Meet the Maker: Gene Hobby
by stephanie hobby | photos by arianna skoog
Across the city of Billings, there are hundreds - maybe thousands - of wooden keychains in the pockets of firefighters, police officers, members of the military, medical professionals, retail workers, and countless others. All handmade and all given in appreciation for service by master woodworker Gene Hobby, owner of Hobby Wood Products.
Brightening someone’s day with an unexpected gift is just part of Hobby’s character. He and his wife, Andrea, are known for their generosity and acts of service. After some trial and error in his woodshop a few years ago, Gene crafted 400 keychains. He and Andrea wrapped them, intending to gift each one to first responders in Billings. Since then, the effort has only grown. Last year, a local radio show aired a story about a waitress having a tough day when Gene and Andrea flagged her down, acknowledged how hard she was working, and gifted her a keychain with a note of appreciation.
Hobby, who was part of the first graduating class of West High School, is now semi-retired and has turned his woodworking hobby into a small business. Hobby Wood Products launched last year, and his stunning creations have been shown at Downtown Billings’ ArtWalk and Simply Local Marketplace.
One of his favorite creative endeavors, after the keychains, has been one-of-a-kind wooden earrings. Andrea helps design them, and they are always popular. Hobby has also skillfully built wooden trays, delicately carved crosses, inlaid lotus cup candle holders, cutting boards, jewelry boxes (dubbed “treasure boxes” by his granddaughter), quilt racks, Christmas ornaments, and flower vases. “I just like creating something new. Maybe I’ll see an idea in a store and see if I can duplicate it with wood,” he said. He has also built furniture, including custom dressers and changing tables.
The lifelong Billings resident wants people to know they are seen and valued, a characteristic instilled at a young age by his grandfather, Peter Christian Dahl. Dahl grew up in humble conditions, living in the sandstone caves on the northern Missouri River banks in Black Eagle, Montana, north of Great Falls. After ranching in Augusta, he moved to Billings in the 1940s where he started a construction company emphasizing cabinetry. As a boy, Hobby helped out in the shop, sweeping up, catching longboards coming off a table saw, or running errands.
“My grandfather was really a great influence. It was his theology; his idea was that if you can help somebody, help them, and don’t expect anything other than a thank you,” Hobby said.
Dahl built the Sears and Roebuck building, which is now U-Haul on Grand, the Northern Hotel, and worked on some of the city’s most upscale homes of the time. Hobby continues his grandfather’s legacy. As a combination building inspector for the City of Billings for 26 years, Hobby inspected projects such as the Deaconess Hospital (now Billings Clinic), parts of St. Vincent Healthcare, and was the leading inspector for the Billings Montana LDS Temple. He also worked for Fisher Construction and helped build the Holiday Inn and the Star Office Machines building north of West Park Plaza, for which he was awarded Craftsman of the Year.
For years, he volunteered to officiate different sports, including softball and Magic City Soccer, at the high school and collegiate levels. A longtime volunteer for the Billings Studio Theatre, he spent many hours installing the new seats and was recognized by the theatre for his efforts.
He has always been drawn to blessing others with his woodshop in his free time. Last summer, he and Andrea put together 200 keychains for the Adaptive Performance Center, which serves disabled veterans and helps them improve and maintain independent, active living. “I like doing things with my hands. I try to donate to different silent auctions and just make a difference. It goes back to my grandfather: help somebody else out when you can, instead of expecting everybody to help you out,” he said.
For Hobby’s unique creations, or if you have a custom design in mind, email him at email@example.com.