Creating Custom Wooden Treasures

Story by Glynis Ratcliffe | Photos by Kirsten McGoey

Walking into the Durham Custom Wood Decor shop in Oshawa,  you are met with the sharp, sweet smell of fresh-cut lumber. immediately. Every inch of the wallspace is adorned with signs of every shape and size; some are custom orders, others are for sale. All of that wood makes the room feel warm and cosy, despite the chilly day. A woman is there picking up an order for her friend, and as owner Melissa Annesley hands over the finished piece, a quiet “Ohh!” escapes from the woman’s mouth. “It’s beautiful! She’s going to be so happy.” Annesley smiles as the happy customer departs.

Durham Custom Wood Decor is the result of a gift request, of all things. Annesley, a real estate agent, was on maternity leave when her mother-in-law requested a homemade wooden sign for Christmas. This wasn’t a big stretch, given that her husband, Greg Osmond, was in construction and she had a background in advertising and graphic design, but Annesley laughs when she remembers that first sign. “It was not good! But once my mother-in-law’s friends saw it, they were asking us to make ones for them, too.” She and her husband made that first sign together, but it became a solo enterprise shortly after.

All of this began in their garage at home, but it was only a matter of months before the business outgrew the space. In the three years since she began, Melissa Annesley has had to move locations three times to accommodate the growth in her business. Now, the storefront has enough space to showcase a few local vendors whom she wanted to support, but she’s already thinking of the future and where she might expand to next. Ideally, she’d like a bigger retail space so that even more local vendors can be featured in her shop.

Local is definitely a focus for Annesley. Right now, the other companies selling goods in her storefront are Eleven Past Eleven Candle Co., Candice’s Keepsakes, and Birch & Bark (which is actually an east coast company, but since it was started by a boy who donates the proceeds of sales to villages in parts of Africa, we can forgive them). All of her wood comes from Peacock Lumber, which is Oshawa-based, and every Christmas, part of Durham Custom Wood Decor’s sales are diverted to sponsor a local family in need. Annesley picks a family that’s been recommended by locals, and provides them with a full Christmas, from food to presents. It’s an important way for her to give back.

Right now, there’s a large woodworking shop attached to the retail space, where Annesley spends her time making each piece and holding regular workshops. This is a “down time,” when sales have slowed down, post-Christmas, but it won’t be long before things pick up again for Father’s Day and wedding season. When it gets really busy, her husband will come into the shop to help out, or sometimes other family members.

It’s not just signs she makes, either. While her circular signs are the ones she sells the most of, there are several shapes of personalized serving trays she’s designed which are best sellers, as well. You’ll also find wedding guest boards, picture frame boards, and key or bathing suit hooks.

One of the reasons Annesley believes Durham Custom Wood Decor is so successful is due to the large number of repeat customers she gets. Both the signs and the trays make popular gifts, for family and friends. “I think people get addicted to seeing the look on someone’s face when they first see their gift,” she jokes. There was even a customer who came into the shop recently, and they were completely shocked at how much her business had grown. Why? Because the last time they bought something, it had been out of her garage.

All the repeat customers are honestly no surprise; with the ability to customize any board, they’re perfect for just about anyone. There are maps of the world, quotes for everyone from teachers to best friends to cottage owners, family names, birth dates, and more. Really, the sky’s the limit.

When asked about where she gets her inspiration for the large number of designs available, Annesley pauses for a moment. “Everywhere, really,” she says. “I mean, sometimes I’ll see something – an image, something on a truck – while I’m driving that gets me designing something in my head, and it grows from there. Come to think of it, a lot of my inspiration comes to me while I’m driving!” she laughs. She also loves working with clients to make their visions come to life.

For those who want to get their hands dirty, Durham Custom Wood Decor also offers workshops where you can paint your own item and come home with something as good as what you might have picked up in the shop. You get to choose the shape of the sign or tray, as well as what you want on it, and on the day of the workshop, you’re provided with the wood (pre-made and stained), the stencil, and the paint. See the sidebar for the upcoming schedule, but know that you can also book private workshops as well. Apparently, this is a popular bachelorette activity. There are kids’ workshops in the planning stages, too, so be sure to check the website for updates.

If their south Oshawa location is too far for you to travel, you can find many of their items in Newcastle at Lil’ Bit Country Store, and in Whitby at Bearly Used Kids’ Clothing. If travelling isn’t in the cards, you can order from the large array of products available on the website,

There’s nothing better than finding a local treasure and sharing it with everyone you know. Melissa Annesley has created exactly that with her business, and Durham residents should feel proud to gift her beautiful items to friends, colleagues, and family alike.

Durham Custom Wood Decor
200 Valencia Rd, Oshawa

Knitting Made Modern

Story By Katie Ryalen | Photos by Kirsten McGoey

Hold onto your socks (or your scarves, shawls and mittens): knitting is no longer about scratchy sweaters and Granny in her Sunday rocker. Today it is a craft for a new generation of creative women, men (Yes! MEN!) and young people who crave a return to that time-honoured tradition of hand-made, with a modern take on colours and styles. In our hyper-connected, fast-paced lifestyle and all the stresses it brings, we at EAST invite you to slow down and relax with your next—or perhaps even your first—knitting project.

A community of knitters

Are you brand new to knitting and don’t know where to start?While it may seem like a daunting craft, don't assume that it’s a difficult one to begin. There are many different options for how to learn now, from one-on-one knitting classes to self-guided how-tos online. Social media has also contributed greatly to knitting’s popularity, with tips, tricks and ideas for all levels of knitters.

“Yes, social media has contributed to an increase of young people interested in the craft,” says Jann Howells, who owns The Wool Queen in Oshawa. “Facebook, Pinterest and whatnot. They’re full of ideas and projects that knitters are sharing with each other, and that’s really encouraging interest.”

Leslie Spencer, owner of Oshawa’s Wool on William agrees. “I have a lot of young girls coming in here—I’m booking classes into April, now,” she says. “And believe it or not, I have men coming in, too. A lot of men are interested in learning to knit these days.”

Both stores are small, independently owned shops here in Durham that focus on the customer experience and are run by owners who have a passion for what they do. They know their craft and have a desire to share not only products, but their knowledge and experience, and to help knitters feel supported through classes and group events like knitting nights and open houses.

“I’ve had people say that knitting is a lost art, but I don’t think it ever went away,” says Leslie Spencer. “It’s just that people are more interested in it now. We opened this shop four years ago, and I jumped in with both feet because this was my passion. And it worked for us, because so many people are interested now in knitting and crocheting.”

Jann Howells is the sixth owner of The Wool Queen, which has been open since 1964. “I bought it 18 months ago, but I do believe that since it opened my traffic has increased significantly. I do one-on-one classes which I find more effective than group lessons. If it’s just me and you, then I can help you fix mistakes and help you learn at your pace. But we also do group stitch nights and open houses to give opportunities for the experienced knitters to exchange ideas.”

She adds, “The benefits of coming to a store like mine is that we know what we’re doing. You walk into a big-box store and there’s lots of yarn. But if you need advice, no one’s likely to know anything unless you run into a fellow knitter in the aisle.”

It’s the stress of the modern world that Leslie credits to knitting’s rise in popularity. “People want some kind of craft to come home from work that they can sit and do. It’s the weather, too. People want to just curl up and work on a project.”

Modern styles, colours and techniques

Decades ago, hand-knit meant scratchy wool sweaters and unattractive afghans. For many people, that misconception persists. That is a shame, because knitting today is the product of evolution. A new generation of yarns, patterns, stitches and even product sources are encouraging knitters to get creative and make handmade fashionable again. But variety doesn’t necessarily mean difficulty. “If you can do the knit and the pearl stitch, then you can do just about anything,” says Leslie Spencer of Wool on William. “It’s all about following the pattern.”

There are a number of popular projects right now like blankets made from colourful squares that are all sewn together. Leslie says, “There are so many different ‘granny squares’ you can do and stitch together to make a blanket. There are also beautiful blankets you can make now with arm knitting. It’s this thick, thick yarn with which you use your arms or oversized needles. That was the big thing at Christmas, people coming in looking for the thick yarn to make these blankets.” She also says that cable-knit sweaters are making a comeback, with today’s fresh new wools. “Wool is super-washed now,” Leslie says, “which makes it much softer. We didn’t have that way back when, which is why pure wool was so itchy.”

Despite the fact that large chain and specialty craft stores carry a great variety of these modern wools—which is perfectly fine—the small, independent shops are thriving by catering to a different type of knitter. “I don’t even try to compete with [the large chain stores] anymore,” says Jann Howells of The Wool Queen. “Instead, I focus on a couple of staple yarns that are Canadian produced. I’ve brought in British yarns that are beautiful colours and lovely to work with. I’ve also got some high-end fibres like silks and llama and alpaca.”

“All the new yarns now that are available are just incredible,” Leslie agrees. “The sock yarn—I have a lot of sock knitters that come into my shop just because of the yarn. It’s totally different now because of the colours.” Leslie, too, carries specialty fibres like alpaca and llama that are more difficult to find. “I have some llama that’s mixed with one hundred percent merino wool. Merino is some of the best yarn out there.”

Made in Canada counts

A growing trend in a number of industries is that of the locally made product. It may surprise you to learn that yarn is no different. A number of independent dyers and weavers have made their way into the market thanks to the growing desire of consumers to support local.

“There are so many beautiful indie dyers in Ontario and in Canada,” says Leslie. “People out there are doing their own spinning and dying, which is resulting in some really lovely yarns. I’m focussing on the Canadian-dyed wools for my shop.”

The Wool Queen
182 Simcoe St. South, Oshawa

Wool on William
5 William St. West, Oshawa

Take the Plunge into Scuba

Story By Katie Ryalen | Photos by Wynne Feret

Being on the shores of Lake Ontario, we’re perfectly positioned to take advantage of our natural freshwater landscape for recreational activities. Paddleboarding, sailing, fishing—these are all fantastic water-based activities. But for a different take on what to do on the water, think instead about what you can do under the water. Think scuba diving.

Now, when we say scuba, you might be picturing coral reefs, tropical fish and turquoise oceans. While exotic diving is certainly a must-try, Southern Ontario has some of the best inland freshwater diving in the world. The variety and concentration of our marine life is not to be missed, and the Great Lakes have some of the most memorable shipwrecks in the world within driving distance from Durham.

If we’ve piqued your interest, then you’ll be excited to learn that you don’t need to go far to become a certified scuba diver. We have organizations and businesses in our region to help you get started on your path to a lifetime of underwater diving adventure.

InnerSpace Divers Supply

Pickering’s InnerSpace Divers Supply teaches and certifies scuba diving students. It also sells, rents and repairs diving equipment. Certified diving instructor Roman Mizanski has owned the shop for more than thirty years, and can’t imagine doing anything else. “Once you’re a diver, you’re a diver for life,” he states. “Diving is a sensation activity. It is what you feel in the water, to be in three dimensional space. What you see is gravy.”

Roman is enthusiastic about diving conditions in Southern Ontario, and keeps his dive charter boat in the Thousand Islands in the St. Lawrence River. “To go below the waters in the St. Lawrence is as fine as anything you might see in the Caribbean,” he insists. “We have conditions that are quite spectacular, and in an inland body of water relative to just about any place in Ontario, probably the greatest concentration in both numbers and species of fish and other marine life.”

Believe it or not, local diving is actually a possibility. In fact, we have two shipwrecks here in Durham. The Juno, which sank in 1914, was a barge that was used to carry gravel. Today, it lies in approximately fifteen feet of water at the bottom of Waverley Road in Bowmanville, and is often visited by local scuba divers. In Port Hope, the P.B. Locke is a designated historical site, and buoys maintained by local diving clubs mark the final resting place of this schooner-turned-barge which sank in a storm in 1912.

“If people are diving locally and are certified, and most particularly if they already own their own equipment, then water is cheap,” Roman says. “To me there are no bad dives, there are only better dives. Even if you’re going off in, say, Lakeview park in Oshawa, it’s still that sensation of being in three-dimensional space that makes it worth it.”

Dive Source Scuba and Snorkeling Centre

In Oshawa, Dive Source Scuba and Snorkeling Centre teaches scuba lessons, and rents and sells equipment. It also facilitates dive travel adventures both domestically and internationally with a licensed travel agent on-staff. Students range from those who have never tried the sport before, to those who want to become fully-licensed scuba instructors.

“We’re one of the bigger dive shops in all of Ontario,” says owner Brian Pallock. “This is our twenty-second year. We started in Whitby, and then moved over to Oshawa. Today we have a dedicated clientele, both from the city and from different areas of Durham Region.”

“We enjoy what we do, and we’re proud of what we do,” he adds. “Scuba diving is a skill that once you have it, you’ll have it for the rest of your life. And you can experience it just about anywhere that you can be underwater.”

Getting Certified

There is a long list of internationally-recognized scuba diving certifying authorities, but the Professional Association of Diving Instructors (or PADI) is probably the most well-known, that certification with PADI is honoured anywhere in the world.

Typically, the process of learning scuba diving has three components. First, students must learn the theory and science of what is taking place in the body below water when it breathes a compressed gas, and how to avoid potentially fatal conditions such as decompression sickness (commonly known as “the bends”). This component of the process is done in a classroom setting. This is also when students learn such technical aspects as how long they can stay under water and at what depth, and how many dives can safely be made in a day.

The second component is the teaching of basic skills underwater such as maintaining buoyancy and position while wearing equipment. This is done over a few sessions in a pool. These two aspects of training culminate in an open water experience, typically referred to as “certification dives,” in which the student demonstrates in a natural body of water that he or she has retained the skills and knowledge taught in the classroom and in the pool.

While this may sound like a lengthy process, many courses can be taught in a week. “It’s not rocket science,” says Roman Mizanski of InnerSpace. “Bottom age with us is 12 years old, and some even lower than that.” Being a fairly loosely regulated sport, there is a variation of course length depending on which organization you’re becoming certified through. At InnerSpace, students are offered seven classwork and pool sessions, with each session being about four hours long, before progressing to their certifying dives. At Dive Source, the basic certification program is done over a weekend and three or so weeknights—not including the required four certification dives.

Both courses, however, cost around the $500 mark in Durham Region. At both InnerSpace and Dive Source, that cost includes learning materials, classroom and pool time, certification fees, and equipment rental. From there, certified scuba divers can choose to upgrade their level of certification to (among many options) advanced diving, rescue diving, scuba instructor certification, deep water diving, and underwater photography.

Dive Source also offers a “try dive” for about $50. “That’s the basic if you want to see if you like it first,” says Brian Pallock.

Whichever instruction course you choose to go with, Roman Mizanski encourages more, rather than less, instruction. “I still value the solid training,” he says. “We do, through my facility, what is called legacy training. The courses tend to be longer, certainly more thorough, more involved and with more repetition. Scuba instruction has been divided into many levels, such that the basic level is almost like a taste to develop that comfort. But if you’re not comfortable once you’ve completed your basic course, you can take the next course and the next before you reach that comfort level.”

Whether you want to rent your equipment, buy it outright, or buy pieces here and there is a personal choice. “Scuba gear is very modular,” Brian of Dive Source says. “So if you want to buy just a wet suit or just a mask and snorkel and go rent stuff while you’re on your holiday, you can do that. Or you can go and buy everything from head to toe.”

InnerSpace Divers Supply
1790 Liverpool Rd., Unit 4, Pickering

Dive Source Scuba and Snorkeling Centre
423 Bloor St. W., Oshawa

Ajax Scuba Club
75 Centennial Rd, Ajax