by Kristina Domitrovich // photos by Lindsay Pace Daffron
A lot has changed in one year for John James, an accountant by day, carpenter come nightfall and weekends. A year ago, he signed up for a carpentry class; now, he and his brother create various designs and mark them with their James Woodcraft Company branding iron.
A little over a year ago, John took an adult’s night class on carpentry through his community’s Alcorn Vocational Technical Center. Taught by Tim Bradley, the course was held in a local woodshop the school district uses, and the course “teaches you individual things you ask to learn to make,” John explained.
The first time he took the course, he made a table and an elevated dog dish for his and his wife’s dog, Poppy. He would later take the class again, that time with his brother Jed, to perfect his technique. The two created a company, titled after their family’s name, James Woodcraft Company.
The brothers divide the work. Jed, who also has a family of his own, occasionally takes on larger commission pieces like coffee tables, while John keeps the brand stocked with customers’ favorites like cutting boards, coasters and bar boards – small boards created with mixology in mind.
How it all started
Last year, John and his wife Virginia Boyd attended multiple weddings. Instead of ordering a wooden cutting board from each couple’s registry, they decided to gift John’s handmade boards to the newlyweds. He found this to be a more personal, customized gesture.
“If I give someone a cutting board from William Sonoma for Christmas or for their wedding, that’s a good gift and all, but it doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Now, when I give them something that has the James Woodcraft stamp on it, they’re like, ‘OK, well he actually took the time to make this for me.’ So, that’s what I like about it.”
From there, word of mouth spiraled custom-made orders out of control.
“People just kept wanting them,” he said.
When his friend in Jackson, Mississippi, approached him and asked for 25 boards to give as groomsmen’s gifts, John agreed. An attendee at that wedding saw the boards, and asked John to make another 25 so he could gift them to the groomsmen at his wedding, too.
“That’s kind of where it all started,” John said.
Until this point, John did not own any equipment, so he regularly went to the carpentry class’ woodshop to do his work. When the orders flooded in, he decided to invest in his own supplies and equipment. Through Facebook, he bought a truckload of mahogany, and came across scattered locals selling off walnut, maple and other woods. John said he still uses this method of acquiring wood, in addition to ordering specific planks. Not only does it keep wood from going to waste, but he can buy it for a fractioned cost, helping to keep his finished pieces affordable. James Woodcraft Company will upcycle its wood when it can. Most of the scrap wood from full-sized cutting boards is reused for coasters and bar boards, letting nothing go to waste.
Inspiration and fulfillment
Though his passion for woodworking has sprouted in the past year, John discovered a community. He finds inspiration for woodworking through various outlets, such as Instagram.
“I didn’t know that there was this woodworking community out there. So I can look and follow people’s hashtags and see what other kind of boards they’re making, whether they’re in California or Washington or wherever,” he said. “Just to kind of say, ‘OK, well that’s how they’re doing it; let me try to make things like that.’”
But perhaps more than social media, John found inspiration in a local woodworker, Floyd Newton. Newton is an elderly carpenter in retirement, who does the craft for fun. John and Virginia Boyd have commissioned him several times to build various home furnishings.
“That’s part of why I like this (work) so much. This table, that island and the coffee table mean so much to me because somebody in town made it – that took time to do it. And so I was like, ‘I can do that in a different way,’” he said.
Newton has made the couple’s bedside tables, kitchen table and several other furnishings. The couple said the pieces are always one of a kind and quirky, which they appreciate. In fact, individuality is something John treasures and tries to emulate in his own work. So while he works on products in batches, no two pieces will look the same unless it’s upon a customer’s request.
“I try to make three of them that are the same, but they’re all for the same person,” John said. “I’m not going to make three of them and give them to three different people.”
At the start of James Woodcraft Company, John would typically go to the workshop on weekdays when he got off work. This changed however, partly because he bought his own equipment to keep in his garage, but also because he and Virginia Boyd had their first child, a baby girl named Campbell. Since Campbell’s arrival, instead of weeknights, John devotes his Saturday mornings to woodworking. He said he is always eager to get to work, and can barely finish a cup of coffee before he goes out to his garage to start working. He credits part of the thrill to holding a finished product.
“I can actually make something and have it completed. That gives that creative side of me that fulfillment of, ‘I’ve made this, I’ve accomplished something – I can move on to do something else,’” he said. “I think that’s why I enjoy it more than anything, you can see a completed project.”
Community moving forward
While he is passionate about his craft, John doubts they will ever open a storefront. Jed devotes a few months per commission, and John focuses on keeping the booth at Ann’s of Corinth stocked. John said he finds joy creating pieces to give as personal gifts, commission pieces or their soon-to-be Etsy shop. John likes the idea that because of his choice to keep it a personal business, he is able to connect with his customers and community. In fact, he’s become rather connected with his community of Corinth.
The James brothers grew up in Corinth, and returned home after college. The Alliance of Corinth gives John’s coasters to new businesses looking to open in the area as evidence of how businesses can grow and thrive in Corinth. Other businesses and customers will reach out to John with specific requirements in mind. He said he loves the challenge of figuring out the design and what will best serve the customer.
One local customer enjoys smoking Boston butts, and asked John to make a particularly large cutting board with juice grooves that collect the meat’s juice in a “trough,” that can be collected to use later. John has just taken on another commission piece for his and his wife’s favorite diner they frequent every Friday for breakfast, Abe’s Grill. This piece will be very specific in order to fit the restaurant’s needs, as it will attach to the diner’s griddle. The depth will be different on either side of the board, along with the width of the piece. John said the challenge will be fun, but he had to write it all down before he tried to execute it.
“I’m a numbers guy, so I have to know the numbers of where everything (is) before I start. I’m not an engineer, so I don’t use CAD or anything like that, I just write it down,” he said with a laugh.
It’s hard to believe this business took off in a year, but it’s even harder to believe John first learned the craft and how to make boards in the same timeframe. While it’s a new-found passion, John said he never plans to slow down.
“It’s just fun, and I think it’s fun to have a hobby outside of work,” he said. “I think it would be great to be 80 years old and still doing this, just so I’m not just sitting around and I actually am doing something that I’m passionate about.”