Jazzed about his job

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imageOnce a pianist, New Orleans furniture maker and restorer now works to a different tune in his tiny shop. Dan Alleger's life was all set; he was destined to be a professional musician. After years of study at Boston's Berklee College of Music and the Boston Conservatory, his future had jazz pianist written all over it. But as happens with so many people in life, things didn't work out as originally planned and he eventually found himself in the Big Easy, building custom furniture and doing restoration work, much of it in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

His shop is a mere 200 sq. ft., smaller than many of the practice rooms where he spent thousands of hours honing his piano skills. But through outsourcing, using space in other people's shops and being incredibly organized, he is able to tackle jobs of all types and sizes.

Moving to New Orleans
About 10 years ago, Alleger and his wife, Joy, left Boston for New Orleans. The main reason for the move was for his wife to work on her doctorate at Tulane University and because New Orleans was a great place for a jazz pianist, or so Alleger thought. But like Boston, which was saturated with woodworkers, Alleger found New Orleans to be saturated with musicians. After finding piano gigs hard to come by and the pay barely more than a pittance, he came to the realization woodworking would be a more lucrative vocation than that of a struggling jazz pianist.

"I was pretty determined to really go for it," Alleger says. "I'd been reading books, gobbling up whatever I could. And I could say a lot of good things about Norm Abrams because he has a show that promotes woodworking. A lot of people criticize a lot of things he does and I'm right there with them, especially when it comes to finishing. But at the very least I did learn a lot watching that show about basics and enough to kind of push me into starting up."

Alleger was surprised to find a relatively small amount of custom woodworkers in the New Orleans area when he arrived and only a few that promoted themselves. There also was a void of experienced finishers as well as woodworkers willing to take on caning and weaving jobs.

Cramped quarters
Working in a 200-sq.-ft. shop, no matter how organized you may be, is no picnic. Alleger and his wife live in a carriage house and have been considering a move for some time, but with the birth of their first son in April, a potential move has temporarily taken a spot on the back burner.

imageDespite the space limitations, Alleger manages to take on any type and size of job, sometimes working in his kitchen; outdoors, using an outdoor spraying facility; and working on large pieces at other New Orleans locations to get his work done. Since he doesn't own a jointer or planer, he has a relationship with a nearby mill that will dry, mill and store his wood.

"There is a shop in mid-city that I use for bigger pieces from time to time. Most pieces I can do here. What I can't do here, I work with a guy who runs a studio that manufactures props for movie productions around town. They have a huge warehouse space. He's a former frame carpenter who put together a nice corner of his warehouse where he has a jointer, a planer, a lathe and a chop saw. It's a big space that sits there absolutely empty 90 percent of the time. I would probably move my whole operation over there if it was necessary. When I need to build a big piece, I build it there."

Alleger's shop size occasionally works to his advantage. Once a year, he packs up the contents of the shop and moves it to a woman's garage in Metairie, La. The woman owns a mansion in Lafayette, La., and every summer she brings a few pieces of furniture she has collected through the years to Metairie for Alleger to work on. After two or three weeks on that job, he packs up his shop and hauls it back to his cramped New Orleans quarters.

An Internet clientele
imageAlleger is a firm believer in the benefits of a Web site and the intricacies of having his business near the top of search engine inquiries. He describes his Web site as "the saving grace" for his business. He estimates about 80 percent of his business comes from his Web site and 20 percent by word of mouth.

"I take the business of marketing very seriously and do everything I can to get the Web site out there; Google ranking, search engine ranking, creating a proper site map, following everybody's protocol so that when anybody types anything about New Orleans and furniture, wood or seating, I want to be at the top. I recently added a 'Clients Comments' page to the Web site and that is one of the pages that gets the most traffic on the site. People want to hear what the other clients are saying."

Alleger recently launched a second Web site specifically geared toward caning, rush work and chair repair in an effort to obtain a higher volume of smaller projects that have quick turnarounds — ones he can work on indoors where it's cooler and while he is babysitting.