Donald L. Syvertson of Glenwood is someone who reclaims what others may discard as unusable. Syvertson takes pieces of used wood and fashions them into something beautiful. He has the patience and skill to transform reclaimed boards, found tree limbs, willow tree branches, and recycled lumber into interesting rustic pieces of furniture.
When looking at Syvertson’s work, you will note that he has a keen eye for detail and a very humble manner.
“If you want to do this type of thing, you’ll make a few mistakes as you go, you just learn from it, and move on,” he said with a grin.
Syvertson spends his days and weekends making his unique pieces of furniture. His modest workshop is outfitted with the normal tools a carpenter may have.
“I use a table saw, radial arm saw, drill press, planer, and a band saw.” he said. “I also use a few tools you would not find in a normal woodworkers shop.”
These tools include a couple of homemade steamers which he uses to steam boards and limbs.
“This makes the wood pliable enough to bend around a premade form or pattern.” he stated. “The steamers are made with a heavy duty 12-inch pipe that has a hose attached to it. This allows steam from a propane heater to migrate into the pipe. Depending on the species and thickness of wood it takes approximately three hours for the boards to become pliable to be bent.”
After softening the wood, Syvertson has only a couple of minutes to wrap it around the form and get it fastened into position.
Syvertson works with a variety of species of wood, but he prefers white cedar and ash. He said he likes these woods because “they are native to Minnesota, easily available, strong, and will last forever if care is taken.”
The items he builds are used or sold.
“I was approached by an interior designer north of Brainerd that decorates many homes on Cross Lake.” he said. “I have built many custom pieces of furniture to her specifications. One of which was a large armoire that had a very unique woven birch bark front.”
Another one of the projects Syvertson has taken on is building cedar strip canoes. Each canoe takes approximately 300 hours, with an additional 50 to 100 hours of preparation to build the form that is used to bend the steamed boards into shape.
“Strip building — turning a pile of thin strips into a boat — isn’t as easy as stitch-and-glue. The wood strips have to be shaped and bent to interlock tightly, making a strong, beautiful boat.” he said. The canoe Syvertson is currently working on is 17.5 feet, and has been covered with several coats of sealer, fiberglass, and varnish.
If you want a canoe, especially a cedar strip canoe, it is possible to just go purchase one. Numerous woodworkers sell them, and they are beautiful examples of their work. But many people like Syvertson choose to build their own. There are several reasons for this. A cedar strip canoe is much more expensive than a regular canoe, and the professionals who create these canoes are true artists. Therefore, the market can demand and support a large price. Building your own is a reasonable alternative. Since Syvertson has the woodworking skills and access to a workshop with the tools – so the only real cost is the materials.
Syvertson does not necessarily build these canoes to use them. In fact, the finished canoe pictured on the front has never been in the water.
“If you want to even legally test your canoe in a lake or river, you need to license it through the state, and that means putting stickers on it. I just can’t bring myself to do that.” he said.
The main reasons that Syvertson builds his own cedar strip canoes is simple, pride and knowing he built it.
“The one thing you can guarantee is that no two cedar canoes will be alike even if they are built from the same plans.”
Syvertson’s woodworking projects are conversation pieces. He has a lot of good memories from each project he has completed. Syvertson makes a pilgrimage to The Grand Cities Art Festival each year during the second week in June. It is located in Grand Forks, ND and East Grand Forks, Minn.
“I would encourage anyone to make the trip. It’s an exciting event with a large number of vendors who display many unusual items that have been hand made.” he said.
Syvertson has lived in the Glenwood area for 30 years, and retired in 1995.