Chattanoogan: Jim Gilliam – EPB Retiree Turns The Tables

Monday, November 18, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

After working with Electric Power Board for over 35 years, Jim Gilliam turned the tables – literally. Needing to keep busy once his retirement went in effect, Jim threw himself into wood working and built his own shop where he designs tables and other unique furniture pieces.

Jim grew up on a farm in Marion County where his father Ivan grew corn, soy beans and had livestock. His mother Geneva was an office manager for Tri-County Hospital. Jim and his older brother Dewey would play Cowboys and Indians and helped out on the farm.

His first job was with the Brown Tree Company before getting on with EPB in 1969. It was a requirement if you worked at the Power Board that you had to live on their system, so Jim and his wife Connie first moved to Sequatchie County and later to Signal Mountain, where they reside today.

Jim had started off working as a lineman for about eight or nine years and then moved into the system operating department.

Those who work with the line crew will most likely experience close calls or injury at some point as it can be a fairly dangerous job. Jim recalls when he received a flesh burn on his face.

“We were re-conducting a piece of line and a jumper got loose and it blew into a hot wire and just blew up. You go from whatever the temperature is to maybe 5000 degrees in a half second or so - it was over just as soon as it hit, but it is quick enough to burn ya and set your clothes on fire and everything else,” Jim says.

Jim retired from EPB in 2004, but when the utility was shorthanded he still did some contracting work as the plans for the fiber optics fastest speed was coming to fruition.

“That was just talk when I was still there, but in 2006 they had gotten some of us to come back in and work. By then they had started putting some of that stuff in place, but it was not there completely until I had already left,” Jim says.

Ironically, he admits to not having EPB as his cable and internet provider yet, but he says his son who also works with EPB has it. Jim is proud of the years he spent with the upstanding company. “Customer service is one big selling point that EPB has always had. They are high on customer service - they really are and they do a good job of it,” he says.

“They have always been that way. When I worked in the trouble department and they got a call – they immediately sent it to you down on the truck. Everybody had that energy and it is what they wanted to do. They took care of their customers and they still do,” he maintains.

Jim and Connie have been married for 47 years. They have son Greg and daughter Chrisi and grandchildren.

Jim had developed a hobby of wood-working but it wasn’t until he retired that he got serious about it.

“I started tinkering around with wood some and I also had a couple of antique cars. I had a '64 Thunderbird and '36 Chevrolet in my garage and tried to do wood working too, but I always had to push them out and that wasn’t working at all, so I sold the cars,” he says.

The first thing Jim made was a walnut table that sits in the foyer of his home.

“When I first started, I had very limited tools. I had a table saw and a few other tools, but to make stuff right you need more tools. I decided that wood working was what I wanted to do, so about a year before I retired, I built a shop next door to have something to retire into,” Jim says.

He had never thought about showing his furniture or marketing, but Jim knew that he could only give away so much. He and Connie would walk through the Chattanooga Market and she suggested that he bring some of his projects to the market.

“I go to the Chattanooga Market about 10 or 12 times a year and we go to Knoxville to their Saturday market about five or six times a year,” Jim says.

The couple will also bring their items to Chattanooga’s Octoberfest and they try to attend about five out-of-town shows, such as the one in Fairhope, Ala.

“It is a really big show and one of the better shows in the Southeast. We try to do the TACA (Tennessee Arts Craft Association) in the spring and fall. It’s all furniture items, lamps, tables, chairs and chest… the chest is what got me started. I have made stuff all over the house,” Jim says.

Jim gets his ideas from different sources, but he mostly will have something in his mind and then figure out how to make it work. He says, “I like the engineering part of it as much as I do the actual wood working.”

The three main woods he uses for his craft are walnut, cherry and mahogany, which he collects and stores under a shelter behind his workshop.

“It’s really not complicated. A lot of times you have good wood pieces that are too good to throw away and I will think of some way to use it. That’s where the lamps came from,” he says gesturing to the beautifully arched wood pieces on a lamp he has in his living room. The wood Jim uses the most is also what is requested the most, but he does like to try a specialty wood when he can.

While at the Knoxville Market, Jim recalls when the general manager of the Crown Plaza Hotel requested a table which now sits in their lobby.

“The general manager will come through the market and one day he saw a table that I had made out of figured sapele wood and he wanted one like it in his hotel,” Jim says.

The pricing for the furniture is very reasonable considering the time and passion that Jim puts into each piece.

“If you went to a custom builder who makes a living at it – I am well under their price. They charge for their time, but if you are retired – time has a different meaning,” Jim insists.

His journey began when Connie had requested that he make her a chest to place her personal items in. Jim constructed a chest with lift out trays which prompted their friends to request to have one made.

“Everybody who saw it really liked it.  We have changed them around a little bit - others that I made are not quite that tall. But I just kept working with it until I got it to where it had good balance and the right height and depth,” Jim says.

Out of all the projects, Jim believes that his favorite would be the table he made for the Plaza Hotel.

“The beauty was not in the way the table was made - it was in the wood itself,” he says modestly. “That wood came alive when I put the finish on it. It was a spectacular piece of wood.”

Jim develops more skill every day, but his craftsman eye sees it differently.

“I don’t know that I have been completely satisfied with anything I have finished yet,” he admits.

“I always look back and see something that most people may never see, but it’s something that I wish I could have done a little better. I try to be a perfectionist, but I am convinced that there is not really a perfect piece of wood work and …I am not sure that I would want to make one that was perfect.”

Retirement has given Jim the freedom to refine his craft without the pressure of timed production.

“I don’t plan how long it takes to make something, but I am in my shop just about every day. I do take a lot of orders - that is one good thing about the market. When we take chests or big tables to the markets people are not likely going to buy one that day, but it is good advertisement for orders. Very seldom, will I go through the markets where I don’t get an order for something even if I don’t sell much while I am there. It is enough to keep me busy,” he says.

When Jim works in his shop, he is in his own little world and doesn’t rush in his time to finish a project.

“I probably don’t want to know what I work by the hour,” he jokes and then says pensively, “When I walk in the shop and smell that saw dust …everything else just melts away.”

For custom orders email Jim at : jwgcsm@yahoo.com

 jen@jenjeffrey.com


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