Making A Living
Former law student-turned-woodworker Jim Gentry
builds a solid, sturdy career with his own two hands.
By Jennifer Garrett / Photos by Amy Lynn Schereck
You don't move to Iowa if you want to surf. You don't go
to an Indian restaurant if you are hungry for steak. And you
don't go to law school if you want to be a woodworker. Unless,
of course, you are James Gentry.
Some might say that Gentry, a Madison-based furniture maker,
took a wrong turn when he enrolled at the University of Wisconsin
Law School. Gentry, however, does not consider the three years
spent in torts, contracts and civil procedure a total waste
of time. After all, two of the best things in his life --
his wife and his livelihood -- he found on campus.
The former, Ellen, was also a law student and is the reason
Gentry hung around campus long enough to graduate. The latter
was born of Gentry's only legal victory. As a second-year
law student, Gentry challenged his out-of-state residency
and won. Since the residency was changed retroactively, Gentry
was reimbursed the difference between in-state and out-of-state
tuition for his first year in school. He saved that $5,000
and started his furniture business when he graduated in 1975.
He blames the "blind folly of youth" for what appears on
the surface to be an irrational decision. "At thirty you think
you can do anything," he says. Yet he acknowledges times were
different, and he knows most law students don't graduate with
money in their pockets. "A person who is thirty now probably
wouldn't make the same decision."
But Gentry knew he didn't want to be a lawyer, and he thought
he could make a living as a woodworker. Nearly 30 years and
hundreds of chairs, desks and tables later, it seems he was
right. "I love the fact that you can work with your hands
in a world that isn't very hand-oriented," he says.
With no real course of study or apprenticeships at the time,
Gentry learned what he could by reading books. The rest he
taught himself. He likes the fact that his work is tangible
and earthy. He comes from a long line of craftspeople. His
grandfather was a carpenter. Uncles were concrete workers,
steamfitters and plumbers.
While most people do not make their livings with trades,
arts or crafts, Gentry believes expression through hands is
natural and necessary. As we move to more abstract jobs, we
turn to home life and hobbies for handiwork. It arrives via
cooking, sewing, knitting and tying flies (one of Gentry's
own hobbies). "You have a need to express yourself with your
hands," he says, "and it always finds a way out."
Although always a woodworker, Gentry has evolved his business
over the years. His law school connections landed him work
at the start. He even got commissions for lawyer and legal
thriller author Scott Turow in Chicago. Later, when Gentry
had two children, he wanted steadier income. He segued from
commission work to the art-fair circuit where he could move
greater volume. He eventually grew weary of the travel and
began to move back to commission work. He also transitioned
into internet-based sales, with his website serving as his
While he has done everything from building a wraparound porch
for his lake front house to making breadboards from wood scraps,
Gentry focuses his business on contemporary occasional furniture:
coffee tables, end tables, coatracks, benches, desks, chairs
and other accent pieces that he can lift alone.
His style tends to favor curves over
90-degree angles. Circular inlays are recurring details.
And if Gentry had his druthers, he would work almost exclusively
with the oak, maple, cherry and walnut trees native to Wisconsin.
"I'm very place-oriented, and I like the local woods," he
When Overture Center leaders called for bench designs from
local craftspeople, Gentry suggested using ash, hickory and
other wood species found on the Capitol lawn. "That didn't
fly," he laughs. "We talked about it, but it was a short conversation."
Gentry estimates that he spends around 40 or 50 hours each
week just making furniture. After that he still has to maintain
his website, order supplies and do all of the things any small
business owner must do. "It's pleasant, but it's a regular
business," he says. And though the actual woodworking is something
he loves, there are times when it is just a job. "Your body
hurts when you do it. It's not a hobby."
Still, Gentry has no regrets. He moved into his house on
the lake in Orton Court before prices skyrocketed. He has
the flexibility to pursue other interests, like fishing. Plus,
he designed and built a solid, steady career with his own
"There were moments when it would have been easier to have
a career where money was more obvious, but that passed, like
so many things do," he says. "My life has been an awful lot
of fun. It wouldn't have been as fun being a lawyer."
Jennifer Garrett is a senior writer for Madison Magazine.
Magazine - January 2005