Renewal in retirement - 'I do what I do'

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Some of his favorite furniture designs are from the 18th century, in particular English Arts and Crafts pieces.

“I’m not a Stickley Arts and Crafts guy, I’m more of a Morris Arts and Crafts guy. The Arts and Crafts period had gorgeous decorations, the real stylish-nature rounded corners. They did some of those wonderful geometric inlay designs. That is such a rich period for high-end stuff, and I don’t see many people doing it. I’m surprised.”

‘I do what I do’
Most of Johnson’s clients are wealthy antique buyers and collectors, people with some education in historical furniture who usually work with a designer that has a substantial knowledge of the work as well. Johnson is connected to several Portland designers who have lived in the area much longer than he has and also have a wealth of clients.

“If there is a specialty that I have, it’s figuring out what the client’s need is and what it is going to take to meet it. With the woodwork, back East it’s kind of a dime a dozen, I think. But out here, classic Western European decorative carving is quite rare. So if I have a specialty out here, that’s it.

“Like most of my hand work, I not only enjoy the result of carving on a piece of furniture, but I also enjoy the process — intensely enjoy is not overstating it,” Johnson explains. “Well-done, properly placed carving immeasurably enhances a piece. That’s obvious on traditional styles, but it is no less true on more contemporary work. I think Sam Maloof hit his high notes with sculpted lines on his later work, just like the ancient Greeks did with their human-form caryatids.”

The Portland furniture maker doesn’t do much to market his work. He is content with obtaining work by word-of-mouth and ongoing relationships with his interior designers. He doesn’t have a Web site, although some of his work can be found on the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers site (www.guildoforegonwood workers.com). There is no advertising and you won’t find any of his pieces in galleries. However, you will find a substantial portfolio on his iPhone.

“I’ve reached a point in my life where I don’t feel like I have to advertise myself a lot. I do what I do.”

But there is one unusual quasi-marketing tool Johnson is quite proud of.

“For any significant piece that I build, I make a book of how it was built, what was going on at the time period, and I buy an expensive leather-bound Italian volume to put it in. I take photos along the way, write a little bit, and create a history of the piece in the book for the clients. The intention is that a book like that stays with them; they can add stuff, and they just love it. They sit it out on coffee tables for their guests.”

In the shop
There’s no doubt Johnson would prefer to do all of his work by hand — he’s not much of a machine guy. However, he is a realist and will use machines when necessary, relying mostly on his Powermatic 2000 table saw, 15" planer and 6" jointer, General 18" band saw, and Conover lathe.

“I’ve come to regard the machines as apprentices and you have some real good apprentices and some not-so-good apprentices,” he says. “I almost never expect real accuracy from the machines. I like to fool around with them and set them up pretty good. And I use the machines to rough stuff out. But if I end up doing a shoulder on a mortise and tenon, it’s going to look really great with handwork. I can’t get the machines to do those. When I want accuracy in something that looks real good, then I’m going to use hand tools.”