Ben Johnson isn’t saying his handmade furniture is going to change the world. But in sparking the bonds of community, keeping history in close reach and satisfying an ancient human drive to create, his pieces are working a little harder than your average end table.
Johnson, Scandia, makes custom furniture and décor under the moniker Wood that Could. He salvages materials from old barns, cast offs, forests and thrift shops. Once hauled home, he works each piece into something unique.
“If it’s an idea and I have the wood, I can make it,” he says. “Every single piece has a story to it. You put it together and it has a sentimental value. Hopefully we’re creating heirloom pieces that people will keep in their family. We want them to be around forever.”
A few years ago, Johnson never would have guessed he’d be making furniture, but his life took a turn when a friend asked for help making lamps.
“The real story probably begins with my friend, Paul Parson,” says Johnson. “Paul has always had an eye for wood. He started picking up driftwood and odd shaped wood pieces he thought had merit, and started making display pieces. Then he had the idea to make lamps out of them.
“People started asking about the pieces in his home, and Paul thought there might be a market for it. He sold a few pieces to friends, then started going to art shows to meet other woodworkers and sell products. Two summers ago he got to the point where he needed help, so I went up and made lamps with him.”
Parson and Johnson work with Stillwater artist Andy Voit, who fashions agates and pressed leaves into lampshades, to build the naturally ornate lamps from scratch, shaping and sanding each one by hand.
“We’re always looking for wood that’s highly featured,” says Johnson. “Most of the wood we get is from stumps or burled pieces. That gives it a desirable character, because the wood is growing back on itself and instead of a straight growth grain it looks gnarly and swirled. It’d really dense, hard wood.”
Working together, Parson and Johnson’s vision began to grow beyond lamps.
“A local guy was selling a barn, and we decided to buy it, tear it down, and see what we could do with the reclaimed wood,” says Johnson. "Now that’s gotten scaled up and we have wood contracts out west. We ship a lot of our wood out to the Reno-Tahoe area. They use it for new, high-end home construction.
“We like that it’s not only beautiful, but we’re saving trees from getting cut down. We’re reusing something that was going to get burned, thrown away or buried. A lot of farmers either take a match to their barn or have somebody remove it and it ends up in a landfill.”
Johnson still works with Parson, but has branched off to do his own work through Wood that Could, involving more Scandia residents along the way.
Kelli Carlson, who works for a bank but plays a supporting role in the business, helped make items to sell at Taco Daze.
“I stamped wood with Dala horses,” she says. “The Dala horses, of course, are significant and we also told the story of each piece of wood. … It’s fun to do something creative instead of working with compliance and legal on banking operations. It helped me come back to my work with a whole new lens.”
Johnson has begun to experiment mixing metal and wood, working in part with Carlson’s father, a hobby welder.
“It’s fun to get everybody involved, but also to salvage and create something new,” says Carlson. “You harvest these resources from all around to make something of your own. And that’s where ‘Wood that Could’ came from. There’s the possibility that it could be something people treasure and want to share.”
Reclaiming wood has helped Johnson and Carlson meet others in the community.
“You start talking about reclaiming wood and all of a sudden you’re having a conversation with someone across the room, who you didn’t know,” says Johnson.
It also fosters a link to the past.
“If we’re losing our heritage everyday – because of technology and the way everything changes so fast – the wood becomes part of an oral tradition,” says Johnson. “Some of our essential needs are getting bulldozed in the name of progress. I think you have to rediscover those and do what you can to carry that on.”
As a project, Johnson hopes Wood that Could will bring people back to that essential need of community, of preserving and having respect for the past.
For Johnson and Carlson, the work itself can be satisfying.
“When you sand, you see the different grains and, I don’t know, it just calls up on something,” she says sweeping the air near the side of her head. “It’s meditative.”
“Like any kind of artist,” says Johnson, “you’re removing yourself from your everyday life and getting into a creative environment with your mind. Your focus changes and you’re just at a task. It’s so peaceful to get out there and sand wood, because you’re focused on that one thing, nothing else matters, and then you’re done.
“When you live in a regimented world where everything is structured and there are so many rules,” he continues, “to get away from that, you have a bowl that gets filled with this spirit. I’m creating, and making things in the image of the way I want the world to be.
“It’s a small thing, a piece of furniture, I get that. But if you attach ideas, you can change things that are bigger.”