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Johnson trades work with metal for hobby with wood

Jim Johnson, of Hillsboro, demonstrates the use of a lathe to chip away at a piece of wood to create a bowl. As the lathe turns, Johnson methodically uses a chisel to make a smooth cut.  S. Stewart photo
Jim Johnson, of Hillsboro, demonstrates the use of a lathe to chip away at a piece of wood to create a bowl. As the lathe turns, Johnson methodically uses a chisel to make a smooth cut. S. Stewart photo

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

Some hobbies are handed down, generation-to-generation, while some folks go out and actively seek them. Hillsboro resident Jim Johnson did the latter and after years of working with metal, he has finally found the time to do what he always wanted to do – woodturning.

“I’ve been a welder all my life,” he said. “I always wanted to turn wood but I’d never been taught. After I retired, I thought that was something I would get into.”

Johnson worked at the National Radio Astronomy Observatory from 1993 to 2007, first on the construction of the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, then later, as a general welder.

With the thought of learning woodturning ever present in his mind, Johnson was introduced to the West Virginia Woodturners Association and that got the ball running.

“Ruth Taylor’s the one that introduced me to the woodturners through the Pearl S. Buck Foundation,” he said. “Ruth took me to the first meeting that I went to. I was well impressed so I went ahead and joined. That’s where I got started woodturning.”

Taylor approached the association and asked members to make different products out of a mulberry tree that was on the Pearl Buck homestead. The association took some of the wood and made bowls, vases and other items which are sold at the Pearl Buck house.

Johnson said the association has helped him greatly with his new hobby by sharing design ideas and steering him toward the right tools of the trade.

“We meet in Lewisburg monthly and they are just a great bunch of guys who teach and promote woodturning,” he said. “If it hadn’t been for them, I wouldn’t be as far along as I am. Each month they have lessons on different things. I really enjoy the group.”

Although he started woodturning two years ago, Johnson considers himself a novice, mainly because he hasn’t spent two solid years on his work. Medical issues got in the way.

“I just got started a couple years ago,” he said. “At that point, I found out I had lung cancer, so last year was nothing. I had surgery and that pretty well took me out for the year. This year we did some traveling and so forth, so I’ve really not done much, yet. I’m getting ready to really concentrate on it.”

Setting out to begin a project, Johnson said sometimes you don’t always end up with what you initially envisioned. Sometimes, you have to follow the cue of the wood itself.

“Whatever appears in front of you when you start turning is what you end up with,” he said. “You may have an objective in mind of a large bowl, but you may get into that wood and its got flaws in it or something that you can’t work it, so whatever your imagination creates, you turn it.”

Planning and the right tools help to utilize every inch of the wood as possible, Johnson explained. He is waiting on a new tool, a coring system, which will help him work with unusual wood, mainly burls.

“This one is about two feet in diameter,” Johnson said of a burl. “I don’t want to cut it yet because if it’s uniquely shaped, you don’t want to throw it all away in chips. If you’ve got a piece you can get a fifteen inch bowl out of, why not cut a six inch bowl, an eight inch bowl and a ten inch bowl. You have to have what is called a coring system to do that.”

Johnson has a lot of pieces of wood squirreled away, just waiting to become a bowl, vase or jewelry box. Now that neighbors and friends know about his hobby, they are bringing him wood to work with.

“A lady out the road gave me a giant walnut tree about 42 inches in diameter,” he said. “Jim Burks is going to give me some osage orange. It’s native from out in Oklahoma but it grows in Pocahontas and Greenbrier counties. It’s a beautiful wood – real yellow when you first go into it, but then as it ages, it gets darker and darker, and it almost gets to a purple.”

“I’m putting all this wood away,” he continued. “It’s a process of getting your wood and getting it put away, keeping it where it doesn’t dry and crack on you. Some woods are real susceptible to drying and cracking.”

Through the association, Johnson has learned there are types of wood that do not work for woodturning because they are too soft.

“You can’t work with everything,” he said. “The tools want to pull the wood and it’s too soft. Walnut is a great wood to work with. The hardwoods seem to turn a lot better and smoother.”

Even with hardwood, it takes a long time for the wood to dry out enough to be turned. Through trial and error, Johnson has learned some secrets of speeding up the drying process. While most woodturners place the wood in a paper bag on a shelf and let it set there for months before it is usable, Johnson found another way to dry wood that works well for him.

“I came out here one day to turn something small and it was wet, but I wanted to finish it that evening, so I put it in the microwave,” he said. “You can put it in for seconds at a time and let it totally cool, and redo that. Do it slowly and you can dry it in one day – what it takes months on the shelf to do.”

While the microwave worked wonders, one valuable lesson he learned is the importance of having a separate microwave for wood drying.

“The first time I used the microwave, I used it in the house and caught a piece on fire,” he said, laughing. “That didn’t go over well. When [my wife] Mary came home, I had every fan in the house going. That cedar was really stinking.”

After that first incident, Johnson bought himself a microwave at a second hand store and keeps it in his workshop.

Johnson doesn’t think his work is ready to be sold, just yet, but he hopes one day to be on the same level as other members of the woodturners association.

“I compare my work to what these boys do, and I’m a novice, yet,” he said. “I hope to get there. I don’t want to put a cheap product out there.”

Whether his work will ever be good enough in his mind, Johnson will continue to turn because he likes it.
“I enjoy it,” he said. “It’s very interesting.”

A sample of Johnson’s work is on display this month at the Hillsboro Public Library.

Suzanne Stewart may be contacted at

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