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Carving out a niche

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Ken Lymburner of Osage is no fish out of water when it comes to carving and painting wooden spearing decoys -- but that's what his work looks like -- exactly like fish out of water.

Working mostly from photos, he makes walleye, crappies, northern pike, blue gills, golden trout -- even artic churn and humpbacked salmon come to life under his chisels and airbrush.

You can see them hanging over the dining area at Cindy Q's café in Osage, where many customers mistake them for the real thing, said owner Cindy Hart and employee Joyce Tretbar.

Some, including a few who are woodcarvers themselves, simply refuse to believe they aren't real fish preserved by a taxidermist, Hart said.

Lymburner owned and operated Lymburner Awning in Osage for years, until he turned the business over to his son, David, about 10 years ago.

"I've only been going five years on it," Ken said of his wildlife carvings.

But a tour of his small garage studio quickly makes it apparent to a visitor that, when Lymburner gets involved in a hobby, he's all in.

If you're not hooked by the realistic game fish hanging from the ceiling, take a gander at the full-size carving of an eagle clutching a fish and resting on a tree stump.

It took him the better part of a year to carve, and barely fits in his garage.

The eagle is holding a walleye, which "kind of provokes people," he said with a laugh. "I should have made it a sucker or a perch."

Or check out the huge largemouth bass hanging on a wall like a sportsman's dream. Lymburner carved and painted it himself, even putting in gills made from very thin strips of vinyl from the awning business.

Still not convinced? Feast your eyes on the pair of ivory-billed woodpeckers sharing a tree stump in his garage. The stump is adorned with mushrooms, mosses and even bugs -- hand-tied flies from his trout-fishing days.

"I was offered $1,000 for it and turned it down," Lymburner said. "I'm not out to make money on it -- I just do it for the heck of it."

An identical pair of Lymburner's ivory-billed woodpeckers (long thought extinct until spotted in 2005 in Arkansas) is on display at the Jones-Pearson Funeral Home in Park Rapids.

"'Two Pairs of Ivory-Billed Woodpeckers Located in Northern Minnesota' -- that should be your headline," he said with a smile. "Of course, they're wooden ones."

Lymburner has made hundreds of wildlife woodcarvings, including a few whimsical ones like kissing fish, lounging turtles and moveable frogs with springs in the limbs.

"I've carved about every kind of fish you can think of," he said, pointing to a grayling hanging in his studio. "It probably has about the biggest dorsal fin of any inland fish."

He uses basswood for most of his work, which he buys in large blocks from the Two Inlets Mill.

But he has done quite a few pieces in walnut, after a friend gave him a large block of the expensive wood. Those, including ruffed grouse and swans, he left unpainted and finely polished to show off the beauty of the dark brown wood.

Through trial and error he has refined his work since he started making spear-fishing decoys in 2004.

A friend came over one day and invited him to a carving class in Detroit Lakes run by Red Spadgenske. "That's what got me started," he said.

Lymburner ended up buying the instructor's box of chisels and other carving tools, and set up sharpening wheels in his shop.

"I can tell when I get them right like I like them," he said of the chisels, showing visitors how the two wheels work. "When a tool gets dull, that's when it cuts you."

In the beginning, he used mostly cedar, but found "the grain always raised on them," he said.

He also used to paint with acrylics, but found he gets a much more realistic look with lacquer-based paint.

He almost exclusively paints with one of two airbrushes, one that lays down a wide swath for covering large areas and one that adjusts to allow fine detail work.

He took an airbrush class and even worked with a taxidermist, Bill Waldron, to get the most realistic look possible.

"He (Waldron) said 'I don't want to offend you, but you could use some help with your painting.'" Lymburner said. "I said 'you're just the man I want to talk to.'"

For a while, he would sand off and repaint his finished work as his skills improved. He'd be in and out of the Osage café with restored pieces.

The largemouth bass in his studio was repainted three times.

But now he lets it go. "That's what it looked like when I did it," he said.

On larger pieces, he now uses a woodworking jointer to seamlessly attach pieces of wood as fins, tails or wings.

Woodcarving has become Lymburner's passion, but he still makes time for the important things in life, like his wife, Donna.

And fishing.

"Sometimes I get interested and get out here early in the morning and don't get out until 10 at night," Lymburner said. "Other days I don't come in at all."