Jazzed about his job - Seeing a void

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Seeing a void
Despite his early hatred for finishing, his inability to cane or weave rush, Alleger has made a good living doing restoration work, much of that because of his persistence in studying and understanding finishing. The New Orleans woodworker spent months experimenting with finishes, ordering any new finishing product out of a catalog or off the Internet just to try it out.

"Even before the hurricane came, I realized there was a real hole in the market for finishers here, especially antique finishers. Most people don't want to do that; they want to buy a can of Minwax, a can of polyurethane and slap it on there a la Norm Abrams and send it out the door. For a lot of folks, that's OK. For the market that I want to appeal to, these are people that have family heirlooms, antiques, or very specific requirements about how they want something built and finished and they're willing to wait for it and they're willing to pay for it. That's really what I wanted to aim for.

"I ended up with a whole cabinet of finishes, half of which I never ended up using because I didn't like them, but at least I knew I didn't like them. There was a lot of experimentation because of the climate here, the humidity and the way wood moves and the way finishes react to this environment. It's a whole different ballgame than finishing in the Northeast."

Alleger is meticulous about writing down recipes any time he develops a winning finish and keeps track of all of them. He has reached the point where he won't use a finish out of a can anymore, always making changes to get an acceptable result.

Katrina aftermath
Although most of his business is obtained through people viewing his Web site, the work is primarily local. But his livelihood as a custom furniture maker took a career change the morning of Aug. 29, 2005, when Hurricane Katrina smashed into New Orleans.

CUSTOM WOODWORKING

Owner: Dan Alleger
Location: New Orleans
Education: Bachelor's degree in piano, master's degree in jazz piano, Berklee College of Music, Boston Conservatory
Years pro: 10 years
Shop size: 200 sq. ft., plus space at other locations
Specialties: Custom work and restoration
Katrina restoration work: "I've kind of reached the end of my rope as far as looking at this nasty, moldy furniture that was pretty nasty a year out, really nasty two years out and now that we're coming up on almost three years, I've become more inclined to refer it out to somebody else. Although it is rewarding, it's just not work that I need to do or have to do anymore. There's so much other good work coming in that is more profitable and a lot more representative of where I want the business to go. I don't want to be known as just the Katrina restoration furniture guy."
On restoration: "I think Antiques Roadshow has freaked everybody out about doing any kind of work on an old piece. Unless it is museum quality, 90 percent of the furniture out there will increase in value with some restorative work if it is done mindfully, carefully and if in keeping with the materials and processes of the time.

"Everything changed, everything changed," he recalls. "The business went from being 60 percent custom build, 40 percent repair/refinish to 10 percent custom build. I was bummed at first because I was like a lot of woodworkers. I loved building and hated the finishing."

Not long after Katrina hit, the requests for repairing and restoring family heirlooms and everyday furniture were continuous.

"I knew that there was a big hole in the market for restoration, nobody would do it and I kept getting calls for it and I would say, 'Well that's really not my arena.' I do refinish some things, but in terms of chunks missing or a 200-year old finish, [other woodworkers] are scared to death to look at that sort of thing."

One of the first restoration jobs involved a man who brought him a chair with the seat shot. Alleger got on the Web, found out how to cane, and obtained some cane supplies from his finishing supplier. He also purchased the "Caner's Handbook" (Bruce Miller and Jim Widess, 1991, Lark Books) that has chapters on rush weaving, Danish cord, Wicker repair and even Heywood-Wakefield furniture. It didn't take long before his caning technique improved and included some complicated patterns.

For people seeking to have their pieces put back together it was even more difficult to find someone who had the ability to weave rush. As with the caning, Alleger did some research and taught himself to weave and even tackled some upholstery work.

"I've gotten into it mostly because most of my customers feel better if it's 'one-stop shopping.' Whether I do it or not, they want me to take care of it. If it is a chair or an ottoman, I can do it. I confess I have a sewing machine that I broke down and bought within the last year so I could handle the more complicated stuff. It's a good add-on, a good selling point saying I can do that for you, too. But I don't want to get into the upholstery business."

Adding employees
After two years of predominantly restoration work, it began to wear on Alleger. He realized he was spending too much time on stripping, bleaching, deep cleaning, mold eradication and even some of the cane work. It was a good business because nobody else wanted to do it, but it was beginning to get old.

About a year ago, he decided to hire a part-time employee, Brielyn Sexeny, to help with the grunt work and more difficult jobs as time progressed. His backlog was getting longer and the situation made him feel uncomfortable.

"I have her doing a lot of the stuff that I didn't really feel like doing for the most part," Alleger says. "Although now that she's been here for a while, she's really developed some good skills and kind of gotten into the swing of how I like things done. It's kind of hit-or-miss when hiring someone with little or no experience. I prefer to hire someone with no experience so they absolutely do it the way I want it done and don't come in with some preconceived idea of how they want it done."

Sexeny is doing a lot of the prep and stripping and caning. With the custom builds she is the sander, and of late has been cutting mortise and tenons. In late-May, Alleger hired a second part-timer to provide some extra muscle in the shop and assist him with some of the larger projects. With the two employees, Alleger's business has now settled to about 50 percent restoration and 50 percent custom builds. And as far as hurricane restoration work, he recently decided he's had enough of it.

"I made what I'll call an executive decision that that was it. Everybody with really nice stuff had it restored pretty early on. The stuff trickling in now is crap furniture that people stuck in the carport because they didn't know what to do with it."