The Internet Craftsmanship Museum Presents:

Clayton Johnson

Added to museum: 1/30/14

A model of an ornate wooden ship brings out a talent for carving

Clayton Johnson poses next to his 1/50th scale model of the Swedish warship Vasa. (Click on above photo for larger picture.) More photos of Mr. Johnson's work can be found in the photo section at the bottom of this article.


Clayton Johnson sent us a link to photos of his work on his web page. We felt the historical research and quality ship model building that went into his projects were worthy of the attention of anyone interested in this type of craftsmanship. In 2005 he started on a model of a Swedish warship that sunk in 1628. The Vasa represents one of the most powerful ship built in an era where warships of this type were not at all plain. The basic shapes were artful, but almost every post and vacant space on the ship was a place that could be decorated with carved figures.  It turned out that he picked the perfect ship building project for to bring out his talent as a wood carver.

This particular ship had a tragic history, sinking in Stockholm harbor on its maiden voyage, a victim of instability in an era when scientific naval construction theories were not yet very refined. However, it sunk in protected waters and the silt on the bottom of the harbor and water too cold and not salty enough for wood-eating organisims protected the sunken hull for centuries until it was raised and restored starting in the 1960's. The original ship is now on display in a beautiful museum in Stockholm and receives over 1 million visitors a year. Clayton has built several models of the Vasa: a 1/144th scale model of it on the bottom of the harbor with a salvage barge in place to recover valuable items from the sunken ship, a 1/50th scale model of the ship itself and he has contributed cannons and associated block and tackle for the 1/10th scale model that graces the museum itself in Stockholm. His historical research on how the ship was originally built and his accurate models have been consulted by museum reasearch staff, and he is now an honored guest whenever visiting the museum.

His interests also run to making vintage black powder rifles and doing ornate wood carving of all kinds. His carving style includes animals, fish and ornate interwoven designs in the Moorish and Norse styles.

A detail of the deck of the 1:50 scale Vasa ship model. (Click on photo to view a larger image.)

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I was born in September of 1979 at the Portsmouth Naval hospital in the U.S. state of Virginia to a stay-at-home mother and a father who was an enlisted man in the U.S. Navy at the time. When I was very young my father was discharged from the service and they moved back to my mother's hometown of Wrenshall, in northern Minnesota, near Duluth. My father’s dad was in the U.S. Navy as well, so there were always books laying around that were nautical in nature. One of these books was a compilation of nautically related National Geographic articles and one of the articles was on the Swedish warship Vasa.

Hard work on the family farm

My parents had two more children, both girls, and started something of a hobby farm, even though they took it very seriously, near Wrenshall. They farmed partially in a very old fashioned way; with draft horses and turn of the 19th to 20th century or older farm equipment. It was much like the Amish live now. All the while my father held down a job as a boiler operator/mechanic at a nearby waste water treatment facility. Most times we basically had nothing in terms of money, largely because of my parents’ heavy investments in their farm. One thing that my parents did teach me, however, was how to work, even though I always thought that some of the things that they chose to put their efforts into were quite low in benefit return considering the incredibly physically hard work and massive amounts of time involved.

College education leads to good job opportunities

I received my high school education at Wrenshall High School. It was a very small institution with grades K-12 in the same basic building and an average class size was something around 25 to 35 students. During my senior year I elected to use the PSEO (Post Secondary Enrollment Option) which was an option for motivated high school students to go to college early on the state’s dime. For this I went to a local community college in a nearby town called Cloquet. (FDLTCC)

While I was at the community college I got involved in work study with the environmental department. This eventually led to a regular Federal job as a Soil Conservationist Trainee with the USDA-NRCS for a summer. While still attending the community college at age 19 I ended up landing a $25,000 scholarship agreement with the USDA-NRCS that would pay for the rest of my school if I focused my studies on soil science, and which guaranteed me a job with the Federal government in soil survey (one of the natural resources inventory branches of the USDA-NRCS) when I was done with school for as many years as they paid for my school. 

Even though I was only 19 at the time, I saw it as an incredibly good deal. Especially considering that I did not come from a family with means. I saw it as an opportunity that I would probably never see the likes of again, so I happily took it. At about the same time my father was getting very ill and so I also saw that I needed to reduce my dependence on my family as much and as soon as possible. Further, I found this field of study more and more interesting as I got into it.

I continued at the community college in Cloquet until most of my generals were complete and I had received an Associates in Science degree in 2000.

Graduating, meeting a wife and starting a first job

While at the University of Minnesota I met my future wife Amy in an elective class that neither of us really needed to take, and our relationship started partially because of the prodding of a sorority girl who thought we should date. I graduated from the University of Minnesota in 2002, earning an environmental science degree with a minor in soils. 

I started my work as a mapper in St. Louis County, Minnesota (out of an office in Duluth) and continued that work for 5 years. It was very interesting, but both mentally and physically challenging due to the fact that in that job one is required to get into places in the woods that not many people go to, and make decisions based on landforms, geology, and soils at the same time.  I married Amy in 2004 and we have been together since. While we lived in Duluth Amy successfully pursued a career as a Surgical Technician, a profession in which she still works.  In late 2007 I got promoted to project leader in Pine County, Minnesota. I spent about two years in Pine and all the while was amazed at the geological variability in the surficial glacial deposits there. It is an area of a little less than 1 million acres (which is small compared to the approx. 5 million of St. Louis) and contains examples of most glacial landforms that can be found in northern Minnesota. While Pine was interesting, there wasn't much there for people/industry etc. and Amy had a hard time finding employment. So, in 2010 I applied for an MLRA leader job (Major Land Resource Area) in Albert Lea, Minnesota. This was another promotion and a job that I would likely have in that location for a long, long time, if not the rest of my career.

Ship model leads to association with museum

Besides my exploits in my career, another set of achievements that I have been very proud of are my hobbies. In 2005 I began work on a miniature representation of the Swedish warship Vasa. This project lasted until August of 2012 and has received the praise of the Director of Research at the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden as the most accurate in the world. It has been displayed at the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis and Gustavus Adolphus college in St. Peter, Minnesota. Some preliminary talk has occurred on the subject of displaying it at the Vasa museum.

Ship project provides an introduction to working with wood

Because of my Vasa project, I found I could carve sculpture in wood and have completed some large pieces. Some of them include a couple of half to full scale Vasa sculptures, a sculpture of the warhorse of Gustavus Adolphus, some necklace pendants, decorative spoons and others.

I have found that I also enjoy building historic firearms. My first was a British Baker rifle, which was the first government issued military rifle in history, and used by the British army from 1800 until the late 1830's. Another that I have done is a matchlock musket that I built after one from Vasa and carved my own stock for. We now have a son, and I also enjoy making wooden toys for him in addition to my other projects.

—Clayton Johnson

Clayton Johnson's Woodshop

(Click on either photo to enlarge image.)

All of these items can be seen on this site at as well as his site at

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Here are photos of some of Clayton Johnson's projects:

Click any photo to view a larger image. All photos courtesy of Clayton Johnson.

The Swedish Warship Vasa Model (1/50 scale)

The finished and rigged 1/50th scale model of the Vasa was built just like the real ship. In fact, the museum in Sweden referenced Clayton Johnson's model to better understand the ship's construction.
These photos show some details of the deck and rigging as well as the intricately carved decoration on the stern. This ship model project took eight years to complete.
Here is the hull early in the construction.
Later in the construction stage, the upper deck is being applied. The lower gun decks are also fully represented in detail inside the model.
Details show the stern carvings and the cannons in place and the masts raised.

Over 29 million people have visited the Vasa Museum in Stockholm.

The real ship

These photos show the actual full-size restored ship in the Vasa Museum in Stockholm, Sweden. The ship features many ornamental carvings that were faithfully reproduced in miniature by Clayton Johnson on his models.

The final two photos show the real Vasa during the restoration process in its original building in 1973. All wood on the ship was treated for years with polyethylene glycol to replace the salt water to keep the wood from rotting. The final photo shows the decorative carvings on the stern laid out on the museum floor, as the ship was not yet restored to the point where they could be applied. The smaller parts were treated in vats of liquid preservative and were thus available for display before the whole ship was done. The complete ship is now on display. (Libuse photos)

These photos show how Clayton went about the construction of the longboat found along with the Vasa.

The Vasa Salvage Operation Model (1/144 scale)

The real Vasa sunk on it's maiden voyage in 1628. As it left the harbor in Stockholm, a gust of wind tilted the ship and it took on water through its gun ports, sinking to the bottom of the harbor. A top-heavy design and insufficient ballast were to blame. A roll test was performed in port before the sailing, but orders from King Gustavus Adolphus sent it out anyway. It made it only 1400 yards before going down.

A salvage attempt was made to raise the ship, but it was not successful. Four large anchors were attached to the sunken ship. The barges above were partially filled with water and the anchor ropes tightened. Then the water was was pumped out of the barges raising the ship. It was brought to shallower water and the process repeated. In that manner it was moved from the harbor entrance but not fully recovered. It was not until the mid-17th century when the invention of the diving bell made it to Sweden that the bronze cannons were actually recovered. At that time, divers chopped through the decks to retrieve the cannons and were able to raise them, but much damage was done to the decks that had to be restored later when the ship was rediscovered in the 1950's and brought up from the bottom in the 1960's.

The silt bottom of Stockholm Harbor helped preserve small parts that fell off the ship when metal fasteners rusted away or salvage attempts cut through the ship. Cold water that was not very salty helped preserve the rest of the wood for over 300 years. Putting it back together involved preserving the wood as it was brought back up into the air and then reassembling the ship's hull and rigging.  This process took many years until it was completed and moved to its present museum in 1987.
Two barges or hulks were stationed above the sunken ship during the salvage operation. Clayton's model shows the sunken ship on the bottom and the hulks positioned above it ready to begin raising the ship. In the last photo the tip of Vasa's mast can be seen barely protruding from the water between the barges.

The Swedish Warship Vasa Museum Model Cannons (1/10 scale)

Clayton Johnson built and donated the cannons and gun port rigging for the large 1/10 scale display model in the Vasa Museum in Sweden.

He first turned wooden originals and carved the decorations. Then he took molds and reproduced the barrels in resin. The carriages were made from wood and brass. The warship carried cannons on three decks plus two 1 lb Falconets that were positioned on the quarterdeck.

Unlike Clayton's 1/50 scale model that is complete and accurate inside and out, only the outside features of the ship were replicated in this 1/10 scale model.

  The 1/10 scale model in the museum features the cannons built by Clayton. Carved figures provide scale for the scene.
The block and tackle rigging helped secure the large guns in place. It was for handling the gun, aiming, running it out when loaded, running it back when loading and for securing it when the ship was experiencing rough weather. (This is where the term “loose cannon” comes from; they could be very destructive if they came loose in a storm.)

Wood Carving Projects

Carved spoons feature a Norse theme and the names of the family: Amy, Clayton and young Magnus. They are carved from Holly.
This pull toy was built for Magnus. When the log wagon is pulled the woodpecker pecks away at the logs.
This hand cranked sea monster toy has lots of action, with the monster seeming to attack a ship full of archers. Parts of a broken ship float on the rough sea. See for video of it in action. It was built to entertain his son Magnus, but will no doubt be treasured by generations to come as well. The message on the side is a nice dedication from father to son.
A carving of Streiff, the royal warhorse of the Swedish King Gustavus Adolphus. He died from wounds after the battle of Lutzen in Germany in 1632 (the same battle that the king died in), and is currently on display at the Livrustkammaren museum in Stockholm, Sweden. It is carved in basswood as are most of Clayton's works.

In 2013 Clayton decided to do a series of carvings that reflect the different styles of Norse or Viking art. The first one that completed was a Urnes (late Viking age) style dragon and then he worked his way back in time through each of the six different styles. Not all of these styles had a clean transition from one to the other, there was a lot of overlap, and so the below dates are approximations. Even though there was typically overlap between the different styles, it is surprising how quickly one took over from another, suggesting very efficient communication through the Norse world considering the technology that they had.

BROA/OSEBERG STYLE - used about 800-875AD. Characterized by the chunky gripping-beast motif.

BORRE STYLE - used about 875-950AD. Characterized by gripping paws, pretzel-shaped bodies, triangular shaped heads, mickey mouse type ears and limbs that seem to be out of order.
JELLINGE STYLE - used about 900-975AD. Characterized by thin ribbon-like S shaped bodies.

MAMMEN STYLE - used about 950-1000AD. Characterized by semi-naturalistic bird and dragon motifs, asymetrical scroll/ornamental lines and dots.

RINGERIKE STYLE - used about 1000-1050AD. Characterized by beasts with tails and manes that are closely clustered and tendril-like.

URNES STYLE  - used about 1050 until well into the 1100's AD. Characterized by figure-8 and multi-loop shapes with typical heads being more or less elongated terminals.

During the spring of 2013, Clayton carved a sculpture after the one on Vasa that trims the the upper edge of the door that goes from the helmsman's cabin to the admiral's cabin. This sculpture was done at a little less than half the size of the original.
In the fall of 2013 Clayton was asked to carve a Coho salmon for someone that he met at the Vasa museum. This would end up being for her aunt in memory of her uncle who worked as a fisheries biologist for a Native American tribe in Washington state. It is carved in basswood and is 18" long.

A large and very intricate carving of a Moorish style round ornament features Clayton and Amy's names at the center. The first photo shows the scroll cut piece and the second shows it after the shapes are rounded and contoured.

Carved wooden bench

Clayton's latest project is an intricately carved wooden bench with storage below the seat done for his wife. 12/2014

Size: 43" deep, 54" long, and 57" tall.

The majority of the wood is basswood, with small amounts of walnut (the initials) and bloodwood (the runes on the ends). Microfiber was used for the upholstery on the ends. 

Clayton notes, Inspiration came from Norse and Celtic forms of art, but also from one or two pieces of furniture that I have seen that were made of pierced and carved panels. These weren't in medieval northern European styles, but they made me think about the feasibility of using other styles in a similar way. 

We are currently storing books in it.

Black Powder Rifles

(Left) a flintlock Baker rifle built during the winter of 2011 from a kit by Rifle Shoppe. Clayton carved the stocks for both. The Baker rifle was essentially the first successful government issued military rifle in history, and was used by the British army from 1800 until the late 1830's.

(Right) a matchlock rifle as used on the Vasa. After building the Baker rifle, in the fall of 2012 Clayton decided to build a matchlock musket after one from Vasa in .62 caliber. Because a pre-carved stock was not available in the shape needed, he decided to carve his own from a piece of alder wood. 17th century Swedish firearms were commonly stocked in either alder or beech. No walnut grows that far north.

Amy (left) and Clayton (right) firing the Baker rifle.

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