is done in small sections at the IMRC and often is finished in Higgins’ bedroom at his Bangor home.

“It takes time,” Higgins said. “They’re put together layer by layer which each takes time to dry, so I have to get an assembly line going.”

So far, Higgins has had people from all over Maine and the country interested in the boards. Most of his out of state customers have some connection to the area and find his work through the e-commerce website Etsy.

“Maybe they’ve visited Maine and wanted something to commemorate their trip with,” he said. “They’re kind of art, but also functional. You can hang it up or take it down and play with it.”

Higgins said while the orders have poured in since that first board he made for his mother, he still finds himself surprised every time he’s notified of another sale.

“I think they’re kind of cool, but I still can’t believe people are actually buying them sometimes,” he said.

Expanding production

Higgins is planning to graduate soon, and he hopes to throw himself fully into working on his boards and growing his customer base. Next semester he’s only taking one class, a big difference from this year when he juggled five classes and starting his business.

He’s looking forward to slowing down a bit and focusing on what he needs to do to reach even more people and streamline production. He also wants to buy his own laser cutter so he can avoid working around the IMRC’s hours, which are limited during the week.

“I realized that taking five classes and essentially starting a new business was a little crazy,” he said.

But until then, he’s gaining fans through word of mouth.

“They’re simply beautiful,” Wilson said.

For more information or to see samples of Higgins’ work, visit his Etsy page at etsy.com/shop/MainelyIdeas.


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