By Jared Janzen
HALSTEAD—What started out as a fun hobby of laser cutting and engraving has blossomed into a successful part-time business called South 80 Boutique.
“When the pandemic hit, we wanted something to do as a family,” Derrick Richling said. “It started out as a hobby, really, making things for friends and family.”
It was in January of 2021 when he and his wife, Heidi, first started making laser projects. As word began to spread of what they were doing, they began getting requests for custom orders.
“So we went public in 2021 and actually started marketing,” the Halstead resident said.
The family started out with a CO2 Glowforge laser, which could be used on wood, acrylic and glass products. They purchased a fiber laser at the start of 2022 that’s capable of engraving on metal. Derrick noted they had interest from customers for metal products, so they wanted to capitalize on that potential. The lasers are set up in an office in the Richling basement.
One of their most popular products has been wooden home décor signs with names on them, and they’ve also started doing customized sports-themed signs.
“Probably the hottest thing we have right now because of our new fiber laser and rotary attachment is engraving tumblers,” Derrick added. “We’re able to put pretty much any design or logo on there.”
They’ve also done leatherwork.
Derrick is in charge of programming and operating the laser, while Heidi comes up with project ideas she thinks would be popular.
“When we don’t have any special requests, we usually try to come up with some different stuff to keep the market going,” he said. “She’s kind of got the eye for design, and then I pretty much do all the programming and cutting.”
Heidi also handles the painting or other finishing touches. Their kids haven’t gotten too involved so far but enjoy watching the laser work. Derrick added that his 11-year-old son Tyson just received a 3D printing pen for Christmas and is showing signs of being tech savvy.
Derrick said recently he’s been spending three or four hours each weeknight working with the laser, but since it’s automated, he doesn’t need to be with it constantly. He can monitor it with his phone if he’s out of the room and stop it remotely if there’s a problem.
Derrick said he decided to get into laser engraving because he’s always had a passion for technology. He holds a master’s degree in instructional design and technology.
“I grew up being kind of a tech guru,” he said. “I built computers for myself and family and friends, so I always had a technology background.”
A lot of the programming for the laser is done through Adobe Illustrator, which Derrick was already familiar with.
“That wasn’t the hard part,” he said. “The hard part was figuring out all the measurements to get things to click together, to work.”
For a lot of his projects, he buys the design files, ready to use. For custom orders, he’ll work with people to sketch out ideas until they arrive at a final version. This can be challenging yet fun, he said.
He then uses a free program called Inkscape to program the design into the laser.
Derrick said there’s definitely been improvement in their product quality since they started.
“The first ones were great gifts for family, and people loved them, but it just seems like once you get the settings figured out, that was the hardest part,” he said. “After you get that figured out, you get that nice, clean cut, and then it’s just like second nature.”
The time it takes to make a project depends on its size. Something like laser-etching a photograph onto wood can take up to two-and-a-half hours, whereas a simple keychain can be done in 30 seconds.
Derrick’s favorite project was one of the simplest, which he made for a neighbor from college.
“His father had passed away a year ago, and his dad was a big dart player,” he said. “They were able to put his ashes in the barrel of a dart, and they wanted some type of memorial stamp.”
Derrick was able to convert a pen holder into a dart holder and make a dartboard base.
Derrick said there was a funny story behind the business name, South 80 Boutique.
“I’m a big white-tailed deer hunter, and our family’s land south of the house that we hunt on is a section of land that we’ve always called the south 80,” he said. “So the wives would always ask where the guys were headed, and well, we were going out to the south 80.”
Once he and his wife decided to start the laser business, they agreed that South 80 made a neat name for it.
One idea Derrick has for the future of his business is custom-engraving firearms, but he would need to obtain a Federal Firearms License to do this.
“Eventually we’d like to go that route, but since we’re just a month into that new laser, I wanted to get a little more confident before we start going that route,” he said.
Derrick said his family isn’t trying to make a fortune with South 80 Boutique.
“It’s more fun than anything, so our prices are very comparable to what you could order online, but it’s local, and our turnaround time is usually just a couple days.”
They’ve been getting orders from all over the place, thanks to friends and family sharing about the business on Facebook. The furthest order they’ve taken was from South Dakota.
For more information, visit South 80 Boutique on Facebook or email firstname.lastname@example.org.