The man behind the frames
By Christy Johnson, founder & CEO of United Goods
You may not know, but my dad Jeff makes the wee wood frames that finish off my State Icon landmark prints. I sat down with him recently to hear his side of our operation, and learn what led him to where he is today (we had really never talked about it in depth, believe it or not!).
Hey Dad! Tell us how it all began.
I grew up in southern Minnesota with my parents, two older sisters, and younger brother. My father was a World War II Navy veteran and grew up during the Great Depression. He worked with his dad, who never wanted to pay anyone to fix or repair things he felt they could fix themselves. So, when I was young and tagged along with my dad, I learned lots of skills, and he let me try all kinds of things. If I made a mistake, he let me, and then together we’d fix them. Making mistakes is how you learn, and it’s also a way to get better at what you do. Now that my dad is gone, when I need help solving a problem, I rely on the knowledge he taught me, the internet, and my friends.
Is tinkering alongside Papa—er, your dad—what got you interested in woodworking?
Yeah. We mostly did repairs, improvements, or upgrades to our house. But I also made line-controlled model airplanes, crashed them—not on purpose—and rebuilt them. I took Wood Shop classes in high school, and made some things for my parents’ house. I’ve always loved working with wood, but high school, college, and life just got in the way of me pursuing it more. Until I retired.
What are your fave things to make?
My favorite things to make are items I find challenging, or are made in a way that’s totally different than expected. I started out taking on short production products, and quickly learned that’s not what I wanted to do. Now I have about four regular clients I continue to make the same product for. One of them is United Goods, for whom I’ve cut more than 15,000 frames in the last eight years! I’m dedicated to these clients and will work with them as long as I can still fill their orders.
What would you say is your specialty?
Making things that others don’t want to, can’t do, or have no idea how to. One-of-a-kind, “impossible-to-make,” time-consuming, and unique items are what I really like. Wood projects that also include copper, leather, epoxy, glass, or aluminum, or that have ornate carvings or lathe work. I tell my clients, “Whatever you can dream, I can make.” Do I personally have all of these skills? No. But, I know people who do, and together we can complete any project.
Tell us about some jobs you've done recently.
I’ve worked with others to make custom dashboards and glove boxes for antique cars. I also recently made grips for muzzle loading pistols made out of exotic woods and a custom workbench, and I engraved a child’s name on a crib and added stars to an American flag display. Oh! And I recently made appliqué replacements for a 200-year-old rocking chair, display pieces for local artists, and 3D carvings for a fireplace.
What have been some of your favorite jobs?
The most enjoyable projects I’ve done in the last eight years are the ones I don’t get a single dollar for. I’ve carved house number plaques, cottage signs, burial urn boxes, game boards, Boy and Girl Scout derby race car bodies, and many, many other things for neighbors, family, or people who just get my name from someone else. And I do it for nothing. Yes, I’m proud of the work I get paid for, but these little jobs help me feel like I’m giving back.
What's your favorite tool to use and why?
Since I started, I’ve invested all of my profits into improving the quantity and quality of the tools for my business. I sold my first small CNC router and replaced it with a much larger industrial machine, and added incredible hand tools and other power tools that make my day go smoother. The satisfaction of cutting a piece of wood and getting a straight, true, clean edge is a wonderful thing.
Talk about the work you do for United Goods!
This is the easiest question. My wife Kathy and I make frames for United Goods' art. We started making the frames years ago with four pieces of wood glued together. Now the frames are cut on our CNC. The material is purchased, planed flat, cut to “blanks,” and then cut on the CNC to the frame size. Then they’re sanded, primed, and hand painted by Kathy before I give them to you with the recycled glass and backs. We handle each frame many times during the process, even though we’re using upgraded equipment compared to the early days. Every frame is handled with care before it’s wrapped and delivered. Then they’re ready for you to nail on the hangers and install the artwork.
How do you do all of this in your small shop, a.k.a. your two-car garage?
When I started, my plan was to go big. But after two years of working myself to exhaustion, I realized that rather than building an empire, I preferred taking on fun and challenging projects that help people.
I also love the short commute to my shop, where I can be close to my wife and also wear my PJs and slippers if I want to. My shop is like a big puzzle, where everything has a place and everything is on wheels. That way, I can get the car inside at the end of the day! It’s also a work in progress, and I’m constantly building newer, more efficient cabinets and drawers for my tools, and eliminating tools, etc., to make the space more efficient.
What has changed since you began?
Like I said, when I started taking woodworking seriously, my dream was to expand. I wanted to have employees and a place where I could schmooze with clients, teach my staff, produce work, build the company, and share the profits with my team. After experiencing burnout after the first two years, I realized I’d already done this in my 9-to-5 career, working as Director of Asia Pacific Customer Service. So I chose to slow things down. Since then, I’ve really enjoyed helping people, doing repair work in my neighborhood, teaching CNC router classes, training other woodworkers, and working with my wife to upgrade our house and landscape. And when I want to, just being able to sit on the deck on a nice day and read a book.
What’s the plan for the next few years?
I’m pushing 70, and have worked since I was 16. My dad gave me the drive to do the best I can, and I’ve lived that purpose all my life. He also said, “Son, if someone gives you the chance to do something you’ve never done before, do it.” I’ve followed that advice, and have succeeded because of it.
Thank you so much for the interview. What an awesome and talented guy your father is! Just amazed at the projects he has done. What a great idea to tell his story! Thanks!
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