House Portraits, Gold Recovery, and Other Business Startups

A woman in Kansas who paints house portraits and a man in California who profits from computer gold recovery are two of the business startups profiled in this regular feature.

069 house portraits

A reader in Kansas began painting house portraits like this one to supplement her family's income.


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The following are business startups that readers established after reading articles in MOTHER EARTH NEWS.  

Painting House Portraits 

Reading MOTHER EARTH NEWS can put just about anyone in tune with his or her own talents or special abilities—and help that person discover how to use those skills to bring in cash and make life a little easier and more pleasant. I know, because I would probably never have made my own enterprise a success without your inspiration.

After flood water ruined most of my family's tools and supplies, I did something about my long-held dream of painting a series of "homescapes" to exhibit at our small town's banks. The three institutions I contacted all agreed to let me display my paintings, and—although I was still scared—I was suddenly in business. Then Gary Nelson's article "Paint House Portraits" helped to further convince me that my plan would work!

My initial investment of about $35 covered supplies, business cards, and posters. In a recent three-month period I invested $75 in frames, oil paints, and canvases ... but in that same 12 weeks I've earned $300 in cash for my efforts. It isn't enough to pay all the bills, of course, but it sure helps.

I'm doing all sorts of homescapes now, including one of our daughter's apartment and one of our chickens' house. (Anna Marie is really pleased with my "portrait" of her home. The hens don't seem to care one way or the other, but do go right on laying.) Furthermore. I'm exhibiting my work at a local shopping center this weekend, and smiling more than I have in a long while.

Mary Denney — Valley Center, KA 

Computer Gold Recovery

Last year my next-door neighbor graduated from college and went to work as an electronics engineer, leaving behind a pile of computers he had purchased at surplus sales. (My friend had been making his spending money by breaking up and selling scrap metal.) Well, I volunteered to clean up that pile of junk and haul it away with my old pickup. 

I'd purchased the truck for $500 after reading Evan Green's "I Pick Up Profits With a Pickup", and it had regularly helped my wife and me earn about $200 a month from hauling and odd jobs.

I initially just put the pile of computer rubble in the side yard, planning to strip it for copper and aluminum when I had some free time. But when I got a chance to look at that rubbish more closely, I was in for a surprise: all the contact points were plated with gold! I immediately checked out some library books in order to learn how to rescue the precious metal, and—after spending $50 or $60 for chemicals and test tubes—started my own "gold rush."

Since then I've made a practice of driving Old Dependable around to surplus sales and buying up obsolete—but not really useless—computers. Now, I'm earning between $3.00 and $10.00 an hour scrounging gold, and what with the other cash I garner with my pickup, my wife and I are making it on our own! We're far from rich, but at least we're eating.

C.R. — Los Osos, CA   

Making Gingerbread Houses

Two years back, with Christmas rapidly approaching, our budget was tighter than ever. I didn't have the cash necessary to buy my husband the Stickler wood splitter we'd seen advertised, so I did the reasonable thing: I set to work looking through the pages of MOTHER EARTH NEWS for that special home business that would make my purchase possible. It wasn't long before I came across the excerpt from Ona Evers' book Sparetime Dollars From the Kitchen. I read the article a number of times, but though the proposed business sounded easy enough, I couldn't make up my mind about what to sell.

A short while later I decided to construct a Christmas gingerbread house for my two preschoolers, and the only recipes I found made five or six houses at a time ... which would be more than I had planned and more than my children could eat. Nevertheless—figuring I could give the extras away as presents—I went ahead and baked up a batch.

Then that article came to mind again and I decided to sell my surplus gingerbread creations. I took a few of the confections to a local grocery and left them there on consignment. My next stop was our small town's bank, where I happened to mention my enterprise to the teller. At her request, I showed her a house ... she bought it, instantly. And that was only the beginning of my good fortune. By the end of the day that friendly bank worker had gotten me 20 orders from other tellers at the bank's main branch. As you can well imagine, I was pretty danged busy during the following weeks. I spent less than a dollar per house and sold the spicy cakes for $5.00 apiece, making enough money to buy that wood splitter ... and became determined to start baking earlier the next year.

So, by Halloween of this past year, I was back letting that same teller know I was ready to take orders again for two sizes: small houses for $3.50 and medium ones for $7.00. I sold my kitchen handywork to folks at other business places as well (typically, one person collects orders for me from the rest of the firm's staff, then my "agent" gets a free house in return for drumming up sales).

By the time last Christmas rolled around, I had made and sold 78 small, 68 medium, and two large custom cake dwellings. My expenses for gingerbread ingredients, cotton batting and candy canes to decorate the houses, and plastic wrap to protect them came to about $130, and my net profits amounted to $600! The money I made from my enterprise during its second year is now socked away in our building fund.

Gloria Charbonneau — Gifford, Ont., Canada 

Tree Cutting Business

The article "A Small Discovery" started me thinking. If some folks just give away refrigerators and other appliances they don't need, how many people, I wondered, would allow a willing worker to harvest hardwood timber from a field or pasture they wanted cleared?

It cost me $1.00 for an ad in a local paper to satisfy my curiosity ... and was I ever satisfied! Eight people called to say they'd like me to cut their trees for them, and one fellow even offered to pay me for doing it. However, the success of my ad left me with lots of available free wood and two small problems: no chain saw and no pickup. So I started calling the generous people to ask them whether they [1] had a chain saw they weren't using, [2] had or knew of a truck for sale at low cost, or [3] needed any winter firewood for their own use. 

It seems the Lord helps those who have the nerve to ask. Five of the folks had fireplaces and needed wood. One man offered me the use of his chain saw for two weeks in exchange for a cord of firewood. Three more agreed to pay me $50 a cord to cut and split their own timber for them. And, best of all, that fifth gentleman had a '59 Chevy Apache—in need of two tires and a battery—which he gladly traded for two cords of wood.

I spent $45 to buy used tires and a battery from a junkyard and got to work. The first three cords went to pay my "debts" for the truck and chain saw. And now—after an initial investment of less than $50 and a few weeks of work—I have a pickup, a brand-new chain saw ($350), money in my pocket ($150 to $200 a week), and a booming business. And I've got plans for this spring too: I'm going to buy a good tiller and go into the garden preparation business! How am I doin', MOTHER EARTH NEWS?

M.A. — Louisiana 

Designer Sewing Business

Catering to fashion-conscious customers in an alteration shop five long days a week wasn't my idea of a good way to earn a living in Aspen, CO. So, while holding that job, I was constantly looking for a new—and more pleasant—way of using my sewing skills and my time.

MOTHER EARTH NEWS came to the rescue with her article "it Pays to Be an Old Sew and Sew". After ruminating on those ideas for a few days, I made a couple of decisions that turned earning a living into a pleasure instead of a bore and burden: I decided to sew at home, and to work with interior decorators making custom pillows, dust ruffles, bedspreads, comforter covers, tablecloths, and other items.

To begin, I simply made a list of the decorators in the Yellow Pages and visited them all, taking along samples of my work, a price list, and my new business cards. My initial investment was a mere $15 — $12 for the cards and $3.00 for the printed "catalog." Orders quickly started coming in, both from decorating firms and from private customers whom the decorators had referred to me.

As soon as I was self-employed, I realized that I could arrange my own work schedule ... and I've really used that benefit to advantage. I sew four days a week from 8:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m., with a lunch hour during which I enjoy either running or cross-country skiing (according to the weather). Once a week I go to town to pick up and deliver orders, get supplies, do personal errands, visit friends, and just plain have a nice time. I like working with professional people, and I've been averaging $100 a week doing what I choose, with almost no money invested. It would be difficult to imagine a better way to work toward self-sufficiency!

Maria Bachman — Grand Valley, CO