In the western part of Alabama's Mobile County, Glenn deGruy has been making custom furniture for more than 40 years. Turning is his real talent, beds are his specialty. But he will build anything from breakfronts and cabinets to entertainment centers and musical instruments.
He is a man of many talents. He learned woodworking at an early age and is still going strong at 61. His historical restoration projects are known from Texas to Florida and the new pieces he builds have found their way around the world. But Mobile is his hometown.
"Mobile is a real old Southern town," says deGruy. "But the past 15 years or so, there has been a lot of music coming here. It's a beautiful town. When you go down through it, there are all these old oak trees and covered boulevards. It's a real neat town; beautiful architecture."
And, of late, Mobile has had an increase of high-end homes, the clientele to which deGruy caters.
DeGruy got hooked on woodworking while repairing a wooden sailboat. Then he found a mentor.
Glenn deGruy Owner of: deGruy Woodworks Location: Mobile, Ala. Started working: 1969 Employees: 2 Principal products: Beds, breakfronts, cabinets, entertainment centers Type of work: “Most of it is custom work. For years, we wanted to build a production item, but we were always so busy with our custom work that we were never able to do that.” Bizarre job: “I even shot birdshot into kitchen cabinets because the woman [client] didn’t think it was distressed enough.”
"I went down to Robert Reid's shop, who built four-poster beds. He's a pretty famous guy," deGruy says. "I grew up with his son. He showed me a couple tricks on the jointer and some of the beds he made. I said to myself, I've got to go work with this guy. I left this cabinet shop I had been working at and [Reid] finally hired me. That was about 1972 and I worked there until 1976. He helped me with anything I wanted to know."
DeGruy learned how to turn and it became a passion. His bedposts are incredible.
"Robert Reid and I built a lathe and it is pretty much the backbone of our business. We turn historical columns all up and down the Gulf Coast, stair parts and things like that, but primarily we built it to turn bedposts. It's 10' long and we've made columns as long as 18'. We have a good system for joining."
A garden spot
DeGruy built his current shop in 1985. The cypress-and-batten barn is spacious and houses a variety of vintage machinery as well as a few new items. On a cold January day, the wood stove was going with a boiling pot of eucalyptus leaves collected from a nearby tree on top. A second barn houses all of deGruy's wood and a house he built - and is still working on - stands nearby. Although the postal address is Mobile, the property is in a very rural section. The family has planted a variety of Japanese maples, live oaks and cypress, as well as different types of bamboo on the property.
DeGruy has two employees, Aaron Eubanks and Alex Nicolson. His wife, Maggie, is a talented designer and painter and contributes to the business with decorated pieces, many of which have a distinct Southwestern style.
"We don't have a lot of competition right now and even so, when we did, for some reason most of the guys would help each other even if we were in competition. I have a lot of friends who own their shops and we all try to pitch in and help each other. We've never been much for trade secrets and I've always been trained to share what I know."
Just getting along
Much of deGruy's business is reproductions. He lives in a pretty traditional area and much of his training was in a traditional vein. But once in awhile, he steps out of that box and makes a piece that would be considered modern. He buys most of his wood from Hood Lumber, which is based in Mississippi.
His clientele is upscale and includes doctors, lawyers and other professionals because his pieces are definitely on the high end. He deals with interior designers and architects - in some cases with major success.
DeGruy says he has the most fun and fewest problems dealing directly with the customer, but he's also benefited from interior designers steering their clients his way.
"There was an interior designer in town who sold over 100 of our beds before she retired. We do a lot of work with architects as well. Dealing directly with us is to their advantage for getting what they want. Of course, there is a discount/markup relationship. I've seen some trouble with some other people. I try to do my best to just get along because it is a tough business, so I encourage the designers and the architects."
DeGruy Woodworks has an impressive website that has provided some business, but word of mouth has been its best advertiser.
DeGruy says the economy has had a delayed impact on his business.
"Typically, Mobile, when everything [elsewhere] was falling off, we won. Mobile was still growing, businesses were picking up. Usually there is a lag here. It's supposedly picking up a bit, but I haven't seen much of it."
The impact of Hurricane Katrina more than five years ago remains clearly evident along the Gulf Coast from Louisiana to Alabama. Many shops and mills were destroyed and never rebuilt. For those that survived, business significantly improved, particularly in the restoration area. DeGruy Woodworks experienced the good and bad effects of the hurricane.
"For about a year, we were affected very negatively because we lost some vehicles and some buildings out back. Positively, in the restoration business work, our business surged. We were doing work from Houston to Gulf Breeze, the other side of Pensacola (Fla.). For years, we had quit doing restoration.
"I had 10 people working here and I like it better being real small. With the economy, it has to be that way anyway. I don't think I'll go back to managing people. I like working with the wood and I don't sacrifice on quality. Ever since Katrina, we have been doing a few choice restoration pieces. We'll do them for museums and high-end customers."
Down the road
DeGruy isn't contemplating retirement. With just two employees, he feels like a little kid to be back in the shop.
"I still like getting back there on that lathe. I learned from one of the best. I was really lucky and blessed."
Because of the toll that years of heavy lifting have taken on his body, deGruy is thinking of making smaller pieces while keeping the quality high. The days of building breakfronts could be numbered. He has a number of things on his plate such as finishing the interior of his house and concentrating more on building musical instruments.
"I told my insurance man that I don't intend on retiring and he said people retire to do what I do. My wife will tell you I did it backwards. I should have been a doctor first, but this is the way it worked out and I still like doing it. We do the stuff the way we like to do it."
Contact: deGruy Woodworks, 11630 Jeff Hamilton Road, Mobile, AL 36695. Tel: 251-633-5765. www.degruywoodworks.com
This article originally appeared in the March 2011 issue.