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.
Melissa Horne is all about female empowerment. And if you scroll through her Instagram feed, read through her blog posts, or find yourself fortunate enough to chat with her firsthand, you quickly realize how much that passion to empower other women drives her in business and in life.
It just so happens that we were, in fact, fortunate enough to hop on a call with the founder of 8 by Design (and mom of six!). With an interest in woodworking that started in middle school, Horne has turned her hobby into her career, underlined by a deep, lifelong appreciation for the trades.
“For high school, I actually went to a trade school,” Horne says. “I was able to go into two different trades, and I learned a little bit more about it. [Woodworking has always been] tied into my education as a child. It introduced me to it and it made it less scary. It was more familiar, it was easier to digest as a child.”
I have always advocated for women to just take the risk! Do something that might be scary.
While Horne’s earliest exposure to woodworking came from school, she’s learned that her personal roots go even deeper. “As I’ve gotten older, I’ve learned more [about] my ancestry and genealogy, and I’ve learned that I come from a family of carpenters,” she says. “My great-grandfather was a carpenter. And then, I did some research on the house that we live in now, and I found out that [the people who built is] also were a family of carpenters—they were in the trades, which was obviously really common in the 1800s, which is when our house was built: in 1894.”
Referring to her town of Haverhill, Massachusetts, as “an old shoe city,” Horne is proud to hail from a place once known for its shoe manufacturing. “I kind of always have [the trades] swirling, whirling around me, even though I didn't have any direct correlation to it,” she says. “It’s nice to know that I have those ties.”
We spoke with Horne about her woodworking achievements and what she’s working on next—plus how she’s using her work and platform to inspire more women to get involved in woodworking and other trades.
What project are you most proud of?
Melissa Horne: Well, I will say, my biggest project that I’ve ever tackled—and something I am very, very proud of—[was] over the summer. I rebuilt my front porch, and I actually built my front stairs. They were just too old, they were beyond repair. So I took the whole thing apart, and I rebuilt the stairs myself. I wasn’t sure how it went until we had the building inspector come out. He was talking to my husband as if he (my husband) built them. And I said, “I have to stop you. He didn’t build them. That was me.” And he (the inspector) was like, “I’m thoroughly impressed. I’ve been in this business for a long time, and I don’t think I’ve seen a woman do this like this. You definitely have a talent for this.” So that made me feel extremely proud that someone with so much experience noticed.
I didn’t completely rebuild the porch, though. At that time, the wood prices had gone up astronomically high, so I actually just took our floorboards from our porch. I lifted them all up, and I flipped them over, and underneath our porch was the original porch from the house from 1894. Whoever had purchased our house before us just laid a new porch over it! So it was really cool to find the original stairs to the house and the original wood. That absolutely, hands down, is one of my proudest builds.
What was it like to find the original wood?
MH: They were beautiful. Obviously, the paint was chipping, but it was just beautiful wood and the molding was gorgeous. It wasn’t too ornate, because that wouldn’t have made sense for that time period. But the molding was really beautiful. The original green paint was still there.
The whole goal for me, working on my house, is to preserve pieces of that. It’s never to tear it down. Because of the way they built the porch, they used the original stairs as part of the support system of the porch. There’s something special about preserving history. Sometimes, people just want to tear it all down and put something new up—which is fine! But there’s something special about leaving little pieces of [history] here and there. It’s part of the home’s character, part of the home’s energy.
Name a major failure that turned into a valuable lesson.
MH: I used to own a brick-and-mortar. It was centered around my skills of painting furniture and repurposing and upcycling, and, again, preserving a piece of history instead of putting furniture into a landfill. I thought it was beautiful to breathe new life into pieces. So I started painting them and I was able to make enough that I could get a brick-and-mortar. But my biggest failure was just thinking … I can do it all.
I think, especially as women who are in the trades, or really, women, in general, we have to be multitaskers. And sometimes we have a hard time delegating and reaching out for help!
I think, especially as women who are in the trades, or really, women, in general, we have to be multitaskers. And sometimes we have a hard time delegating and reaching out for help! I was in a nontraditional field, and being a woman of color was another component. I didn’t ask for the help that I needed. Ultimately, I ended up closing my brick-and-mortar. So I’ve learned a lot of lessons from that [and] since then.
How has empowering women played a role in your career?
MH: Truly, [my path] has empowered me to empower other women to feel confident enough to pick up a power tool, to cut a piece of wood, to take a risk that maybe they didn’t think that they could take—[or] to do the things that they didn’t think that they could do, especially when it came to their home. I’m a huge advocate for women’s empowerment, especially centered around the trades. It’s what I literally live and breathe.
I have six children. Three of them are girls, and three boys. My oldest daughter goes to the same trade high school that I went to. She started off in metal fabrication. I’m very proud to call myself an alum of this school, and I have always advocated for women to just take the risk! Do something that might be scary. I love it when one of my friends on Instagram picks up a power tool and cuts a piece of wood, and I’m always in their DMS encouraging them. And, you know, making sure that they know that they did something that for so long, we were told we shouldn’t do, we couldn’t do, it wasn’t acceptable. So, to see women in the trades and doing such amazing, powerful things is … it’s amazing to be a part of that.
What’s the meaning behind your business’s name, 8 by Design?
MH: I have twins that are going to be seventeen in January. I have a fourteen-year-old son, I have a thirteen-year-old son … so, four teenagers, and then I have a ten-year-old and an eight-year-old. Hence why my [business is called] 8 by Design! They’re forever a part of this journey with me.
What was the first thing that you ever built?
MH: It’s funny, it wasn’t a woodworking piece. It was a metal fab piece—I built my own toolbox, and I still have it. It’s downstairs in my basement, and I am still so proud of that toolbox.
What was your first woodworking project?
MH: When I had my brick and mortar, that’s when signs started [to get big]. This is back in 2014, 2015. I went and bought a jigsaw, and I watched a couple of YouTube tutorials. And I just started making different shapes and different signs and doing all sorts of things with my jigsaw. It was so empowering to me, so I would make all these things on it. I would cut all my wood, I would cut planks. Anything I needed to do with a piece of wood was cut on this jigsaw, and I still have it. It’s very special to me. It’s the tool that catapulted me into feeling confident enough to do bigger builds.
It’s such a beautiful thing, to create something with your own two hands and put so much love into it and then see the person purchasing it and know that they're putting it into their home.
Anyway, I made a little sign with a Christmas tree and a heart, and somebody that came into my shop purchased it. It’s such a beautiful thing, to create something with your own two hands and put so much love into it and then see the person purchasing it and know that they're putting it into their home. It’s a really beautiful journey that you go through as a creative, as a woodworker, as a tradesperson, as a business owner—to know that somebody sees your vision, and something you created with your own two hands, and now it’s a part of their home and their life.
Anything I made on that jigsaw, it literally gives me life. I still have people messaging me and they’re like, I still have that piece that you made! I still have it!
When did you realize that this was more than just a hobby for you?
MH: When I couldn’t stop buying power tools. Honestly, I have an obsession now. My arsenal of power tools is quite large ... so yeah, when I couldn’t stop buying power tools, especially sanders. I have a weird obsession with sanding and refinishing. I used to hate refinishing, but there’s something so magical about taking off these layers and seeing what it reveals. And now I own six or seven different sanders! That’s when I knew. Some girls like purses or shoes, I like power tools.
If budget and time were no constraint, what would you love to build?
MH: I actually would love to build a house. From scratch. I have thought about this, I’ve gone back and forth in my head about becoming a general contractor. Especially being a woman and being a woman of color, there are just not enough of us. Where I live near Boston, it’s a male-centered industry—it has been for hundreds of years. I’ve always just had this dream, and I want to know the skills behind building a home.
So, if I had all the money and all the time, I would absolutely do that—build a compound. A beautiful home where I could teach girls, girls of color, little boys—anybody—that it’s okay. That they can pick up power tools and they can do all the hard things and the sky’s the limit. They don’t have to feel limited by anything.
What’s one thing that you wish people understood about woodworking?
MH: Women in woodworking is not a trend. Women have been doing this for a long time. Women have been helping their husbands build homes. Women have been behind the scenes for so many years without the platforms, [without] acceptance. But women have been doing this.
For me, that’s such an important component—this isn’t something that’s just happened. It’s not something that’s solely tied to being a social media influencer. This is something that’s rooted in women. We are nurturers, and we are caretakers. But we have so many more skills and assets, and so much to bring to the table. We can build the tables, we can make the tables longer, we can build the chairs. Women are limitless. So, I wish that people understood that this isn’t something new. We create our homes, we build our homes, literally.
What has been the most rewarding part of learning to build for you?
MH: Being able to pass my skills on to my children. Honestly, when I saw my daughter sand a piece of furniture the first time, I cried. I’ve taught my son how to cut wood. My daughter did a board and batten with me in my son’s room. To be able to pass these things on to my children, so they know that they can have a skill, so they don’t feel helpless.
Favorite wood? Tigerwood, it literally looks like tiger stripes. I’m sure there’s another name for it. But it just looks like tiger stripes. It’s just really beautiful. I like maple but it’s very heavy. Mahogany is really pretty. Actually, you know what? I’m gonna go with maple. I really love maple, it’s great for everybody. So I … I’m probably not a good rapid-fire person.
Favorite tool or piece of equipment? Oh, that’s a tough one. Rapid-fire, rapid-fire! My nail gun!
Favorite piece that you have made? My front porch stairs.
What is your biggest goal? To create generational wealth within my family using my trade.
Favorite accessory in the woodshop? I guess it would be my gloves.
Favorite step of the process? The building process
Favorite assistant to have in the workshop? Oh, that’s a tough one. I would say one of my children … I’m not going to pick one! It would just be one of my children. They’re very curious.
Music on or off while working? Depends, but mostly off.
Headphones or a speaker? AirPods.
Favorite band or musician to listen to when you're working? Beyoncé!