STOCKTON, Minn. — Surrounded by the smell of cut wood inside a small, warm workshop, 65-year-old Dean McClenathan sat down at a scroll saw and gently pressed his foot to the pedal.
The tiny precise saw blade moved up and down at a gentle pace, and with an air of patience, McClenathan waited for the blade to slowly make its way toward a pattern of lines he was looking to cut.
McClenathan, owner of Owl's Nest Woodcrafts, has been making intricate puzzles and intarsias — a woodworking technique — for more than seven years. He has developed a love not only for the process, but also for the great satisfaction he gets from making a piece that makes someone's day.
"It really is a large source of pride," he told the Winona Daily News quietly with a smile. "How happy they were with the item they bought (makes) me happier than the money."
Over the years McClenathan has made Santa intarsias, standing angels, squirrels, horses, a cow jumping over the moon, crosses and much more. He has also made plenty of wooden puzzles that are thick enough to stand on their own as figurines but fun enough to sit down and take apart. At a recent craft show, McClenathan sat near a long table of handmade puzzles. A few of them were families of animals — a family of elephants, a family of cats — all cuddled together with their pieces entwining and fitting into each other to form a single puzzle.
Nearly every day — except during fishing and morel hunting seasons — McClenathan heads out to his shop to work on a new masterpiece.
The goal is to make a buyer happy. But for him it also cuts much deeper than that. It's to make him happy as well.
"For me it's kind of relaxing," he said.
Many years ago he found a book on making puzzles and intarsias, and he bought it thinking it would be a cool hobby one day.
"I finally found enough peace within me to sit down and do it," he said.
But that peace was hard won.
The very first cross intarsia he made was in 2006 for his first wife, who was battling breast cancer. The cross was a great comfort to her, he said, and she kept it close by.
"She told me how much she loved it," he said.
The next week she was in hospice.
A few weeks later she died.
As he sat with his grief he thought of his wife, an outstanding seamstress, and all the items she made for her children, family and friends. She had a knack for knowing exactly which present would be perfect. It was something he wanted to carry on.
"Wouldn't it be cool if they had something to remember their dad by?" he asked.
So he headed out to the shop. And with hours of time spent with his dog nearby, he worked through projects and emotions.
McClenathan said that with his wife dying of cancer, he had no one to blame.
"Who could I be mad at?" he said. "We're all going to die sometime."
Instead he chose to accept it. To keep working with wood. To find peace in the moment and carry on.
And since then his artwork — his craft — has grown.
With the knowledge of one who knows the look, feel and scent of different woods, McClenathan pointed to the different types of wood within his art. There's aspen, cherry, basswood, cedar, walnut, poplar and many more in shelves along a wall in his shop. Each with a different color, a different grain, a different texture.
McClenathan explained that when he creates a piece, he takes patterns — or makes them — and chooses the different woods to accent each part of the piece. He looks to where the grain points and where knots have formed that could possibly work within his piece.
"A person looked at my stuff and said you're painting with wood," he said. "And that's exactly it."
But he doesn't like to paint the same thing over and over.
McClenathan said he enjoys a challenge most of all. A request for a custom-made piece sparks a fire that gets him steamed up to take the project on — like when his neighbor asked him to make a barn scene with a cow and calf for her husband for Christmas.
"I worked some 12-hour days before Christmas to get it done," McClenathan chuckled. "I wanted to make her happy."
It included about 300 pieces of wood, McClenathan estimated, and to this day it's still the most intricate design he's done.
"I could hardly believe I made it," he said happily.
When it came time to hand it over, he was a bit scared she wouldn't like it, he admitted.
But of course she did.
"When she picked it up, she loved it," he said with a smile. "There really isn't too many greater feelings than that."
Between the feeling of joy he gets from a satisfied buyer and the social aspect that comes with going to craft shows, McClenathan said he's hooked.
"Everybody has got some skill," he said.
And although some may differ, McClenathan said his skill isn't woodworking — that's just something he's practiced and gotten good at.
"If I was given a gift it was to learn to cope with things," he said.
To sit and be at peace with them.
"It's not like you buy a saw and start cutting masterpieces out," he said with a smile.
It takes practice. And the courage to continue working at it day after day.
As he looked out over his intarsias spread out around him, he said very quietly, "I'm proud of them."
An AP Member Exchange shared by the Winona Daily News.