Renewal in retirement - Mr. President

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Johnson stopped counting the number of planes he collected after 60. He built his entire bench plane set off eBay and proudly exclaims he rehabbed them all. His oldest model is an 18th century Madox molding plane from London, and he also has a fine assortment of Japanese chisels.

He buys his wood from four local dealers and uses Oregon walnut more than any other species. He works with non-ferrous materials and has made his share of visits to the local salvage yard to gather up old leaded glass should a period project require it. Finishing is also done in-house and, before he applies finish to a piece, he provides his clients a sample of what it would look like upon completion.

“I tell my clients ahead of time … it’s going to be close to the wood, we’re not going to have any thick film finish. If you want that, we’re going to send it to somebody who does that for a living. I use an oil-varnish mix made by an outfit in Seattle called Dalys ProFin. It’s very dust-friendly; it gives my surfaces a nice, hand-rubbed look.”

Mr. President
Johnson is active in the Guild of Oregon Woodworkers and served as its president in 2008. The guild has approximately 250 members and is primarily a hobbyist club with a smattering of professionals. It originated as a group of furniture makers getting together for the purpose of doing an annual sales show, but that has “fizzled” during the last few years.

“We do participate in an annual show with a number of the other craft [groups] in town called the Spring Showcase, sponsored by the Northwest Promotional Marketing Association. The big core is the ceramicists, but the wood guys have joined that the last couple years. It draws about 20,000 people.”

Johnson’s second career as a furniture maker is obviously a pleasurable one, and he has a youthful delight when he talks about it. He builds between six and eight pieces a year and keeps a comfortable backlog of six months. A few years ago, he let his backlog grow to about two years, but he won’t let that happen again. He prefers to experience the enjoyment of the job, not the pressure.

He says his current challenge is to keep moving forward, to take on increasingly difficult jobs, and continue to push himself. In some areas, he has become quite talented and, in others, he feels there is a need for improvement.

“There’s a leap coming of some kind, but I don’t know what it is. I need to learn some more sophisticated inlay techniques because I don’t do much of that now. My steps are just going to be to get better at some time periods with my adaptations. I’ll [continue] doing original design with elements from different periods, something that would have been built in that period to perform that function.

“I really work to satisfy myself. I have to be real happy with the piece before it goes out the door and obviously the client does. But it’s almost more important to me that I’m pleased with what I’m doing. And then when other people like it — what a wonderful bonus.”

The retired energy lobbyist has a rather philosophical approach to his work. He takes great pride in making beautiful things, and if he can leave a small, but very nice, body of work behind him when his time is up, he’ll be a happy man.

“There’s no end to this particular craft. There’s always new stuff to learn, find, new stuff to try. I come to the shop every day about 10 a.m. and stay until 6 or 7 p.m. I treat it like a real job. I’m right on the teetering edge of full-time hobby versus business only because I don’t have to work to live. And this particular thing that I’m doing, I’m living to work. And I love it. Every day is Saturday."

Contact: Lee Johnson Wood Art, 5034 N.E. 105th Ave., Unit C, Portland, OR 97220. Tel: 971-219-0839.