Waterloo man makes furniture the old-fashioned way

Ryan Johnson often pauses as he carefully shapes each piece of wood for an item of furniture, checking carefully with a carpenter’s square. “If you don’t get wood square at the start, you are heading for a lot of trouble down the road,” he said. (Alan Dooley photo)

Mortise and tenon, or other intricate joints. Locally procured wood from area saw mills. Power tools, perhaps for initial cuts, but skilled, careful hand finishing to complete each piece that goes into a final finished item of furniture.

And nary a wood screw or nail in sight.

These are features that 2000 Waterloo High School graduate Ryan Johnson – one of only a handful of area furniture makers who adhere to old, tried and true methods – brings to his chosen craft.

Johnson, whose work was recently featured on PBS Channel 9, told how he arrived at this profession as one of his six children scampered under his feet, scooping up wood shavings and chips to fuel a wood burning stove in his workshop on Country Club Lane.

“I started at SWIC after I graduated from high school,” Johnson said. “I wanted to be a teacher.”

Not long after he finished his first two years, he met his future wife, Chrissy. When they decided to get married, Ryan said he realized he had to take immediate steps to put food on the table.

“I got my union qualification as a carpenter and went to work for my dad, building houses,” he said.

Johnson’s dad operated Buettner Construction, a longtime, family-owned home builder, at the time.

Johnson was also fascinated with crafting furniture with old fashioned, highest quality methods, too.

“I started for friends, then part-time, and with the downturn in house construction, I cast my lot with making furniture full-time three years ago,” he said.

Early efforts focused on reusing wood from demolished farm buildings. In fact, his company was called “Burning Barn Furniture.”

But Johnson has progressively turned away that source of wood.

“It’s time consuming,” he said. “Tearing down a barn is a real task, and not always a safe one. Also, people often value their barn as a building, where I envision it as a stack of lumber – the way it started out. And
they want a lot more money for it than I can get in return.”

So, Johnson – who has “rebranded” his business as R. L. Johnson & Sons – has turned more to locally sourced wood.

“I buy from local saw mills,” he said. “There are several in the area that turn the large logs you see on trucks into highest quality lumber.”

A large table in Johnson’s shop well demonstrates his methods.

A workshop just a short walk from his home is where you can find Ryan Johnson almost every day – all day. Here, he carefully crafts top quality furniture the old fashioned way. (Alan Dooley photo)

“A lady in Chesterfield asked if I could build her family what she termed a Mexican folk art dining table. It had to be custom built.”

At seven feet square, Johnson said the table would not fit through any doors in the family’s home. So, in addition to following her design wishes, he had to design it to be disassembled to deliver it.

Remember: he uses no screws and bolts, only interlocking wood joints. Johnson finally used puzzle-like joints derived from a Japanese furniture building method to achieve the desired result.

As Johnson worked on a piece of wood destined for the table, carefully smoothing it with a hand plane, he stopped often to check to ensure it was still precisely square.

“If you don’t get wood square at the start, you are heading for a lot of trouble down the road,” he admonished.

The table should be completed in a week or so, Johnson said.

Next up is a church pulpit.

Eventually, he wants to add a line of catalog furniture to his website.

“I want to offer ideas and be able to generate economies of scale – perhaps by simultaneously creating several sets of legs for tables that sell well,” he said. “Of course, I’ll offer custom details – like a
longer or wider table. But this will help people understand what I am about and to focus them on what they want.”

Johnson still has the creative itch as well.

“If they can envision it, I can build it,” he said. The “can you make that happen” challenge is obviously one he relishes.

Johnson admits he has none of his featured furniture in his nearby home, where his wife homeschools the children.

“I’m too busy building it for sale,” he said.

But, you can bet it will start finding its way into his home – there’s too much pride in each piece to let them all get away.

For more on Johnson’s craft, search for “RL Johnson & Sons Furniture Co.” on Facebook or visit www.rljandsons.com.

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Alan Dooley

Alan is a photojournalist -- he both shoots pictures and writes for the R-T. A 31-year Navy vet, he has lived worldwide, but with his wife Sherry, calls a rambling house south of Waterloo home. Alan counts astronomy as a hobby and is fascinated by just about everything scientific.
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