Wes and Munchie Clement of Against the Grain Arts work on their next woodworking project while their daughter, Amelia, creates her own work of art./Photo by Angie Gray
Wes Clement has always had a knack for working with his hands. The Wilmington landscaper (owner of Wesley’s Lawn Service) grew up watching his dad build and fix everything from custom furniture to broken-down cars. It was a way to save money so the family wouldn’t need to pay somebody else for their handiwork. “They both have this ability to look at something and figure out how to not only build it, but build it well,” says Munchie Clement, Wes’ wife-turned-business partner.
The couple started Against the Grain Arts in 2015, after an unfortunate snowboarding accident proved fortuitous. Wes shattered his ankle on the slopes and was out of work for nearly five months. Around the same time, a friend spotted a wall hanging on Cape Cod that he wanted as a gift for his wife, but the price tag for the wooden whale artwork was steep.
“He knew Wes could create pretty much anything under the sun, so he asked him to make it,” Munchie says. Wes was looking for a way to keep himself busy, and what began as a one-off project to craft a 3-foot-by-2-foot beluga grew into an Etsy business a couple months later.
“When we first started, Wes would sit on the floor in our living room with a huge piece of cardboard and a tiny picture he’d pulled up on his cellphone, and he’d be able to draw it to scale,” Munchie says. “He has a rare combination of artistry and carpentry skills.”
Soon, custom orders were swimming in, including those from restaurateurs Eric and Laura Sugrue of Big Fish Restaurant Group, who envisioned signage and woodworking “facelifts” for their restaurant establishments, including Washington Street Ale House, Mikimotos and Bar Roja in Wilmington. Downstate, Against the Grain provided the finishing touches to Summer House, Sazio and both Big Fish locations. Wes and Munchie have also designed pieces for Stitch House Brewery and Chesapeake Inn, and their repertoire is expanding.
“It’s these opportunities that really grew our business,” Munchie says. “To have some of the biggest names in local restaurants believe in us and tout our work was a game-changer.”
Four years in, the couple’s porch and garage have been converted into an office and woodworking shop. Piles of cedar, pine and old plywood are stacked on all sides, while a metal workbench scattered with tools holds the current project: a truck tailgate with a retro Chevrolet logo. On another rolling table, cans of weather-resistant paint (“Weather-proofing is one of many challenges to consider when choosing materials for a project”) and industrial paintbrushes are just out of reach of the shop’s most energetic employee—Wes and Munchie’s 3-year-old daughter, Amelia, who “loves anything to do with art and ‘helps’ with painting.”
One major challenge has been learning which woods are best suited for a project.
“We try to use reclaimed or vintage where we can,” Wes says, but that’s often not plausible for commercial projects that demand durability or a certain aesthetic. For instance, the couple will employ ash wood for restaurant booths or special “exterior wood” for pieces that are exposed to outdoor elements year-round.
Currently, Wes carves everything by hand but is looking into a computer-controlled machine that would cut labor time significantly and allow the business to take on more, and larger, projects.
The couple says it’s the personal projects, though—like a poem from a mother to her daughter, or a large-scale national parks map for two adventurous brothers—that hold the most meaning.
“Our friends have two boys and they’re planning on taking them to every national park before they graduate high school,” Munchie explains. “So, as they visit the parks, they get to come home and attach trees we carved out to the map to mark the ones they’ve seen.”
One piece the couple felt “extremely honored” to create struck a deep chord with the couple: a replica of a fireman’s badge for parents who lost their son to suicide.
“I was so overwhelmed with emotion that I had to walk away when we were putting the finishing touches on it—and I didn’t even know the family,” says Munchie, who lost her own sister to suicide in 2014. “Knowing that we were creating something that would hang in his parents’ home and serve as a constant reminder of the son they lost was incredibly moving.”
Another piece was a wooden chest that a friend gave to her retired Army Ranger boyfriend for war mementos that needed safekeeping.
“She sent me the insignia for his unit along with a picture of a poem he’d written about a close friend who was killed in combat, which included his handprint,” Munchie says. “I was able to turn it all into a stencil and paint it on the inside of the lid. … My friend sent me a video of her boyfriend falling to his knees when he opened the chest and saw the poem in his own handwriting, along with his handprint.
“Moments like that renew our faith in this business we created and continue to build every day.”