By Ron Wilson, director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at Kansas State University
The design cut into the wood is beautiful, detailed, intricate – and handmade. It was not produced with a laser cutter or computer-aided design, but rather, entirely by hand by a remarkably skilled craftsman in rural Kansas.
Curtis and Lori Swenson are founders and owners of C&L Crafts in Miltonvale. They grew up in the Randolph area, met in school and were married. They would ultimately have four children.
Those children, now grown, have also chosen to live in rural Kansas. They now live in Miltonvale, population 440; Mayetta, population 348; Olsburg, population 218; and Idana, population 54 people. Now, that’s rural.
Curtis took a job in Nebraska where he suffered a terrible accident in which his back was broken in two places. He would have 22 back surgeries, the first of which was 8 ½ hours long. He made a full recovery, but it was a long recuperation.
“I was going stir crazy,” Curtis said. He looked for something he could do with his hands.
“I had watched a guy at Silver Dollar City cut designs into wood and thought that looked interesting.” He bought a scroll saw on sale and found he really enjoyed cutting intricate designs.
“It was therapy,” said Lori, who helped out by doing the finish work.
The Swensons moved to the Miltonvale area in 1996. “When people there saw what I was doing, they told me we should sell those things at craft shows,” Curtis said. So, the couple started going to shows and continued to make these products on the side while he worked for the school district, from which he is now retired.
Today, C&L Crafts has sold wood products all over the nation and beyond. These are not your typical trinkets. Every one of these is handcrafted by Curtis and Lori themselves.
They order Baltic Birch type A plywood from a Kansas City company. This wood is especially made for cabinet liners and has no knots or spaces. Curtis orders 1/8, 1/4, and 1/2 inch thickness. He can also make designs in oak, walnut, cedar, and even hedge.
The Swensons have attended as many as 40 craft shows in a single year. For a decade, they had a booth at craft shows in Branson during the spring and fall. “They would put me in the number one and number two booths, and I would demonstrate the wood-cutting all day long,” Curtis said. “I enjoyed that.”
These designs are remarkably detailed and intricate. “A lot of people believe this is done by a laser, but a laser burns the edges of the wood,” Curtis said. His items are entirely hand-cut using a narrow-bladed scroll saw.
Curtis does the cutting and Lori does the finish work: “She has the lighter touch,” Curtis said. Lori does the sanding, staining, and varnishing, plus the final assembly or attaching a hanger. She also categorizes and stores the items. “We’re a team,” Curtis said.
“We do lots of custom work,” Curtis said. Lori adds: “If you’re looking for something in particular, just ask.”
“We will donate items for schools or groups to sell as fundraisers,” Lori said. Curtis has donated military designs to veterans and given crosses to the elderly ladies at nursing homes. “If you can do something with it that cheers somebody up, that’s all that matters,” Curtis said. “We like to see people happy.”
That personal touch is why he prefers craft shows to selling over the Internet. “I like to visit with people,” Curtis said.
The Swensons use more than 6,500 patterns for signs, toys, wildlife designs, and Christmas ornaments. “We do 20,000-plus ornaments in a year, easy,” Curtis said. C&L Craft items have gone from coast to coast, to Alaska, Hawaii, and as far away as Africa and Australia.
For more information, contact Curtis and Lori at 785-427-6353.
The design in the wood is intricate and beautiful – and entirely created by hand. We commend Curtis and Lori Swenson of C&L Crafts for making a difference with creative craftsmanship. They are truly accomplished artisans, hands-down.
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