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Born as an Arctic hobby, wood-turning business thrives on Kenai Peninsula

Megan Edge
A sign outside the Three Guys No Wood woodworking studio in Soldotna hints at the activities inside. Paul Johnson and his partner chose the name because they began their woodworking activities on the treeless North Slope of Alaska. August 1, 2014.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Woodworker Paul Johnson coaches Homer resident Rose Marie Daly on wood turning technique at Johnson’s Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. Johnson offers wood turning classes as well as sells finished pieces he and his partner make.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Woodworker Paul Johnson demonstrates how to sand a wooden bowl during a class at his Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. Johnson offers wood turning classes as well as sells finished pieces he and his partner make.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Woodworker Paul Johnson demonstrates how to sand a wooden bowl during a class at his Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. Johnson offers wood turning classes as well as sells finished pieces he and his partner make.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Homer resident Dave Daly varnishes his first wooden bowl during a class at Paul Johnson’s Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. Johnson offers wood turning classes as well as sells finished pieces he and his partner make.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Students Rose Marie Daly, left, and Henri Callewaert take a break during a wood turning class at Paul Johnson’s Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. In the foreground are some of the tools used to carve the wood.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Woodworker Paul Johnson shows students a decorative block he is preparing for a bowl during a break in a class in his Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. Johnson offers wood turning classes as well as sells finished pieces he and his partner make.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Woodworker Paul Johnson shows Dave Daly and other students how to prepare the base of a wooden bowl during a class at his Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. Johnson offers wood turning classes as well as sells finished pieces he and his partner make.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Student Dave Daly carves the base of his first bowl during a class at Paul Johnson’s Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. Johnson offers wood turning classes as well as sells finished pieces he and his partner make.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News
Nearly finished bowls lie in various stages of completion in Paul Johnson’s Soldotna studio on August 1, 2014. Johnson offers wood turning classes as well as sells finished pieces he and his partner make.
Loren Holmes / Alaska Dispatch News

Mixed in with the grocery stores, gas stations and fishing tackle supply shops that line the Sterling Highway as it runs through the town of Soldotna is a 5-foot-2-inch-tall, hand-turned wooden bowl. It is the sign that you've arrived at Three Guys No Wood, where more than 500 bowls are created each year -- and where these days, its owners even consider their business to be "profitable."

"It's paying for itself," said Paul Johnson, dressed in a forest green shop coat. "Both columns say zero." His wife, Shanna Johnson, added that not operating in the red is a good development and a "new thing."

The couple say they've advertised "tons of different ways," but besides word of mouth, their most effective marketing tool has been the oversized bowl, which took three weeks to complete and now rests along Mile 100 of the highway. They said it "intrigues" people -- visitors and locals alike.

"Most of our business is open during the summer when all of the tourists are here, so we are going to see more tourists, but people come from all over the world. Germany, Australia, England -- you name it -- we have had all of them come through this door," said Paul Johnson.

Three Guys No Wood opened its doors in Soldotna four summers ago, but it has come a long way -- geographically. The idea originated in the Arctic community of Barrow, where the Johnsons were living and working as teachers.

Paul Johnson said the hobby of wood turning started as a "Saturday boys' club." And it was a bit of an undertaking. "Everything had to be shipped. The closest tree was, like, 800 miles away," he said. The North Slope's climate wasn't friendly to imported wood, either. "After it (was) there for a little while and it would drop down to 1 percent humidity, it was like turning concrete."

And that is also where the name originated. According to Paul Johnson, they were just three or four guys with a passion for a hobby not suited for the harsh Arctic climate.

Now, each summer, when fish and tourists drive the local economy, the shop operates six days a week. During the school year, hours are limited to Saturdays only, as the Johnsons still teach full time. Operating out of what was once a model log home, the "three guys" sell the practical works of art they make, as well as teach the trade of wood turning to Alaskans and tourists alike.

This year, by the end of July, the Kenai Peninsula classroom and shop had been the site of 27 wood turning classes. Some only had one student, while others had the maximum of six.

At first Paul wanted to open a restaurant, Shanna said, an idea she nixed, but then he decided he wanted a bowl shop.

"I told my wife it would cost less to buy the wood because we wouldn't be shipping it (to Barrow), but she didn't know I would be buying 10 times as much," he said.

On this particular Friday, three Alaskans were hard at work, dressed in forest green jackets that matched their instructors'. All three of them were taking the basic level wood turning class, working with seasoned green Alaska birch.

Seventy-four-year-old Rose Marie Daly sighed, the sound interrupting the whirring of the machine at her work station. "He wouldn't let me do it on the left-hand side," Daly said.

"There is no left-handed side," Paul Johnson responded with a chuckle.

"I know. I know," she said.

Homer resident Daly was, more than anything, along for the ride. It was her husband, Dave Daly, who was "really fired up" about learning the woodworking craft.

"It's just one of those things on your bucket list," said Dave Daly, who looked intently at his bowl while he spoke. "Maybe you would like to do (it) one day. I'm getting old enough that you just gotta do those things before it's too late."

Students in the small but friendly class, each of whom paid $75 for the half-day experience, began working on their bowls at 9 a.m. and wrapped up for the day at about 12:30. But they left with homework: They needed to leave their bowls wrapped up to slowly dry. They will add additional finish coats during that time period.

Each of the bowls created in the workshop is "100 percent" food safe, Paul Johnson said. And the oils in foods like popcorn, potato chips and nuts are actually good for the wood.

"Oh, I can take it to the movie!" Rose Marie Daly said. "If you take a bowl to the movie they fill it up for a certain price, no matter how big your bowl is."

The log cabin turned wood shop is Paul Johnson's "personal zen box." He said in a couple of years, when he is able to retire from teaching, it will be his full-time gig. For right now, molding young minds and teaching his craft is too much to handle all at once.

"I'd be exhausted," he said.

Johnson wants to have fun with his businesses, he said; it's just a retirement plan that can turn a little green.

"I guess, having a machine shop background, I always felt really restrained being locked into that x-y-z axis, and so wood turning allows me to use all of the same principles," he said, "but I have the freedom to push the wood or tools around in any direction I want to push them."