Workshop gives new life to old wood

Business owner Aaron Johnston (left) laughs at something said by fellow craftsman Josh Wilson while creating a “story stick” for one of the credenzas being crafted. They typically have two story sticks, one horizontal and one vertical, for such pieces of furniture build projects. The sticks mark proper placement locations and measurements for shelves and drawers.

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. 

Aaron Johnston, owner of Gray Fox Design Works, carries what will become the top of credenza he helps construct. Although appearing as one solid piece, it is really two “bookmarked” pieces of wood, sourced from the same walnut tree. The two pieces of wood mirror each other in appearance.

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.” 

Craftsmen Josh Wilson and Philip Yoder work together to turn the credenza around so work can continue it.

As Johnston worked on that walnut credenza, craftsman Josh Wilson was busy at the neighboring workbench on another credenza — this one constructed from cherry.  

Craftsman Josh Wilson marks where to cut on a piece of wood that is to be added the credenza.

Cherry from the same tree also was the wood of choice for a dining table craftsman Philip Yoder has been working on. 

Craftsman Philip Yoder of Gray Fox Design Works shapes a leg for a table being constructed in the workshop of Gray Fox Design Works.

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.   

Aaron Johnston, owner of Gray Fox Design Works, crafts a credenza being crafted out of walnut taken from a walnut tree from Mole Hill, located west of Harrisonburg.

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.  

Business owner Aaron Johnston pulls a board from a barn where it has been stacked for drying. Drying of lumber can take a year or more, although the process can be accelerated by using a kiln.

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. 

The white building that houses Gray Fox Design Works at 1475 Switchboard Road was once a chicken house that was converted into a shop for working on cars before becoming woodworking workshop.

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.” 

A picnic table and bench seats crafted by Gray Fox Design Works.
Tongue-and-grove techniques were used in the construction of this chest crafted by Gray Fox Design Works.

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