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Woodworking school is dream come true

Thomas Johnson, owner of Thomas A. Johnson Furniture Co. in Lynchburg, Va., is well into the process of starting a fully staffed, three-year woodworking program with an extensive training curriculum. The school’s mission will be to produce woodworking professionals with leadership skills to contribute to the future of the industry. In March, Virginia Gov. Robert McDonnell attended the groundbreaking ceremony for the Thomas A. Johnson Woodworking School.

For Thomas Johnson, center, the dream of opening a woodworking school has been realized.

The date of the school’s opening will depend on fundraising efforts needed for the completion of the school’s interior, but Johnson estimates that it will take place within a year. In the months to come, students will be selected through an application process.

“We are offering admission to everyone. But before you get in, you have to write an essay about how you want to improve the woodworking industry. We’re not just going to open the door for anyone,” says Johnson.

Those chosen will be exposed to an all-inclusive curriculum and trained in the lumber processing, furniture manufacturing, architectural project making and cabinetry. Students will be required to produce four furniture pieces before graduation.

“I want students to learn how to preserve and protect the woodworking trade while also learning how to start their own woodworking businesses. I don’t want them to just cut wood, put it together and make furniture. I want them to be able to go to the forest and select raw materials while being conscientious about using trees.”

Johnson’s experience has helped him realize his dream of opening a woodworking school. Born and raised in Ghana, he studied timber technology in Italy on a scholarship. Ambitious about seeing where his artistic skills would take him, Johnson moved to New York in the early ’90s and soon found a job at a New Jersey cabinet shop.

An interest in theology led him to study at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., where he saw a need for jobs and education. In ’96, he founded a small woodworking business and began saving and planning from that point on, hoping to teach others his skills in the future.

Earlier this year, Johnson’s dream came to fruition as he was able to purchase a vacant 131,000-sq.-ft. building on 35 acres in Lynchburg. That building is currently being turned into the school and Johnson is engaged in various fundraising efforts to build the classrooms, buy machinery and computers, and hire instructors. With a goal of raising about $3 million, he is increasing community awareness by selling tables made of fallen timber. Everyone who purchases a table becomes a charter member of the school.

Johnson has installed a board of directors who have developed a curriculum. The board is currently searching for a school administrator and teachers.

Tuition assistance will be offered through federal grants and loans once the school is certified by the Federal Student Financial Aid program. Johnson hopes to have the first class of 12 students graduate in 2015.

“Woodworking in America is going away. If we keep shipping woodworking jobs overseas, then we are not exciting interest in the profession and it will disappear in this country. Someone has to step up and not let that happen,” says Johnson.

Contact: Thomas A. Johnson Furniture Co., 1612 Concord Pike, Lynchburg, VA. 24504. Tel: 434-845-9035.

This article originally appeared in the June 2011 issue.

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