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McClatchy photos
Gnomes dominate the workshop where Shawn Christensen and his wife sculpt homemade concrete statues in Tacoma, Wash.

Garden gnomes born in garage

Shawn Christensen cleans up and reassembles rubber molds used to make statues. The figures, especially the gnomes, he and his wife, Tammy, make have become a booming business.

– The secret to making a perfect gnome? Make sure he doesn’t get too tipsy.

For Tammy and Shawn Christensen, that’s the most challenging part of creating garden statues from scratch – and they ought to know.

The Tacoma, Wash., husband-and-wife team has been making garden gnomes, gargoyles, VW Beetles, warty toads and the like for five years now out of their back garage: hauling, mixing, pouring, molding, staining, sealing and finally painting their own concrete. They even make their own molds and sell their own statues as the company Art of Stone.

But even their recent achievement of getting a retail store (albeit temporary) isn’t anything near as tricky as making sure those little guys in pointy hats don’t come out leaning to one side.

“That’s the hardest part,” says Tammy, pointing to an urn in the workshop that has a Tower of Pisa slant. “We had a lot of those in the beginning.”

The beginning wasn’t that long ago, but the Christensens have come a long way since then in the art of making stone look-alikes.

House flippers before the recession, they lucked out when the house above theirs on a steep hillside on the Tacoma-Puyallup boundary came up for sale. Lucked out, because the Christensens had begun a new hobby – pouring concrete statues in their basement.

“We were lugging bags of concrete in and lugging statues out,” Shawn says. “We were mixing concrete in a bucket.”

With the new property, the steep hillside turned out to be an asset. The Christensens converted the garage-sized house into a workshop, built a tent awning uphill to house the industrial mixer they’d upgraded to, and cut out half of a pipe to make a trough to carry fresh concrete down the slope to buckets on the porch.

From there, it gets hauled inside on a cart and poured into molds that Shawn makes himself by sculpting a clay form and pasting latex and fiberglass around it.

Inside the workshop, everything’s gray. Dry, dusty concrete is smudged over floor, walls, ceiling, doorknobs, tools, even the headphones that protect Shawn’s ears when he switches on the platform vibrator that shakes the bubbles out of the molded concrete.

In the next room, though, the concrete takes on a life – and personality – of its own.

Concrete trucks, frogs, hippos, gargoyles, dragons, laughing Buddhas and big fat cats sit in rows awaiting the different stages of drying, staining and sealing necessary to protect raw concrete from a wet Northwest winter and give it the aged patina of stone.

Tammy – who taught herself the whole process via Google how-to videos – does most of the demolding and staining, hauling the fragile statues that weigh upward of 35 pounds each.

“I don’t have to go to the gym,” she says, hoisting a gargoyle in the air.

But while the animals, gargoyles and vehicles are fun, there’s one thing that consistently sells out: gnomes. A foot high, wearing wholesome Snow White colors and tall pointy hats, they look like the garden variety – until you notice that one is picking his nose.

Another is poking his tongue out at you. A third is holding a sign saying, “Go Seahawks!” A fourth is dressed in Seahawks colors and picking his nose.

“We called him ‘Picky,’ ” Shawn says. “He’s our best seller.”

In fact, at the Christensens’ new temporary retail location – their first, after years of road shows and garden shows – the gnomes have sold out, especially the ones in Seahawks, Saints or Oregon Ducks colors. Shawn just poured some more, and Tammy’s mom, a sign artist who does most of the gnome painting, is getting exhausted.

“She’s painted 65 Seahawks gnomes since the beginning of November,” Tammy says.

For the Christensens, though, it’s a good thing. After hauling concrete statuary around garden shows, they got offers last year to do a couple of road shows at Costco stores. These, however, take a lot of manpower and stock – so the concept of having their own retail store is appealing.

“We never did it before, because concrete is seasonal; people buy in spring and summer,” Tammy explains. “Or for Christmas gifts.”

“I’m ready to see how it all goes,” Tammy says of the store. It will also give the couple time to explore the arty side to the business – sculpting new molds.

“I want to do a lady that’s actually a tree, with a stump for her base and branches for her arms,” Tammy says.

For Shawn, though, it’s cars: “Challengers, Mustangs, Camaros,” he says, with a faraway look in his eyes.

“People seem to like it,” points out Tammy. “It’s different, and a bit cool.”