Profiles: Gregory Paolini

A man with a plan

Beginning in 2007, Gregory Paolini and I worked together on several magazine articles and books. With each collaboration, I came away impressed by Greg’s woodworking ingenuity and drive. He has a knack for dreaming up clever router templates, ingenious ways to cut dovetails, and different ways to work more efficiently. When we first met, Greg was building Arts & Crafts furniture out of a small garage. He always seemed to have his sights on better tools, more commissions, and a bigger workspace. These days, he and his staff make custom furniture and cabinetry in a large commercial shop located near Asheville, NC. As if that’s not enough, Greg also offers a full schedule of woodworking classes for students who range from beginners to experts. We spoke by phone for this interview.

—David Heim

WM: What got you started in woodworking?

GP: I grew up in Buffalo, New York. When I was 11 or 12, I inherited a set of woodworking tools from my grandfather. I had no clue how to use them, so I got every woodworking book in the library and started experimenting. I was trying to make the tool in my hand do what the book said it could do. 

My first real piece of furniture was a trestle table. I made more things for my family and friends, and before I knew it, I was making things for people I had never met. I kept experimenting and learning techniques. Worst case, I knew, was that I’d make some expensive firewood.

WM: How did you decide to focus on Arts & Crafts furniture?

GP: Buffalo has a huge Arts & Crafts presence, including several houses by Frank Lloyd Wright. Even the house where I grew up, a farmhouse built in about 1893, had quartersawn white oak woodwork. 

In the late nineties, I got involved with the Roycrofters At Large Association; it’s an organization that recognizes artisans who work in the Arts & Crafts style. But after about seven years I realized that I needed to make a name for myself, and that I didn’t want to be known just as a Roycroft artisan.

WM: What brought you to the Asheville area?

GP: My wife Mona’s best friend had moved to western North Carolina, and we visited her several times. On one visit, in late October, the weather couldn’t have been more perfect. Mona and I looked at each other and said that we could live here. So we put together a three-year plan. Two and a half years later, we were in North Carolina.

WM: Tell me about your first shop in North Carolina.

GP: In Buffalo, the entire lower level of our house was my shop. Our house in North Carolina only had a 1-1/2-car garage, so I went from 1100 square feet to 400 square feet. I spent the next year building a larger garage that I could use for the shop.

WM: How did your business—and your shop—grow?

GP: It took some time, but my work became accepted. Several architects in the area asked if I could bring the level of detail in my furniture into cabinetry. So I shifted the focus of my work away from furniture. 

I had opportunities to take on more jobs when I was working alone, but I had to turn most of them down. I was afraid of moving to a level where it was more than just me. Fortunately, I had a student who was the business manager for his wife’s dental practice. He became my business mentor. We put together a plan to grow while minimizing risk. Then we landed two big jobs. That gave me the confidence I needed.

WM: So you moved out of the garage into a shop with a crew, then into a bigger shop. What’s next?

GP: We’re just finishing an addition that will bring the shop to 9000 square feet. And I’m about to take delivery of a CNC machine. The Arts & Crafts guy in me hates that. Deciding to incorporate CNC work into our business was a three-year-long struggle. I finally decided that there’s a difference between work that’s truly meaningful and work that’s merely essential. Is it meaningful for a man to spend time cutting big squares of plywood into little squares? No. It’s better to let the robot cut up the plywood and have the artisans make doors or drawers or something that gives their work meaning.

WM: What’s it like being a supervisor instead of a furniture-maker?

GP: There are days when I miss the solitude of working alone—when no one’s calling and it’s just me and the board. Being a supervisor has been a learning process for me. My goal is to have a successful woodworking business that I don’t have to show up for every day. I want to be sure that if something did happen to me, the guys could continue to pay their mortgages, my wife would be all right, and the business could keep going. Some of the area colleges with woodworking programs send their students here. They always ask what it takes to make it in the woodworking business. I tell them to ask the question again but take out the word “woodworking.” There’s nothing magical about making it as a woodworker. 

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