Johanna Johanson signs her many online contributions with the charming sobriquet “Johanna – in The Land of Enchantment,” and perhaps that is what first caught my eye. It’s the motto of her beloved home state, New Mexico, where, she says, she has been called “a walking chamber of commerce.” A frequent contributor to both Woodcentral and Women in Woodworking, she says she reads both sites every day.
Even more compelling than her tag line, though, is the quality of her many entries. When Johanna adds her two cents, you get advice that is invariably kind, relevant, helpful, wise and rife with the sort of insight that bespeaks of “been there, done that, and now I know what went wrong.”
At 64, Johanna lives in the heavily Hispanic and Indian “old” part of the state. By day, she is a private consultant writing and teaching software for school systems, but woodworking is a very serious and long-practiced hobby.
“As a child growing up, I got to help my father a great deal with carpentry projects. He encouraged me and taught me how to use tools. Being poor for many years, I did house repairs and basic woodworking, albeit with abominable tools.”
It wasn’t until 1993, when her partner took a turning course and bought a lathe, that the tool situation changed radically. “Once we had a lathe, we needed a band saw, and the domino effect took it from there.” Now, the shop is fully equipped with everything a woodworker needs, including such luxuries as a Legacy Mill. “You can make cheap tools do amazing things,” she says, “but expensive ones are a whole lot less trouble.”
Although she started out in New Mexico, it has been a long trip back. Along the way, she went to Duke University, and worked as a nurse for a few years. In those days, she was married to a Navy man, so they moved frequently. While stuck in Pensacola, Florida, she used the time to finish three degrees: a BA and MA in education, and a BS in system science, a computer degree. Johanna taught school from 1970 through 1987, then went to work for Shell Oil in Houston, Texas as a COBOL programmer.
Here’s a bit of computer trivia she shared with me: The computer language COBOL was written in the 1950’s by Navy Admiral Grace Hopper, known as Amazing Grace.
For many years, she pursued another pastime as well. She raised show dogs, mostly standard poodles and whippets, and judged dog shows. Though she is out of the show racket, she does still have a few pets, and also keeps and rides horses.
It wasn’t until 1999 that Johanna managed to move back to the land of enchantment. Once there, she quickly joined the 300-member Albuquerque Woodworker’s Association, and just as quickly got tapped to be the Toy Project Coordinator. Each year, the guild makes thousands of toys for charity, but that’s just a small segment of her woodworking range.
These days, she mostly does Southwestern style furniture, because she’s busy making things for her adobe-style house. She says she has sold a few pieces, but is primarily a hobby woodworker. Her favorite piece is a tile-top, figured maple table she made for her daughter. It incorporated a wine rack, and was made higher than normal to fit her daughter and her husband, both of whom are tall. The table sports the first dovetail drawers Johanna ever made, along with hand painted tiles to match the kitchen’s motif.
“I love woodworking because I want to make things of superb quality that will last beyond my lifetime. I can’t afford to buy things that are as good as those that I can make. Plus, there is enormous satisfaction in knowing you made it, and I enjoy just getting out there and putzing around.”
Putzing around or not, she is always improving her skills. “At the moment, I’m taking a 180-hour class at Santa Fe Community College just on dovetails,” she told me. “For my school project, I’m making a reproduction of a Shaker tool chest with over 100 hand cut miniature dovetails in it. I can’t say enough about the Santa Fe school. It is very demanding, and turns out excellent work.”
Her knowledge of computers and programs comes in handy at times like these. “I use an old CAD program, and I draw and design most of what I make on that. It lets you change things easily. For example, the Shaker chest I’m now making is adapted from one that appears in several books. I drew it in CAD in several versions to find which looked best. The exercise of drawing it in different dimensions helped clarify it for me.”
As usual, she offered some excellent advice to pass on to others on this trail. “Take advantage of all the information that is out there today, and learn what is truly good. There is a lot that is awful, cheap, and poorly made. I always appreciate it when people strive to do beautiful work. It takes time and practice and effort. Too many people settle for the quick and easy. Strive for excellence.”