Hammering it Home: Fourth-generation woodworker Greg Johnson crafts small business success

By Karen Hendricks

Greg Johnson’s first project, as he was launching his woodworking business, was for his dog.

He crafted a little wooden holder for Sabache’s food and water dishes. And as the glossy black dog lapped up his water, one of the characteristics of his breed—Chow Chow—was on full display: his spotted tongue.

And that’s how, two years ago, Spotted Tongue Woodworking was born.

Johnson’s vision? To offer handcrafted, fine furniture and custom cabinets—wooden pieces that are both detailed and enduring.

“I think everyone understands that what you buy at a big box store is going to be lower quality—it’s expedient, and they don’t expect it to last,” Johnson said. “In order for something to last, it has to be made—not just made, but crafted and custom-made.”

And so far, he’s customized a lot. From tables and chairs to vanities, built-in cabinets, a couple of kitchens, and even “a project totally out of left field”—a piano. More about that in a moment.

“I enjoy the diversity of projects—it’s good to mix it up and have a change of pace,” said Johnson, 31, of Mechanicsburg, gesturing toward the custom bathroom vanities he’s currently building for a couple—a husband who’s tall and a wife who, well, isn’t.

Heritage with a Hammer

Johnson laughed at the idea that woodworking is in his genes.

“The Johnson gene is more about being worried about every little detail,” he said. “But on both sides of my family, there is a very strong tradition of woodworking and craftsmanship.”

His Swedish great-grandfather became a well-known New York City cabinetmaker who hand-built pieces for the Pentagon and Smithsonian. Johnson’s grandfather was an English teacher who spent his summers as a woodworker, even building two motorboats and a camper from scratch. His dad became a contractor with an eye for detail.

Then there’s his maternal great-grandfather. A Queens firefighter, he built his Long Island home from reclaimed materials. In the backyard? A hydroponic garden powered by a washing machine.

“Looking back, I realize how incredible they all were,” said Johnson, whose own journey toward woodworking was a winding path.

From Words to Wood

An English major in college, Johnson became a local English teacher (also like one of his grandfathers) for two years.

Running is another one of Johnson’s talents. He’s coached track and cross-country and worked at an area running store. He entered his first marathon—the 2016 Harrisburg Marathon—and won. It’s a feat he repeated in 2017. One summer, he biked 4,500 miles across the country with a couple college friends to raise money for a ministry.

Johnson began pursuing grad studies in exercise science, but had a change of heart, and he also worked with his father as a contractor. When the pandemic hit, Johnson’s wife continued working as a kindergarten music teacher, while he transitioned into a full-time dad and childcare role for their young son.

“When he would take a nap, I started doing projects around the house, collecting tools, and that helped keep me sane,” said Johnson, whose woodworking side hustle took off through word-of-mouth.

Tinkering around in his garage and driveway, Johnson’s talents caught the eye of his mailman, who offered Johnson the use of his woodworking shop, appropriately nestled in the woods. It’s now home base for Spotted Tongue Woodworking and where Johnson reports to work every day as a fourth-generation woodworker.

“He’s a visionary,” said Julia Paladina of Mechanicsburg, who met Johnson through the Harrisburg-area running community and hired him to create a custom kitchen table for her family of six.

“We never had a table that would last or look good,” said Paladina. But the custom white oak table—with seating for 10—that Johnson created “is an art piece—a conversation piece that will definitely become a family heirloom.”

A Grand Idea

HACC music teacher Carole Knisely already had a family heirloom on her hands—a baby grand piano that had outlived its usefulness. She held onto it, nostalgically, and envisioned something even grander.

“My sister-in-law sent me a picture of how to turn it into a bookshelf, and I fell in love with it right away,” said Knisely. “Then, as it turns out, I was biking in my neighborhood, when I saw my neighbor Greg doing woodworking, and I realized a carpenter lived right down the street.”

The rest was history. Almost exactly 100 years after the piano’s manufacturing date of 1922, Johnson delivered it to her home, transformed into a bookshelf.

“It was a challenge, adding cross-braces and figuring out the shapes, angles and curves that preserved the piano while adding shelves,” said Johnson, who gutted the piano’s inner workings, while preserving the ebony and ivory keyboard as the bookcase’s edge.

He had to delay working on the piano until he had space in the workshop. Then, as the project got underway, life intervened. His wife went into labor with their third child, and the Johnsons became a family of five. Laughing, Johnson described how he completed the piano project, in between running home to take care of his young family.

“He works from the heart,” Knisely said. “I’m absolutely thrilled, because when I look at the piano, I see the love of my parents to give it to us, the joy of all those memories playing it for family Christmas gatherings, and now it’s a lovely heirloom to pass down.”

Johnson credits his wife with being “the primary breadwinner” so that he can “pursue his dreams.” And one of the biggest and best confirmations that Johnson has taken the right path in life recently came from the couple’s 3-year-old son.

“When Emerson says, ‘Daddy can fix it,’ it means he understands what I do for a living,” Johnson said. “And that is the most incredible thing.”

For more information on Spotted Tongue Woodworking, visit spottedtonguewoodworking.net. To see Johnson’s videos and photos of the grand piano transformation, along with other projects, check his Facebook, Instagram and YouTube channels.

“Hammering it Home” published in the April 2023 issue of TheBurg, here.

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