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Furnished with care

For Kent Merrill, the third time was the charm – for his career, that is.
Merrill, a Jonesborough resident, makes fine furniture out of a freestanding shop behind his home.
“This is really my third career,” he said of his current occupation.
But he owes his discovery of his love of the craft to his first career as an OB/GYN.
When he finished his residency during the Vietnam War, “Uncle Sam sent me to Grand Forks, N.D.,” he said. “They have real winters there. There’s not a lot to do.”
Luckily for Merrill, there was a wood shop, where he spent some time making his wife, a quilter, some sewing cabinets using plans from Popular Mechanics.
“I just enjoyed it so much,” Merrill said. “But for a guy who needed all his fingers for his career, I didn’t want to risk any digits.”
So woodworking was put off to the side.
Meanwhile, Merrill gave up practicing medicine and went back to school to earn his MBA. After that, he was the medical director and president of a 35-man medical group.
That profession brought him and his wife, Midge, to the Jonesborough area in 1997.
They wanted a place where Merrill could have a freestanding shop, and where they could see the mountains. A Realtor friend found their house just outside of the Jonesborough city limits.
“Then I didn’t depend on my fingers,” he said. “So my wife bought me a table saw.”
He began taking classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School and in a week had built a table complete with tapered legs and dovetails on the drawers.
“I was hooked,” he said.
He continued on in his education, taking more classes at the Penland School of Crafts, and eventually joined the Southern Highland Craft Guild.
Now Merrill alternates between making fine furniture for his seven grandchildren and doing commission pieces.
Fine furniture means “everything fits perfectly” and there is major attention to detail, Merrill explained. Those fine details and intricate measurements appeal naturally to him.
“I’m sort of compulsive,” he said. “I like the challenge [of small details].”
Merrill said his work is mainly Shaker-inspired, a style known for its relative lack of adornment.
“It lets the wood speak for itself,” he said. “It’s functional.”
While imported wood is available to buy to make fine furniture, Merrill said he limits his work to Appalachian hardwoods, especially cherry wood.
Merrill’s current project is an apothecary cabinet in birdseye maple and cherry for one of his grandchildren.
“I’ve picked out about a dozen different pieces I thought I would like to make for them,” he said. “I’m trying to leave something meaningful to them.”