Story and photos by Mike Tripp, contributor
Aaron Johnston, owner of Gray Fox Design Works, eyed where to precisely mark the wood on the walnut board that would soon become part of a credenza.
The piece was one of three furniture projects under construction inside Gray Fox’s Harrisonburg workshop on Wednesday.
With the measurements finished, Johnston retrieved a massive stretch of wood and carried it to his bench to begin making it into the top for the piece.
“This wood is from over on Mole Hill, actually,” Johnston said.
The wood appeared to be one solid piece, but it actually was two book-matched boards.
“So, in the tree, these two pieces were right next to each other, and so they are just sort of like mirror images of each other which is quite fun,” he explained.
This attention to detail is at the heart of Gray Fox’s creations.
“Right now, we’re kind of doing some furniture pieces,” he said. “Sort of doing the final touches, final sanding … final shaping.”
As Johnston worked on that walnut credenza, craftsman Josh Wilson was busy at the neighboring workbench on another credenza — this one constructed from cherry.
Cherry from the same tree also was the wood of choice for a dining table craftsman Philip Yoder has been working on.
Although the business has been around for about nine years, Johnston’s experience in workshops dates back to his childhood when he was drawn to a neighbor’s workshop.
“And I think I was very curious of all the tools and stuff he had,” he said. “I was like 13 or 14 and was like … ‘Hey, what’s going on? What are you doing with that?’”
The neighbor took him under his wing, letting the youngster first sweep floors and then later create projects. He served there as a woodworker throughout his time high school and college.
Since then, he has soaked up whatever tricks of the trade other masters of the craft would share and studied other creations for inspiration.
“Anytime I’m at an antique store or in someone’s house, I’m always like crawling on the floor underneath of like their dining room table to figure out how someone made the piece … or like flipping chairs upside down to look at his it was put together,” he said.
He developed a style that blends old-world craftsmanship with modern design.
The most unique piece he’s made?
“We made a D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) gaming table last year that incorporated a gaming surface that was on a lift,” he said. “It had a dining room tabletop that you would take off, and then you could crank up the gaming surface.”
The gaming surface is a place where the dungeon master could create the adventuring realm through which the player’s characters would embark on their campaign. A mechanical cranking lift mechanism allowed the gaming surface to raise when being played and lowered when not in use while protecting the unfinished game within.
Despite the cold outside, a woodstove near the workshop’s back corner keeps it cozy. And next to an old-style coffee pot, citrus steams in a pot, bringing a sweet smell to the space. The sound of power equipment comes and goes.
As Johnston runs his fingers across the wood, it’s as if he’s breathing new life into it. It’s wood that might have otherwise ended up as firewood or mulch.
“Both these trees (walnut and cherry) came from within a 50-mile radius of Harrisonburg,” Johnston said. “We get a lot of lumber that way … from local sawmills or from clients that have a tree in their yard that they want to make something out of.”
Journalism is changing, and that’s why The Citizen is here. We’re independent. We’re local. We pay our contributors, and the money you give goes directly to the reporting. No overhead. No printing costs. Just facts, stories and context. We’re also a proud member of the Virginia Press Association. Thanks for your support.