Against the Grain is a series spotlighting people who are underrepresented in the woodworking, carpentry, and construction space. We’ll speak with people working on projects from whole-home renos to intricate wood sculptures to learn what inspires them, how they’ve carved their own space (pun intended), and what they’re working on next.
Prior to our chat, Karissa Cross, aka The Sanding Blonde, sent a follow-up message asking if the call would be recorded. “Like, how cute do I need to be?” she asked, adding a nervous emoji that instantly upped the charm factor. “I’m sanding and painting so I’m a mess!”
Meet the Expert
Karissa Cross is a woodworker, single mom, and founder of The Sanding Blonde, a woodworking and furniture restoration shop she built in the back of her property in Brunswick, Georgia. She lives on a mini-farm filled with goats and chickens.
When we connected a few hours later, she beamed into the camera from her sunny kitchen in Georgia, about a thirty-minute drive from the Florida-Georgia line. “I was able to shower,” she laughed. Her bright and bubbly personality matched her Insta-feed to a tee, and Karissa chatted with us about how she got started building and where she sees this wild ride taking her next.
From Refinishing to Starting From Scratch
"I've always been kind of handy," Karissa said, thinking back on her origins in woodworking. She began The Sanding Blonde three years ago, but her original foray into building dates back to 2011 when she started refinishing furniture. “I had a friend who, when I walked into her home, she had all these unique pieces [that she made]. And I didn't even realize you could paint or redo or refinish stuff or repurpose it. So I started with that.”
Karissa dove in headfirst, refinishing pieces and selling them in what she referred to as “huge warehouse sales.” But when her two children were born, life tugged Karissa away from the world of refinished furniture...temporarily.
“And then I got divorced. And when I got divorced, I was trying to figure out how I could potentially work from home because I was a stay-at-home mom.
Bouncing Back After a Major Life Change
With her then four and two-year-olds in mind, Karissa carefully considered how to get back into the workforce without sacrificing her time with her children. As fate would have it, she received an unexpected request from a member of her church, asking her to build a coffee bar for the congregation.
“And no one has stopped asking me to build things since then.”
Stay-at-Home Mom Turned Work-From-Home Mogul
Today, Karissa relies solely on word-of-mouth and social media to keep her building business not only afloat but also growing and expanding. But as a newbie builder in 2018, Karissa’s primary goal was to push herself to grow with each new project and commission.
“With every new project, I'd buy a new tool and challenge myself to do projects that required tools I didn't have or skills I didn't have. I was forced to figure it out and learn how to do it.”
Inspired by the Women Before Her
As Karissa got more into the online world of building, she also continually posted her projects and progress on social media. This is where she found much of her early inspiration. “Anne of All Trades is one person I've always been into. [I love] gardening and having a homestead, and she’s someone that I watched and was just in awe.”
Along with Anne, Karissa also found Janine of If You Give a Girl a Saw––and the combo was inspiring. “I don't think I ever saw women in that kind of role.” These accounts from other women in woodworking, paired with a newfound pressure to earn her own income while staying at home, propelled Karissa forward. “Seeing that there are these women that can do this was so, so eye-opening. I was like… we're gonna figure this out. This is the road I'm taking. And I love it!”
Facing and Embracing Her Fears
After her first piece was done, she was hooked. Starting with a sander from her refinishing days, Karissa slowly but surely built her tool collection. From miter saws to routers, she’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite––but she was quick to answer which tool she uses the most.
“I feel silly saying this, because for any other woodworker they'd be like, well, that's very basic, but the router is so scary to me ... but now I can't imagine doing a project without it. I use it all the time. I think I have three of them. They're different sizes, and I use them each for different things. It's definitely the most nerve-wracking tool, but it’s a staple.”
In Pursuit of Dream Projects
On Karissa’s never-ending quest to challenge herself, she ended up pursuing two dream projects. The first was a custom-built greenhouse. “I just finished it last month, and that one has been on my list for so long. Finally crossing that off felt really, really good,” she said.
The second was restoring a vintage Airstream that she found on Facebook marketplace for $600. “I had to learn so many things as I was doing it.” But as Karissa has learned time and time again, her hard work paid off. “At first, I was like, “how do I think that I'm able to do this, this is crazy?” And then I did it. And it was a huge project.” Karissa remained constantly aware of her audience and feared they were wondering if she’d ever make it to the finish line. When she did, she says, “I just proved so much to myself.”
When it comes to what motivates her most, Karissa told us, “I think in every project, there's always been ... a self-awareness and understanding. And that's really cool. But with [the Airstream] specifically, there was just a true understanding that I am unstoppable. The only person that is limiting me is me. And that was cool.”
As Karissa shared her process, someone reached out. “They were like, ‘Oh, you have an Airstream? We want an Airstream, would you do it for us?’” Karissa paused and laughed at the recollection. “Once again, people I meet, that are just, like, divine intervention in my life. Pulling me out of my comfort zone.”
Another Career Pivot
Karissa agreed to renovate the second Airstream and found herself with a new business plan in her lap.
“I just love it. I love how complex it is, [refinishing an Airstream]. With woodworking, if I'm doing the same kind of furniture, I get bored really fast. I'm a high-challenge person. So having something that involves metalwork, plumbing, electrical, woodworking… there are just so many aspects to it. I’ll never get bored with this project, surely.”
Finding the Balance With Social Media
As Karissa’s career builds and evolves, so does her relationship with social media. “[Currently], I’m really just on Instagram, that gets most of my energy. I've been playing around on TikTok and YouTube a little bit. I think that going forward, I'll have a lot more content on those platforms, especially with the Airstream—stuff that is more in-depth and needs more explaining and more time.”
Life Lessons From Woodworking
Even as Karissa’s focus shifts towards Airstreams, woodworking will always be near and dear to her heart. “I think with woods, specifically, when you mess up, there are so many ways to kind of fix your errors. Even if you're cutting something off and restarting or whatnot. It can be forgiving, which is nice.”
But even with its forgiving nature, Karissa has learned time and again that planning and prep work is “a vital part of the job.” And that doesn’t always work with her personality. “[All the] due diligence and prepping and planning and writing it all out? That's never really been a strong point of mine. But I'm learning that when I do that my projects go better.”
Tips for Women Who Aspire to Build, Too
Along with learning more about herself, Karissa feels like she’s opened a door for other women, too. “I see so many women who are like, ‘I love what you do, I want to be able to do that.’ But I don't know if there's supposed to be an easy answer.”
Karissa considered her words before pinning down her one piece of wisdom for aspiring women woodworkers. “What's one thing that gets you really excited, but isn't super easy? Do that. If you have used a set of drills to put an Ikea piece of furniture together, pick a project that adds a miter saw, or a saw of some sort, along with the drills. Look online and see what someone has done with the tools that you have, or maybe what you have plus one more. [Choose something] you can wrap your head around, but still find challenging.”
Figuring Out What the Future Has in Store
“Now that I'm just focusing on just the Airstreams, it's one project at a time and one client at a time. I would like to step into monetizing my social media presence, but not at the moment.” Instead, Karissa wants to focus on continually building and strengthening her online community. “I just like showing my work. Instagram isn't my work. [It's] my portfolio.”
But never fear, even with her switch from focusing primarily on woodworking, The Sanding Blonde isn’t going anywhere. “The Sanding Blonde will be my Instagram, my internet personality. But my business will be the trailers.”
With enough Airstream commissions to round out her 2021, Karissa is still considering her next dream project. “I'm working on designing and planning a 2500 square foot shop, built on my property. Right now I have a 500 square foot shop, and it's just not big enough. I can't put Airstreams in it, so I have to work outside!"
"So, I'm getting a new shop built." Karissa's excitement was clear through the screen. "I think that's where I'll kind of take-off on YouTube, with a whole series. How to plan a shop build! I'm definitely excited for that.”
And we are, too!