SALT LAKE CITY — The inside of Jim and Marilyn Christensen’s Orem house is full of beautiful wooden furniture: a mahogany kitchen table and chairs with red wood inlays, light-colored kitchen cabinets, shelves, even a wooden coat rack.

“Everything you see in this house out of wood, I built,” Jim Christensen said.

One piece in particular stands prominently next to the kitchen table — a tall and narrow display cabinet. It is the first piece he ever made entirely by himself, Jim Christensen said, starting with the design.

According to Christensen, it’s also the worst piece he’s ever made, with a glaring mistake in the front. To the casual onlooker, the miscalculated length of a connecting board at the top isn’t obvious, but to Christensen, it serves as an important reminder.

One wall of Jim Christensen's workshop is lined with a shelf containing wood of various shapes, sizes and colors.
One wall of Jim Christensen's workshop is lined with a shelf containing wood of various shapes, sizes and colors. | Carley Porter

"I left it here on display to remind me to humble myself," he explained.

But furniture isn’t all Christensen builds. In fact, he hasn’t built any large furniture in a while, focusing instead on smaller pieces like ornate jewelry boxes, vases — even a bagel slicer. His goal is to make useful items beautiful. But some of them look too beautiful to be useful, like his inlaid or ingrained cutting boards.

“That’s a frequently asked question … ‘does anybody cut on these’?” Christensen said. “Some people just use them for display only … other people will cut on them. Some of them will cut on one side then flip it around on the reverse side for (display).”

But despite his passion for woodworking and the beauty of the pieces he creates, Christensen doesn’t really see himself as an artist. Rather, he describes himself as “just a woodworker," stating that his pieces are “not true art.”

Marilyn Christensen disagrees.

“I’d consider your stuff art,” she tells her husband of 45 years.

The son of a furniture maker, Jim Christensen, who was born in North Carolina and raised in Orem, grew up around woodworking but didn’t take a real interest in it until about 30 years ago. He sold some pieces in craft shows, but mostly just built things for family and friends. Ten years ago, he decided he wanted to get serious about it.

“I did a lot of studying in (woodworking), experimenting, trial and error methods on stuff. And (I’ve) been doing it ever since then,” Jim Christensen said.

Jim Christensen shows off a small chest he designed and built.
Jim Christensen shows off a small chest he designed and built. | Carley Porter

Now, his study has brought him into a whole new world — the world of fine arts. Just a few months ago, he entered his first juried arts competition in Park City and this month, he’ll be at the Utah Arts Festival, the largest fine arts festival in the state.

At first, Jim and Marilyn Christensen didn’t think the arts festival had accepted their vendor application.

“We thought we weren’t going to get in,” Marilyn Christensen said. They had been put on a waiting list, “and all of a sudden the phone rings … and it was them saying, 'you still want to be in?'” she recalled.

Since receiving the phone call less than a month ago, they have been rushing to get things ready for the show, making a list of what they have and trying to finish a few final pieces. Despite the stress of putting everything together, they’re both excited.

“I always enjoy talking to people about my woodworking,” Jim Christensen said.

And they know to expect at least one thing — people touching the woodwork. Apparently it’s a very common reaction.

“We joke between ourselves, we oughta just put some of (the wood) out and charge a dollar,” Jim Christensen said. “A dollar per pet,” Marilyn Christensen added.

“We’d be rich,” her husband concluded.

Marilyn Christensen typically handles the business side of their woodworking business, focusing on selling the pieces Jim Christensen creates, and they’ll be together at the arts festival. In this computer driven age, the two of them prefer to meet people who buy their work in person. One of the couple's three daughters built her dad a website, but he doesn't use it much.

Two of Jim Christensen's vases stand on display. He likes to experiment with different wood combinations in his work.
Two of Jim Christensen's vases stand on display. He likes to experiment with different wood combinations in his work. | Carley Porter

“My daughter probably wants to kill me,” Jim Christensen said, “But I like interacting with people. I like to see what they like, what they don’t like.”

Jim Christensen doesn’t take commissions, either, because he’d rather focus on creating pieces for craft shows and art shows. A single piece can take days, weeks and even months to design, build and finish. Taking a commission, he explained, would interrupt his work flow.

However, he’s happy to be interrupted with questions, especially from aspiring woodworkers.

“I think woodworking is probably the biggest hobby in the world now. It’s fun, it takes up all kinds of hours to build all this stuff, but at the end of it, you get something very, very nice,” Jim Christensen said. “And the best advice I have is … to always challenge yourself. Do something harder the next time you build something.”

And, of course — stay humble.

If you go …

What: Utah Arts Festival

Where: Library Square, Salt Lake City

When: June 21-24

How much: Adults $15 at the gate, $8 lunchtime special (noon-3 p.m.) on Friday; seniors 65 and up $8; children 12 and under free. Four-day festival passes are $50. Ride your bike and get $2 off admission.

Web: uaf.org