Thinking outside the box

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Woodworker Gerald Clymer, pictured in his Monona shop, creates intricately-crafted wooden boxes that have made him one of the most sought-after artists at McGregor’s Left Bank Shop and Gallery. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

At the beginning, there’s no indication of what the box will look like. That only forms when Clymer is well into the process. “I’m like a sculptor who chips away at the outside until he finds what he wanted inside,” he shared.

No piece is considered too small to incorporate into one of Clymer’s boxes. “Those little tiny pieces can be just what [the box] needs to make it pop,” he said.

Clymer, who started his woodworking hobby by making furniture, began creating boxes in 2006. This first one was made from a lilac bush.

Over the years, Clymer's boxes have become larger and more complex.

Clymer’s boxes are rarely assembled using metal fasteners. He prefers glue to join the pieces, occasionally reinforcing joints with dowels or splices.

Monona artist lets wood speak for itself

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times

“As you can see, very little goes to waste,” said Gerald Clymer, spreading his arms wide as he steps into his Monona woodworking shop. There’s oak here, walnut there. Larger pieces of wood rest against walls and benches while smaller remnants—some cubes barely an inch wide—cover most surfaces. No piece is considered too small to incorporate into the intricately-crafted wooden boxes that have made Clymer one of the most sought-after artists at McGregor’s Left Bank Shop and Gallery.

“Sometimes the wood cracks, so I have to cut the end off and it finds its way to the waste bin,” Clymer admitted. “But those little tiny pieces can be just what [the box] needs to make it pop.”

Clymer became interested in woodworking years ago, while working as a mechanical draftsman in San Diego, Calif. 

“I tried pottery, but I didn’t have the passion. When I got into wood, it just hit,” he reflected. “I had a co-worker who was into wood. Hanging out in his garage, I started picking things up.”

Armed with that knowledge, as well as tapping into the “deep, dark recesses” of recollections from junior high school wood shop, Clymer began making furniture. Some of his first pieces included a plant stand, cabinet and bed headboard and frame.

“I also subscribed to Wood magazine, which has all kinds of tips, techniques and projects,” he said. “You learn how to select wood and process it.”

Mostly, he learned by doing.

“I didn’t have all the tools, so I had to be creative on my own,” Clymer noted. “Then, slowly, bit by bit, I collected little hand tools and larger power tools.”

When his now-adult daughter was 10 or 11, Clymer and wife, Ardy, decided to move the family to Iowa, to be closer to relatives. They settled outside Waukon, where Clymer continued his woodworking. That first winter, he recalled, a building collapsed under the weight of snow.

“I was just going to burn it,” he said, “but then I noticed all this oak, so I salvaged it.

His home’s kitchen table and coffee table spawned directly from that wreckage. And since then, Clymer’s salvaged any wood he can to create more pieces of furniture and, of course, his boxes.

Clymer made his first box in 2006 from a “rangy” lilac bush.

“I cut some little pieces of wood, put them together and voila,” he said. “Then I started making the boxes bigger and more complex.”

The hobby was ideal at the time, he explained, because his shop at the Waukon home afforded little space for larger projects. When the Clymers moved to Monona several years ago, he gained more room, but still continued to make boxes.

Forming one of his creations isn’t really quite as simple as “voila,” though. 

“Out in the shop, a lot of dithering goes on, and looking at pieces of wood. It’s not like, all of a sudden, it clicks,” Clymer shared.

With furniture, he pulls ideas from magazines and Ardy’s imagination. But the boxes often start with a single piece of wood.

“It’ll be that one piece of wood that has so much character all by itself,” Clymer said. “I want to feature it somehow, so I build something that coordinates with it.”

At the beginning, there’s no indication of what the box will look like. That only forms when Clymer is well into the process.

“I know it will have four sides and depth,” he conceded. “They start out as being rectangular blobs and the decoration, the shaping, comes later. Then, sometimes, they look top heavy or bottom heavy, so I have to do adjustments.”

“I’m like a sculptor who chips away at the outside until he finds what he wanted inside,” Clymer added. The boxes have merely “found” themselves on his workbench.

Because of his history with the wood, oak is one of Clymer’s favorites to use. But he dabbles with a variety of species, and has even begun ordering some more exotic ones. While some woodworkers might shy away from “horrible, ugly” pieces, he relishes them.

“I like finding the beauty underneath,” said Clymer. “The imperfections are part of the beauty.”

Clymer’s boxes are rarely assembled using metal fasteners. He prefers glue to join the pieces, occasionally reinforcing joints with dowels or splices.

“It takes lots of clamps and patience,” he quipped.

He also takes a simple approach to finishing the boxes. All that’s needed is some sanding, to make the box nice and smooth, and a simple coat of polyurethane, to make the exterior durable and enhance the underlying wood.

“I want the wood to speak for itself,” Clymer said.

Since 2006, Clymer estimates he’s made hundreds of boxes. He gave most away as gifts until five years ago, when he found The Left Bank and asked if the gallery would be interested in selling his pieces. 

He’s now offering boxes there, in addition to a gallery in Spring Grove, Minn., and can barely keep his inventory stocked.

“One woman bought nine boxes at one time,” Clymer exclaimed. “That’s a huge boost. It’s gratifying that a wide selection of people appreciate what I’m doing. And they don’t just sit on a shelf somewhere, they’re being used in people’s homes.”

Clymer said he plans to continue making furniture and boxes, but also hopes to dabble in turning wood into other pieces of art as well.

“That’s more loosely creative, whereas, a box, you have to do everything just right,” he explained. “And some pieces of wood don’t lend themselves to that.”

“If that works out, it’ll be fun,” he added. “But I love doing what I’m doing.”

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