Among the pictures of shop setups, equipment, and works in progress on Woodcentral’s Shop Shots gallery, you occasionally get a glimpse of true virtuoso woodworking. And the forums were abuzz in mid-August with the appearance of a new piece by Virgil Johnson. With its distinctive profile, his serpentine front bureau combines 18th century styling with this contemporary woodworker’s passion for finish and detail.
Virgil Johnson has been making beautiful furniture since he started taking woodworking classes back in high school. Growing up on a farm in central Kentucky, his family’s closest neighbor was a sawmill owner who let Virgil help out and ,eventually, drive a forklift! He only saw lumber in the rough, until his brother-in-law took him to a woodworking show and showed him the beautiful things that lumber could become. With a little more encouragement from that same brother-in-law, Virgil took woodworking classes in high school. His teacher, Doug Roberts, taught him the basics of the equipment, finishing, and joinery, and inspired him to build large pieces of furniture … something few hobbyists took on in those days. His slant-top desk took top honors at the 1979 Student Craftsman’s Fair, and serious avocation was launched.
“We didn’t learn much about wood movement.” Virgil recalled. “The angles of dovetails and floating panels were beyond what people were doing back then. But the desk has a lot of cross grain construction and has held up well over the years.”
Employed as a toolmaker/designer today, Virgil knows all about wood movement and how the advent of central heating puts stresses on furniture unknown before the twentieth century. He had to change some of the details on the serpentine front bureau to accommodate the 1/4″ the piece may expand and contract over a year.
“A similar piece made in the 18th century would have also been a lot rougher,” he noted., “Since we’re doing it as a hobby, we’ve taken woodworking to a different level … I hate to use the term but it’s more like a work of art today. The design and the wood grain have to complement each other, and we look for ways to make a piece stand out with as much figured wood as possible.”
Virgil has put that same care into all his pieces and still has everything he’s built over the past 10 years. In fact, with the exception of a sofa and upholstered chair, he built every piece of furniture in his house.
Most of them are in a simpler style than the serpentine because country and Shaker furniture let the wood speak for itself without a lot of embellishments.
“I pick a piece that will go with the wood,” Virgil explained.”And it can take a long time to figure out how to cut it to get the best yield or the best pattern. You may find that a piece with a nice figuring is better saved for a door front, and it would be a shame to cut in half just to make it fit somewhere. A few years ago, I saw a couple of 12′ mahogany boards at the wood supplier. One was 15″ wide and the other was 18″ wide, and I decided to buy them just to keep anyone else from cutting them up. I think I kept them in my garage for a year or so until I came up with something to build.
Storing all that wood has never been a problem. Friends have been real helpful storing his wood in barns and sheds and at one time, he had wood stored in three counties! Now it’s all pretty much stored in his shop in Versailles (pronounced vur-sales), Kentucky, which has taken up his entire garage for the past 14 years. And even though his wife has never been able to park a car in the garage, she’s been real supportive of his tool purchases … after all, she gets a houseful of beautiful furniture!
The online woodworking community, particularly at Woodcentral, has been another important source of support … and not just online!
“It’s remarkable the people I’ve met.” Virgil noted.”99% of woolworkers are glad to share their techniques. Lee Grindinger sent me a link that got me started when I first asked the forum about the serpentine design. Every February, a friend in Indianapolis has a get-together during the Woodworking Show. I’ve even stayed at Ellis Wallentine’s house during a trip to Maine a few years ago. And last summer, I posted a Woodcentral gathering at my house, and a dozen people from around the country, including Ellis, showed up.”
Virgil’s next project promises to combine woodworking with his other passion: whitewater canoeing! He’s planning to build a canoe this winter.
“I’ve already got a house full of furniture,” he declared, “so I’m going to make something for outside!”