Michael Williams makes and sells his unique leather aprons and leather products through his business Calavera Tool Works | Photo by Ruta Smith

Make it local

Handcrafted items make meaningful gifts because they have the weight of a story behind them. 

The Charleston area is abound with skilled artisans who create products that exude thoughtfulness and intricately capture the affection that gift givers want to show to their special someone. Here are some gifts and artisans whose crafts and stories caught the City Paper’s eye this holiday season. 

3-dimensional wood maps of Charleston neighborhoods

Score & Burn, North Charleston  

Park Circle craftsmen Chuck Johnson and Joel Trantham describe themselves as “map nerds.” It makes sense, then, that they would dive into an artisanal map-etching venture, Score & Burn, after having too much time on their hands during the 2020 Covid-19 shutdown. 

Johnson looked at a lot of maps as a truck driver for 12 years before and after he owned and operated a steel fabrication company in Spartanburg, South Carolina. Trantham, his son-in-law who is a licensed architect, said they both appreciate the visual allure of maps.

“I’ve always found inspirational how maps are both a thing of beauty but also a thing of utility,” Trantham told the City Paper. “I think people find connection to maps of where they live because you can see a bird’s eye view of where you’ve experienced life, and whenever you look at them, it brings up memories.” 

Score & Burn offers three-dimensional layered wood maps and layered paper depictions of Charleston-area neighborhoods, waterways and architecture. The custom-framed creations are wrought from birch, walnut and maple woods and heavy papers. Some pieces incorporate mirror material to add reflective depth to the compositions. 

Score & Burn came together after the duo experimented with a laser cutter and stumbled into an artistic exploration. The first wood-burned map was a rendering of Park Circle. 

“When I started looking at Park Circle’s map, I was like, ‘Wow, this is just a really beautiful way that the streets are regulated, but then bend with the landscape,’” Trantham said. 

Their experimentation involved burning the wood just enough and learning the different intensities of the laser. 

Johnson said he remembered working on a Charleston peninsula map back when they were very new to using the laser equipment and still getting the technique down. As a result, most of the time the wood lit on fire. 

“When we first finally made a map successfully,” Johnson said, “I joked, ‘I’ve burnt Charleston to the ground more than General Sherman going through Atlanta.’”

Over the past two years, meeting the different makers and crafts people in the Park Circle community is what has helped Score & Burn plug into the Charleston area’s fine arts community. 

Score & Burn layers laser-cut wood to create each map | photo by Ruta Smith

“We do a lot of work ourselves, but the community here has totally supported us and probably done more work than we have to really let us be able to branch out,” Trantham said. “It’s been remarkable.”

One of the first things they researched was wood that wasn’t going to create any pollutants. They settled on PureBond plywood made with soybean-based glue from Home Depot.

“We burned probably 50 different things,” he said. “But we also didn’t want to put anything into that laser that was toxic because obviously we have to breathe the smoke that comes out of it.”

Their newest offering is a map of Johns Island, and their collection includes James, Sullivan’s and Kiawah islands, the historic downtown peninsula and a Charleston-area nautical map. The duo plans to release a line of marble-etched lighthouse depictions in 2023.

Score & Burn’s collections vary in price from $50-$280 and are available at scoreandburn.com.

Chakra-inspired candles 

Pluff Mud Mercantile, West Ashley

A new line of hand-poured candles is available at West Ashley’s Pluff Mud Mercantile, a retail space that offers natural apothecary and beauty products, as well as candles and soaps made by local artisans. Shop owner Gina Moore opened Pluff Mud Mercantile in 2014 with a desire to make and sell “quality goods with love and intention.”

The collection of soy-based artisanal candles called Aura & Light is infused with crystals that promote a reflective mindset to illuminate times of meditation and rest.  Moore collaborated with recent College of Charleston graduate Kayla Mannis to bring the concept to life.  

“When you’ve got a lot of things going on, it can be hard to find the time to really reflect and look within yourself,” Mannis told the City Paper. “I think a lot of people don’t know where to start with that kind of thing. So my idea for the candles is to get people to look inward, to practice taking time to meditate and take stock of your emotions.”

The Aura & Light collection is named with affirmations like, “I am uplifted,” or “I am clear minded.” The candle series is inspired by chakras, Mannis said. In Hinduism and Buddhism, chakras are focal points of energy, or prana, in the body. The chakra inspiration informs the aromatherapy and soy wax blend, the color of the candle, and the crystals which are embedded inside the wax. 

The Aura & Light candles are hand poured in small batches in Moore’s workshop space on Ashley River Road. Each candle is thoughtfully crafted, such as “I am relaxed,” which encourages stillness with the calming and balanced aroma of lavender, lemongrass and black currant with hints of patchouli and sugarcane. The candle includes Lepidolite crystals, which can enhance emotional balance and stress relief, said Mannis.

Pluff Mud Mercantile uses a clean burning wax derived from sustainably grown and responsibly harvested soybeans as well as chemical free wood wicks.

Aura & Light’s candles are $60 each and available in store or online at pluffmudmercantile.com

Handmade leather waist aprons 

Calavera Tool Works, James Island

Local craftsman Michael Williams of Calavera Tool Works embraces the moniker of “maker,” and he wants to empower others to do the same with his handmade leather work aprons. 

“After working in the power tool industry for a decade and a half, I was talking with a friend when it dawned on me — there’s really high-end aprons on the market for contractors, but when it comes to the person who’s making furniture, doing fine, finished stuff, they’re usually wearing some cheap apron from Lowe’s or something,” Williams told the City Paper. “So the idea was to give those folks something they will absolutely love when they put it on, something that will become a daily ritual.”

When he produced the first leather work apron seven years ago, Williams knew he was onto something — and Calavera Tool Works was born. The company does most of its business online and has garnered a large social media following, with more than 53,000 followers on its Instagram account.

Williams said although the leather aprons are most popular with woodworkers and furniture makers, an apron works for makers of all kinds. As someone who left a corporate job to create handmade goods, Williams said a nice apron can help fellow makers “get in the zone,” especially as more and more people dip their toes in what Williams called a “making revolution.”

“Whether you’re making candles or furniture, there’s so many people out there either doing it full time or as a side hustle, making things with their hands,” he said. “Putting on the apron can totally change your approach to what you’re doing, because you’ve transformed into a different mindset.”

All of the leather products of Calavera Tool Works are handmade by Williams, his wife Marie and their team in a small shop in the middle of the woods on Johns Island. The company introduced a new product, the “Lowrider Waist Apron” earlier this year, offering a new style alongside the mainstay full-length leather apron.

“People tell us all the time, I put my apron on when I get in the shop, and it’s all business,” he said.

Calavera Tool Works’ Lowrider Waist Apron is $135 and available at calaveratoolworks.com.

Other Charleston brands offering artisanal items this season

Garden & Gun honored Butcher & Bee’s Smoke Onion Jam, Life Raft Treats’ “Not Fried Chicken” and Tekton Game Calls’ Custom Duck Calls with its 2020 Made in the South Awards

Oyster Candle Company & Coastal Gifts in Mount Pleasant features hand-poured candles and locally sourced gift items. 

Lia Burke Libaire creates whimsical prints of plants and animals. Her newest line is a set of mushroom stationary cards and envelopes. 

Bright Star Designs’ handmade patina jewelry is available in multiple locations around the city. 

Pluff Mud Mercantile also features Charleston boutique brand Cuffels, which makes Turkish towel wristbands from 100% Turkish cotton and Broken Shells handpainted oyster shells from local mother and daughter duo Margaret and Leslie Tester.

Middleton Made Knives in Mount Pleasant creates handcrafted chefs knives.

Local Love CHS on James Island features a large selection of locally sourced artisanal brands including macrame kits and disco ball hangers from Rosie the Wanderer, Fonte Fleur jewelry and hair ties, Think Tank Jewels hair clips, Mountain Muse Gift candles, Adventures with Dot decorative trays, greeting cards by Southern Gardener Gifts, Compass and Seam stained glass pieces, Georgia Bell Soap Co. shower steamers, jewelry and roll on oils from Lovely Dark Woods, car ornaments by Frothie Art Studio and Knots and Pots Goods.

Field + Supply will host a curated Holiday Market Dec. 9-11 at the Charleston Visitors Center downtown featuring more than 80 artisanal vendors from Charleston and the surrounding regions. Charleston artisans include Daysie simple syrups and jewelry by HART.

West Socks in Summerville makes quirky socks the whole family can enjoy. 

Hats, hoodies and t-shirts from Shuckable Apparel are featured in various locations around the Charleston area. 

Charleston Shucker Company in Mount Pleasant features oyster shuckers and oyster shucker kits. 

Stay cool. Support City Paper.

City Paper has been bringing the best news, food, arts, music and event coverage to the Holy City since 1997. Support our continued efforts to highlight the best of Charleston with a one-time donation or become a member of the City Paper Club.