Established in 1986, Wildewoods Fine Works in Woods in Ponchatoula, La., specializes in all things custom. Owner Terry Wilde says the approach has played a role in the shop’s growth since Day One.
The six-man shop has the knowledge, skills and machinery to design and produce custom furniture, cabinetry, wall units, doors, windows, staircase packages and plantation shutters, along with restoration and finishing work.
“When my business first got started, I was really hungry for work. I was trying to support my wife and kids and was willing to do anything to keep my life afloat, like taking all sorts of odd jobs. This is what brought in clients and it taught me to keep things diversified.” Wilde says.
Wilde’s strategy has worked while competitors have fallen by the wayside. “The new housing construction industry cratered in summer of 2007. Friends of mine who did nothing but that saw their businesses were suffering by the end of 2008. My business did not feel the effects of the economy until the very end of 2009. A lot of shops went out of business in 2010 and 2011. Those were tough years. But I kept doing what I had always done and we made it through.”
Trading an axe for a hammer
Wilde jokes that he went to the woodworking School of Hard Knocks, as it took him many career changes and tough learning experiences to get to where he is today. In the early 1970s, he attended Tulane University in New Orleans on a scholarship with the school’s ROTC program.
Terry Wilde Owner of: Wildewoods Fine Works in Wood Location: Ponchatoula, La. Shop size: 4,000 sq. ft. Employees: Five About: Based in southeast Louisiana, this custom woodworking business offers a diverse style and selection of handmade furniture, cabinetry, doors and staircases, as well as restoration and refinishing work, servicing primarily residential properties within the state. Annual gross: $350,000 Quotable: “Get into woodworking if it’s your passion, but not if it’s just a money thing. It’s a tough business to make a living in. If it’s all about money for you, then chances are you’re going to be disappointed.”
“Halfway through the semester I realized I made a big mistake. I was not Navy material and dropped out. I went back to Louisiana State University and studied music, playing the classical guitar and violin. I quit just before I graduated. I knew I couldn’t make a living as a classical guitarist. I didn’t know what to do with my life at the time, so I got a job working for a bank in New Orleans as a teller. I didn’t like being stuck in the office, so I quit that.”
He then tried his hand at finish carpentry. Young and single, he felt he had nothing to lose. He walked onto a residential job site in New Orleans, where Victorian homes were being restored, and begged the supervisor for a chance. He quickly showed his potential and got promoted to foreman within six months.
He started Wilde Construction in 1986 out of a garage. His timing was pretty good.
“There was a real economic slump in the ’70s and ’80s, and then the oil crisis hit in ’84. A lot of the buildings in downtown (Ponchatoula) had become vacant, so I had no real competition. I bought magazines and kept teaching myself how to do the work. I didn’t turn down any jobs. People were regularly traveling to Ponchatoula from Covington, New Orleans and Baton Rouge to shop for antiques. These people ended up being the customers that helped my business get going.”
Wildewoods, which grew out of Wilde Construction, occupies about 8,000 square feet in a warehouse. Wilde is the project manager, bookkeeper and molder of young woodworkers.
“I have trained all of [my employees] to a fairly large degree,” he says. “It takes me about two years to train someone to do most of the things we do because it’s all specialty work. The finishing is by one person here, but everyone knows how to do everything.”
The shop is heavy on Delta (10” Unisaw, jointer, shaper, lathe, band saw and drill press), Powermatic (table saw, lathe and drill press) and Grizzly (sander, shaper and planer) machinery. There’s also a Northwood shaper, Excalibur scroll saw, Shop Fox jointer and planer; Ritter double-head boring machine, SCM Minimax band saw, Williams & Hussey molder and Woodmaster wide belt sander.
Respect your elders
About 90 percent of Wilde’s clients reside in Louisiana. The rest are in Tennessee, Texas and Mississippi. He’s had good success in New Orleans, Covington and Baton Rouge and throughout St. Tammany Parish. Most learn of him by word-of-mouth, through the phone book or from the company website at www.wildewoods.com.
The shop usually completes about four major projects per year, almost exclusively for high-end homes. They include orders for cabinetry, built-ins, exterior doors and shutters, which often take five months or more to complete.
“I prefer residential work over commercial work because I like the dynamic of working with clients and their homes. I don’t want to do generic commercial work, although I did complete some cabinets for a couple of upscale beauty salons,” says Wilde.
Wilde says he doesn’t run a high-tech shop, preferring “Old World construction techniques” whenever possible, such as mortise-and-tenon joinery and dovetailed drawers. He focuses on the personal aspect of his services at all times.
“When I opened my business, I really wanted to serve my customers. A little old lady could come in here with a broken rung on her chair and I’d fix it for her. I’d know I wasn’t going to make much money doing that, but it was a service. It’s great for business. I’ve gotten great referrals for doing that. That little old lady’s son might need cabinets.”
Traditional designs are highly sought after from Wilde’s shop. “I do what my customers want,” he says. “This is not a strictly artistic endeavor where I build what I want to build; I cater to my clients. I think for the most part, most people are going towards simple, clean lines, and generally prefer Shaker or Craftsman-style furniture.”
The shop has a lot to offer in regard to materials and finishes, which distinguishes it from the competition.
“A lot of the shops around here either don’t do their own finishing or don’t do their own installation. We take the job from start to finish. We do all of our own finishing and installation and offer a true turnkey product.”
The most commonly used wood species include cherry, mahogany and Spanish cedar. Wilde also has an ample supply of antique cypress and heart pine, which he buys from salvagers and uses fairly frequently.
“Antique cypress is an extremely beautiful material. This wood came from trees that are 2,000-plus years old and it is just extraordinary material. Sometimes it has nail holes, but people like that for a distressed look.”
A wide variety of finishes are offered, from hand-rubbed waxes and glazes, to antique, rustic finishes. The shop rarely paints anything, but does spray-colored lacquer quite frequently.
“Lighter colored woods with no stain or light-colored stain are definitely popular. Maple is probably the most popular for cabinets. I do a fair amount of exterior doors and these are usually either mahogany, antique cypress or Spanish cedar. Those are the only woods I would consider to be quality woods for exterior doors.”
Several years ago, Wilde began teaching woodworking classes out of his shop. The idea clicked when a client expressed interest in paying for some training. To make it cost-effective, he advertised for others to sign up and the class filled up quickly. He’d like to build a full curriculum.
“Right now I’m teaching a 10-week course, two nights per week at two hours each night. This is a skills course, versus project-driven, but it’s helped teach a lot of the locals here how to use all the major tools in the shop. They’re all interested in a project driven course once they complete this one.”
Aside from developing the school, Wilde says he’d prefer to scale down the shop’s workload in the coming years.
“I’m 57 and growing the business is not something I really want to do at this point in my life. If anything, I’d rather scale down some, but I don’t think that’s going to happen anytime soon. I want to be able to relax a little more and go fishing.
“The best part of having this business and sticking with it is that I absolutely love what I do. I never got into woodworking to make a lot of money. I got into woodworking because I love working with my hands. No one will remember you for how much money you made, but somebody might remember you for a piece of furniture from hundreds of years ago. To me, it’s about doing what you like and calling my own shots.”
Contact: Wildewoods Fine Works in Woods, 1108 Highway 51 North, Ponchatoula, LA 70454. Tel: 985-386-4243.
This article originally appeared in the July 2012 issue.