St. Ansgar woodworker crafts a fulfilling career

ST. ANSGAR — The sleek rich expanse of a table crafted of burled birdseye maple stands as a testament to Randy Gonnerman’s love of wood and fine work.

Gonnerman, owner of Randy Gonnerman’s Wood Workings and Construction, is only 33 but he has wrought some powerful pieces in his life.
Randy Gonnerman works with a saw in his St. Ansgar shop. Gonnerman has been crafting wood since he was 12 years old. DEB NICKLAY/The Globe Gazette

This particular piece, inlaid with wenge wood and trimmed in walnut, is headed to a penthouse in Virginia Beach, Va.

His buyer got his name from “a friend of a friend kind of thing.” Now, Gonnerman has completed his fifth piece for the customer. The 16-by-5-foot table weighs 800 pounds. Gonnerman said the hardest part of construction was not creating the table. It was fashioning the metalwork that would lift and eventually move it to Virginia.

“At first, he (the customer) wanted it to be in one (continuous) piece but then we figured out they would need a helicopter to get it into the penthouse,” said Randy’s wife, Becky, with a chuckle. The beautiful and sometimes-unusual are Gonnerman’s stock in trade.

He created his first major piece — a cedar chest — when he was only 12 years-old. The Baptist preacher’s son took a liking to tools early and a member of his father’s congregation gave him some pointers. “I just always remember liking tools, being drawn to it,” he said.

Kerman Wenger was the farmer who gave Gonnerman his first lessons. “I was a farmer, not a carpenter,” Wenger said with a laugh. “It wasn’t long before he was way ahead of me.” Gonnerman eventually had his own shop set up in the family garage. By the time he was a junior in high school, he had his own sales tax permit. He was then taking orders for specialty items from doors to cabinets.

He became accomplished at “turning” wood, or shaping wood with a lathe. Gonnerman loves exotic or unusual woods — his creations are made of zebra wood and ebony, Carpathian elm and myrtlewood. “Some refer people to Randy because a lot of people don’t like to deal with some of it,” said Becky. “With Randy, everything is custom, detailed. “It’s more than just a job to him — it’s who he is.”

His turned pieces have been displayed in Des Moines art galleries as well as the MacNider Art Museum in Mason City.

Gonnerman has seemingly never wavered from his passion except to expand it. In recent years, he began his own home construction business. Enlarging the business has kept him busy now on two fronts. “One evens out the other,” he said of the more straightforward home contracts, compared to the whimsical and exotic pieces he does such as expansive dining room tables, pie safes, gun cabinets, even humidors. Gonnerman’s attention to detail is as evident in his large structures as his small pieces.

“We couldn’t have a better house,” said Bernard Retterath, who lives with his wife, Betty, near Meyer. Gonnerman built their home in 2005.

“We could talk to him at any time, get his opinion — and he would listen. We couldn’t be happier. Details? He is definitely all detail.” After working in one shop in the midst of St. Ansgar, he and Becky built twin shops in the St. Ansgar Industrial Park two years ago. Becky owns Scent from Heaven Floral LLC, a flower and gift shop.

It was a move that fulfills Becky’s own creativity, as well as provides space so the couple can watch their three children — Jessica, 8; Grant, 6, and Joel, 5 — when they are not in school. The shop is a full-service florist shop, and provides gifts and home decor — some of it crafted by Randy.

Gonnerman says his biggest joy is catching that first look on a customer’s face when they see a piece of his work for the first time. “The challenge, the satisfaction, is to see their reaction. It’s nice to know that people appreciate quality — and you see that they’re happy.”