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Howard County woodworker’s handmade toys bring smiles to area children

On crisp, quiet autumn evenings, Ron Clements heads out to the wood shop he built behind his home in Clarksville. There, the 84-year-old hobbyist putters about, tinkering with projects, mindful of the screaming machine tools that can trim bone as easily as basswood.

“My wife checks my hands every time I come in from the shop to make sure I have 10 fingers,” says Clements.

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These days, the place resembles an assembly line in Santa’s workshop as he makes toys for Christmas. As the holidays approach, Clements, a retired Montgomery County police officer, will deliver custom-made playthings to young patients at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, as well as to the Marine Corps’ annual Toys For Tots program. This year’s toys are Army jeeps.

He carves the 3-inch jeeps from walnut boards. Copper tacks act as the headlights; the steering wheel, a ¼-inch Phillips head wood screw. The wheels, he buys from a dealer in Maine.

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The toys are a success with kids and adults. At The Children’s Inn at the NIH, which treats pediatric cancer and other serious health issues, patients are assigned their own mailboxes “where they can find a special treasure awaiting them every day,” says Meghan Arbegast, the inn’s volunteer engagement manager. “Ron’s handmade wooden toys are a unique surprise that our residents can enjoy during their time at the inn. Small acts of kindness, like Ron’s, bring smiles and moments of happiness to our families.”

Clements resolved to cheer those youngsters during a visit to the NIH, where he has donated whole blood and platelets for 45 years.

Ron Clements, a member of the Howard County Woodworkers Guild, uses a band saw in his shop as he makes wooden toy jeeps for children who are patients at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda.
Ron Clements, a member of the Howard County Woodworkers Guild, uses a band saw in his shop as he makes wooden toy jeeps for children who are patients at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / Baltimore Sun)

“Lord knows what all those children are suffering from,” he says. “By the time I finish the toys, I know the kids are going to like them. That’s super duper.”

Clements takes pride in even the smallest projects and is a stickler for detail, those who know him say.

“Ron is an excellent woodworker,” says Charles “Bud” Nuessle, 91, of Ellicott City, an acquaintance for 30 years. “One year, he made 6-inch battle tanks for Toys for Tots. Those M1 tanks were so accurate and good looking that, when he took them to [the donation center in Frederick], one of them wound up on the desk of the head of the Marine barracks at Fort Detrick."

Clements and Nuessle belong to the Howard County Woodworkers Guild, a 245-member network of artisans who — before the pandemic — gathered regularly at the Florence Bain Senior Center in Columbia. There, in the building’s well-stocked wood shop, the craftsmen and women have offered public demonstrations on how to make everything from bowls to kitchen cabinets. They’ve also taught homeowners how to repair wobbly tables and chairs. And, for years, they’ve created hundreds of gifts for Toys for Tots under Clements' supervision.

Closed for months because of COVID-19, the Bain Center has forced hobbyists like Clements, who have wood shops of their own, to work from home. While he misses the fellowship, he keeps cranking out toys.

“It’s good exercise and a lot of fun,” he says. “I love the challenge, and I’ve always liked working with my hands. There’s nothing like a hammer and saw.”

To that end, despite his age, he spent much of the summer replacing the weathered 8-by-16-foot deck on the back of his house.

“It’s fun to tear it apart and start all over,” Clements says. “You feel good, and it saves money.”

His woodworking wizardry has served friends and relatives as well. Twenty years ago, he took a chain saw to a tree stump in the yard of onetime Howard County Executive Charles Ecker and carved a turtle. Several homeowners’ garages, decks and barns bear Clements’ mark, says Nuessle, former president of the woodworkers guild.

“Ron is always thinking of others,” Nuessle says. “Nobody dislikes him. If you dislike Ron, something must be wrong with you.”

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Clements' toys have run the gamut, from tanks to the tugboats he turned out last year — 7-inch vessels made of cherry, oak and pine. He gifted three tugboats to a neighbor’s grandchildren, each of whom sent him thank-you cards scrawled in crayon.

“Those notes are priceless,” says Clements, who hung them on the wall of his shop.

But jeeps are his favorites to make, for good reason. As kids, Clements and his brother were messing around by their Christmas tree, plugging and unplugging the lights, when a spark from the socket set the whole thing on fire.

“It was like, ka-BOOM! The tree went up fast and took the living room curtains, sofa and chairs with it, scaring the living daylights out of us,” he says. “The fire department came, busted out a window and threw out the furniture. The only thing that survived the fire was a little toy jeep from World War II. I still have that jeep; it’s a keepsake, my calling card, which is why I make them for kids.”

But for how much longer?

“I’ve traced my ancestry back five generations, and no one has lived to be 100,” Clements says. “I plan to be the first — and I’ll make these toys 'til then.”

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