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Texas twist of fate

The thought of selling Arts and Crafts furniture at a Texas rodeo and livestock show definitely bucks the norm, but that is exactly how one Houston furniture maker got his foot in the door, developed a clientele, and created his successful business. Richard Loper, the owner of El Dorado Woodworks in Houston, has come a long way from a struggling career as a professional photographer to a nationally known maker of Arts and Crafts furniture. His two-man shop and showroom are a step back in time, filled with pieces originally designed by the likes of Greene & Greene, Gustav Stickley and Frank Lloyd Wright.

El Dorado Woodworks

Loper grew up in Delaware, lived in New Orleans for a time, moved around some more and in 1993 received a bachelor’s degree in photography from Ohio University in Athens, Ohio. For 10 years he was a professional photographer in Houston, while on the side he collected a few tools and built small projects for friends and family. He had no formal woodworking training, but in 1993 added furniture making to his portfolio.

“I could see that the photography business wasn’t my future, and I had a friend in the advertising business, and she and her husband started building metal cowboy-style furniture and exhibiting at the Houston rodeo; that sparked a direction for me,” Loper recalls. “You build a metal chair and you put a nice big cushy cushion on it and it is OK. With a little bit of help from them directing me, guiding me, I started building Western-style furniture.”

A portion of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo resembles a home show, devoted to vendor areas selling anything from cowboy hats to jewelry to Western clothing and furniture. The rodeo attracts more than one million people each year during its 17-day run.

“The hours are brutal; they’re 9 a.m. until 11 p.m., every day, and back then I was working by myself,” Loper says. “So by the end of the show I’m ready to die. But that’s how I started, and I made incredible contacts there. I haven’t done the rodeo in 10 years now. Once I had the showroom, I didn’t need the rodeo or home shows anymore.”

Love at first sight
While displaying his Western furniture in 1994 at a Dallas furniture market, Loper encountered what could be described as a life-changing event or a near-religious experience — he discovered Arts and Crafts furniture.

El Dorado Woodworks Owner: Richard Loper
Location: Houston
Years as pro: 15 years
Education: Bachelor's degree in photography, Ohio University
Previous job: Professional photographer
Specialty: Arts and Crafts furniture
Shop size: 6,400 sq. ft.
Adjacent showroom: 600 sq. ft.
Quotable: "The Arts and Crafts style I know inside and out and, with my years of experience, I can design just about anything in that style. It depends on which way the customer wants to go and then I know how to get there."

“When I saw my first Arts and Crafts furniture, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he says. “There was a guy from California, and he had a booth there and it was beautifully decorated. The furniture was gorgeous, and it just embodied what wood meant to furniture, and I knew right away what I wanted. So I started investigating the style. Once you get into it; it envelops you. It gets into your blood, and you can’t get rid of it. From there, it has just snowballed.”

Loper depended heavily on his photography income to support his newfound passion. As his furniture business grew, the reliance on photography income diminished. But attempting to make a living by selling Arts and Crafts furniture in Houston has proven to be a formidable task.

“About 90 percent of what we do is Arts and Crafts. Houston is not a great Arts and Crafts community; most people don’t know about it. But they are living in homes that were built in that era, and they just have to be taught the history — why the home is the way it is and what should go into that home.”

Beyond Houston
With a small local clientele, Loper realized he had to look elsewhere to promote his product. Several outlets have strongly influenced the success of his business — his showroom, his Web site and American Bungalow magazine. There’s a 600-sq. ft. showroom adjacent to his shop filled with his furniture and accent items. He doesn’t get much walk-in traffic, but it is a place where the maker and client often meet to discuss design features and consummate a sale.

Loper admits his Web site takes a back seat to some of the more pressing shop issues, but the El Dorado Woodworks’ site, which has been online for more than 10 years, contains images of more than 200 pieces from his several furniture collections. Without the Web site, Loper believes business would be much tougher. He doesn’t produce a catalog so, in essence, the Web site is his catalog. And with his professional photography background, the Houston maker has saved money by taking all his own photos.

The Web site also contains a section for custom pieces that don’t precisely fit into the Arts and Crafts mold. People occasionally visit his showroom with pictures, explain what aspects of a piece or two they like, and Loper combines the elements using CorelDraw, a two-dimensional graphic design program. Between CorelDraw and regular drawings, the clients obtain a visual understanding of how the pieces will look.

“The Web site has been an incredible tool,” he says. “One comment I get from a lot of people is the fact that when the pictures do pop up, they can actually see the furniture and the details of the furniture. I’ll go to a lot of Web sites and you can’t see details. That helps sell the product.

“I’d say 90 percent of my business comes from American Bungalow magazine. We advertise in that, it’s nationwide, and it’s directly geared towards Arts and Crafts enthusiasts. It has a circulation between 35,000 and 50,000 and, once again, everybody who picks it up is a potential customer. And we do work nationwide. I’d say there are times when 75 percent of my work is out of state.”

Specific clientele
El Dorado Woodworks produces work solely for the residential end-user. Loper avoids working with designers and prefers to deal with the clients themselves. There are no commercial jobs, and production runs are non-existent. On rare occasions, such as when Loper builds a Morris chair, he will produce three to six chairs because they are so labor-intensive. That’s as close to a production run you will find in his shop.

“There was a time when most of the people we did work for were attorneys, but I’ve sold to astronauts, doctors and teachers. One of my oldest customers is a classical musician. But most everybody is a little bit ‘better off.’ If you break it down, on average, it is about a 50-50 split of out-of-state and local.”

Does he feel like he is in a competitive market?

“Nationally, I would say yes; locally, no. No one locally that I know is building Arts and Crafts furniture. There are people who try, but they can’t do what we do. I think with my art background I have a better sense of proportion and design and that helps. I can look at art furniture, and I can look for other furniture on the Web and know that we’re better just by proportions of a piece. I look back at stuff I made 14 years ago, and it was clunky and not designed well. It’s from living in the business and learning what’s right.”

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Employee ups and downs
Until last fall, Loper had the perfect employee. He described him as the “heart and soul” of the shop who did the majority of the building. Unfortunately, after 10 years, he suddenly left El Dorado Woodworks and Loper had to start anew.

“It’s put me back to square one, where I’ve hired a new guy with minimal experience. He has some experience from cabinet-type work, but that doesn’t really translate to furniture work. Basically I’ve become the main producer in the shop again, and I’m teaching him what I taught my [former employee] 10 years ago when he started.”

Loper says he has changed his strategy when it applies to training a new employee. In the past, he would try to teach the new employee everything at once, but now realizes that was overwhelming. This time around, he has started the learning process by teaching the basics, such as milling lumber, assembling lumber and doing some joinery. Loper helps with the rest of the building, assists with assembly and takes care of the finishing.

“I’m a stickler about finishing. Once again, not having any formal training, it was a long, hard road trying to figure out what I was doing. What we spray mostly is shellac for the Arts and Crafts furniture on the oak. Shellac on just about anything else just doesn’t work well. It gives it a sense of antiquity, that’s that golden hue that you would see in older pieces. Plus, it is traditional for the period. That’s what they were using back then. On mahogany, cherry and walnut, we’ll use a lacquer.”

Control freak
Loper doesn’t like to sub any of his work out; upholstery is the only job he lets someone else perform. Until recently he subbed out his veneer work, but now owns a veneer press so he can oversee that process in-house.

“A guy I know set up a veneer press and then transformed his entire business to working with veneer only. When we had a situation when we needed veneer work done, I’d call on him. But I’m a control freak. If I can’t control the situation, it drives me nuts, and we went through a couple of jobs where I was not in control in that particular end of the project. So, number one, I need to be in control, and number two, that’s money that is not going in my pocket. So I’ve made the investment into a veneer press, and now we do all that work here.

“If a customer calls to bitch about something, and it’s something I don’t have control over, it frustrates the hell out of me.”

The spacious 6,400-sq.-ft. shop contains a variety of machinery. Loper is of the vein that if a procedure can be performed by a machine, and the result is the same quality as if it were produced with hand tools, then he definitely uses the machinery.

“My unofficial motto is if it doesn’t have a motor, we don’t use it. I’ve never been versed in hand tools, and I just like to see our machinery [in use]. Our dovetails are all cut with a router and a dovetail jig.”

His machinery inventory includes a Powermatic table saw, 20" planer and mortiser; Crescent 12" jointer and band saw; Oliver 16" jointer; Rockwell shaper; Woodmaster 50" drum sander; Mini Max duplicating lathe and a well-used forklift.

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He buys most of his wood — the majority being quartersawn oak — from Mason’s Mill & Lumber in Houston.

Gearing up
These days Loper is working in the shop more than he’s used to; training his new employee until he can get to the point where he feels comfortable leaving him alone. But he hasn’t reached that level yet.

“Once again, if I’m not producing, I’m not making any money. The new guy can’t do it at this point. He’s a good assistant; it’s just going to take probably six months to a year to get him trained.”

El Dorado Woodworks recently landed a large millwork job for a 1930s Prairie-style house.

“The Prairie style is one of the prevalent styles from the Arts and Crafts period and we’re going to do all of the built-in cabinets and trim work in the two-story house, and it’s all going to be in a Frank Lloyd Wright style,” he explains. “With that job and all the furniture [orders] we have in-house, we’re busy for the next 12 months. This house would be about a six-month job. Every room has built-in cabinets, and we’re going to build them here in the shop.”

Loper’s passion for the Arts and Crafts style will always remain; there are no drastic design or career changes on the horizon in terms of his woodworking career, nor are any expected. He is fully aware of how tough the road was to reach the level of success he has achieved, and he is equally aware what he needs to do to remain as a top furniture maker.

“You have to learn to be poor for a long time, establish yourself, have a good product and stand behind your product,” Loper says. “And also learn how to run a business. It probably took me at least eight years to get over the hump where I was living more comfortably, plus I had my photography career back then to help pay the bills. I’d say after eight years things started to turn around.”

Finally, what about El Dorado Woodworks? What’s behind the name of the business?

“El Dorado means the golden or the gold, but that doesn’t have anything to do with my business at all. There was one guy I knew who was my designer, he did my logo for me, corporate identity. We were going to get together for lunch one day and talk about names, and as I drove up in my 1974 El Dorado convertible, he goes, ‘This is it — El Dorado Woodworks.’ ”

Contact: El Dorado Woodworks, 3603 Polk St., Houston, TX 77003. Tel: 713-529-3880.

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