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Cribbage anyone? Local artist crafts Timber Lake Cribbage Boards

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Willmar,Minnesota 56201
West Central Tribune
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Cribbage anyone? Local artist crafts Timber Lake Cribbage Boards
Willmar Minnesota 2208 Trott Ave. SW / P.O. Box 839 56201

Don Hanson likes to say he "makes sawdust." What he really makes are one-of-a-kind cribbage boards where players could end up spending more time studying the board than their cards.


Unlike traditional rectangular cribbage boards where players plod up and down the rows of holes with their plastic pegs, Hanson's cribbage boards take players on a journey around tortured annual growth rings and knobby growths that document the past life of a tree that has new life as a game board.

For the last 28 years, Hanson has been reading the unique wood grains and gnarly twists of trees to create cribbage boards that have become family heirlooms and, in some cases, have been bitterly fought over when couples divorce and plead for ownership of the board.

What started out as a hobby and gifts for friends he played cribbage with, has turned into a post-retirement passion that helps fund trips he and his wife, Linda, take.

In the early years, he made about three cribbage boards every year. During the last five years, he's made 50 to 70 boards each year.

Named for the northern Kandiyohi County area where he lives, Hanson's "Timber Lake Cribbage Boards" cost between $60 and $100, with a few especially unique ones going as high as $200. Given the time involved, he estimates he makes about $5 an hour.

Hanson numbers, photographs and initials each board. So far, he's at 333.

Some of the wood he uses to make the board come from his Timber Lake property but he's picked up interesting chunks of wood from all over the state from many different types of trees -- black cherry, ash, cedar, birch, oak, maple, ironwood, walnut and even boxelder. A friend from Grand Rapids who taps maple trees gave him a cross cut of wood that shows the scars of the old maple syrup taps.

The process Hanson follows for making the board isn't fast.

The first step is finding the diamond in the rough.

Hanson cuts wood to heat his home and sometimes stumbles across trees with interesting branches or crotches that he saves for cribbage boards. By using an artistic eye to interpret the flow of the wood grain, Hanson creates fantastic cribbage boards from chunks of wood that others would have thrown into the wood stove.

He fashioned one cribbage board to look like Cinderella's slipper. He found a piece of wood that had naturally grown into the shape of the United States that he made, and sold as a cribbage board.

Sometimes the search for good cribbage wood is more deliberate.

There's a cedar tree in his woods that he's confident will produce some unique cuts of wood for boards. He's waiting and watching for the tree to die so he can harvest it.

Hanson cuts the green wood into cross-cut "rounds" that go through an extensive and multi-step drying process that can last from two to 10 years. He has barrels and old deep freezes full of thick slabs of wood wrapped in blankets and plastic. Depending on the temperature and the moisture the woods gives off, Hanson is either unwrapping or wrapping up the rounds on a day-to-day basis.

He's carefully monitoring three large slabs of wood he intends to make into coffee-table sized cribbage boards.

On shelves in a garage, Hanson has hundreds of rounds all cut and dried and ready to be sanded, drilled and wiped with a soft, yet durable finish.

Determining the route the holes will take around the cribbage board is the fun -- and challenging -- part of the process.

Hanson's signature style includes a "spread start" for the scoring holes to make more room for fingers moving pegs during the early flurry of the game. That unique component has gained the notice and praise of members of the American Cribbage Congress, which has members that compete in cribbage tournaments, he said.

His boards are for either two or three players, with a full 121 holes on each board for each player. While the holes for each player start and end at the same place, sometimes the holes for one player will swirl around a knot while the other line of holes will traverse a network of branches.

Hanson draws the path for the holes with a pencil and, using a simple handmade template, drills one hole at a time with a needle-sharp "brad point" on a drill press.

The three different scoring pegs, called "gnarlies" that he makes from American elm; "toes" that he makes from black walnut; and "smoothies" that he makes from maple are also handcarved and sanded. He admits he loses a bit of skin and fingernail every time he makes a batch of pegs. "Making pegs is no fun," he said.

Hanson has his favorites from over the years, but said he's constantly surprised which ones people choose.

He said if 15 people were looking at 15 of his unique cribbage boards, "Almost everyone would have a different favorite" and it would be difficult to "pry it out of their hands."

Hanson's cribbage boards are available locally at the Mill Pond Mercantile in New London.

Carolyn Lange
A reporter for more than 30 years, Carolyn Lange covers county government and regional news with the West Central Tribune.
(320) 894-9750