Northern niche

northern_leadDon Johnson is a custom cabinetmaker with more than 35 years of experience who prefers to work alone.

And the owner of DAJ Fine Woodworking in the Mount Washington Valley region of New Hampshire shows the drive and determination — with a little help from his CNC router — to design and build typical and not-so-typical cabinetry projects just fine on his own.

The shop specializes in the design and fabrication of custom kitchen cabinets, furniture and architectural work. Recently, sign making has also entered the equation.

Johnson built his house and adjacent 2,400-sq.-ft. shop in the little town of Intervale, minutes from downtown North Conway, a popular New England tourist destination. He started out as a carpenter in his late teens and early 20s working for general contractors. Originally from Greenwich, Conn., his family moved to Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., when he was in sixth grade.

“I started woodworking at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School. There was a vocational program there that was pretty much for the kids that didn’t want to go to college. You would work a week and then you went to school for a week. So I started doing general construction, just carpentry, working for a company that did pre-fab homes,” Johnson says. 

“I went on to work for another company on the Vineyard, Keyland Construction, and then I went to work with the owner’s son who owned Keyland Kitchens. We built houses from the foundation through the kitchen and everything. And the thing with them is they’re excellent. They really got me going in the right direction as a general contractor and they knew what they were doing. They had a lot of high-end work.”

northern_kitchenThe journey north

In his late teens, Johnson built a house for his mother and stepfather in Ohio. He later married and settled on the Vineyard, where he opened his first shop offering general carpentry and cabinetry services. He moved to New Hampshire a year later.

“I knew when I moved back to the Vineyard I didn’t want to stay there forever. It’s a one-season place. It’s busy in the summer and the rest of the year it’s deserted, especially back then in the late ’70s,” Johnson says.

northern_cncHe survived that first year in New Hampshire in a 1,500-sq.-ft. house without heat. In 1984, he purchased his current property and built the first phase of his shop, to which he later added to in sections, including his walk-in spray booth made from the box of an old delivery truck.

Also known as the White Mountains region, the area is known for its natural beauty and a great place for winter sports and other outdoor activities.

“The area’s changed. I find this area is losing its high-end market. It’s getting a lot of discount stores and it’s getting a reputation for the bargain shoppers when it used to be all specialty shops. There were a lot of things going on in the valley that aren’t here anymore like equine festivals and tennis tournaments.

“What we need in North Conway is a big lake. Lakes are where you find the higher end clients, especially Lake Winnipesaukee.”

Still, Johnson says work in middle- to higher-income homes is readily available. His reputation and standing with general contractors certainly helps.

northern_island“Most of my work until 2006 was general contracting and building houses, but I do everything, all the cabinetry, all the trim. I know everything about it so I had a lot of subcontractors working for me. I built two fairly expensive homes around $1.5 million.”

Right time, right place

Johnson says it’s important not to limit his service area, but he has wound down his traveling quite a bit. He used to go back and forth to the Vineyard often and worked on a project last fall in Marblehead, Mass.

“The biggest game changer was the used CNC router I purchased in 2004,” Johnson says. “It allows me to do things that I wouldn’t even have attempted to do before like sign work. It makes curved work so much better.”

The sign making started with a few projects for the local Chamber of Commerce members. Bigger commercial projects quickly followed, such as the train façade that hangs over the entrance of the Glen Junction Restaurant in Glen, N.H. He’s also made signs for Santa’s Village in Jefferson, N.H.

While his local market evolves, Johnson is seeing changes with his client base that are beyond his control. He’s come up with a game plan to stay ahead, particularly honing in on the general contractors in the high-end lake regions within his state.

northern_profile“What I’m seeing now is some of my steady customers are passing away. As you age, so do your clients. A few of the general contractors I’ve worked with have retired. So now I’m reaching out to contractors in the Vineyard again and also trying to build relationships with some of the contractors in other parts of the state. That takes time. You have to be in the right place at the right time.”

Contact: DAJ Fine Woodworking, 199 Dundee Road, Intervale, NH 03845. Tel: 603-356-9080. www.dajfinewoodworking.com

This article originally appeared in the April 2017 issue.

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