Madison Magazine Madison, WI

Madison Magazine

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 virtual storefront.

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 says.

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 two hands.

"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.

Madison Magazine - January 2005