Jazzed about his job - Custom work

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Custom work
There are two types of customers Alleger says he receives. One is the person who says they saw a table at the Pottery Barn that they absolutely love and want to know if he can build it. He tells them if they've already found what they want, then go buy it at the Pottery Barn.

"The other kind of customer I get calls and says I want something custom made, but I have no idea of what I want. That's an extremely tough bill to fill. I get a general sense of what they want, meet with the customer, look at the other furniture in the house, take a lot of pictures and the area of the room where they want to put the piece. I take graph paper with me and pencil-sketch stuff to at least figure out what they don't want from the beginning, and that makes my job a lot easier.

Alleger uses a wide-angle photo of where the piece is going to go in the room and builds it to scale using Adobe Illustrator. He takes the vector art in Illustrator, sends the image into PhotoShop, applies wood grain fillers, shade stains, shadows and places it in the room. Then he sends the client the image of the finished piece and once they see exactly what it's like in their home, Alleger says it always "seals the deal."

The custom clientele recently has been a mix of people. In the last two years many of Alleger's customers have been people who have had their children grow up and leave the house. The parents decide the time is right to spend money on something that's really for them, often furniture featuring exotic woods and fancier designs.

Space is limited
In a small shop, there isn't much room for tools or machinery. He gets by with a 9" Delta table saw, a hollow chisel mortiser, miter saw, routers, sanders and a router table. He has several hundred finishes and had a nice collection of 80 hand planes until Katrina came along.

"I lost all of them," he laments. "I was only able to salvage about a dozen out of the whole collection and that was a real bummer. I'm trying to slowly build back, but it's not something that I go out actively looking for. One of the trees came down and poked a hole clean through the roof and with that came a wash of water with everything underneath it. Some of them probably could have been salvaged, but I don't think they would have been true and really worked right. It was unfortunate."

With the recent reopening of Riverside Lumber in New Orleans, which was wiped out by Katrina, Alleger can once again buy his wood and veneer locally. He orders a lot of products through Van Dyke's and his caning supplies from an Ohio company.

One jolly fellow
Since he arrived in New Orleans, Alleger has never been happier. The shop is running smoothly, the restoration work is diminishing, his employees are working out, and he has a new addition to his family. Like anyone in the custom furniture business, making more money wouldn't hurt the cause, but he is realistic about the career path he selected.

"There's always that hope that you'll really find that niche of the market that's the big spenders or the woodworker's benefactor, somebody who is completely selfless and wants to make a small-time guy like me rich. I never expect to make a fortune doing this, but I love being able to walk 10 steps from the coffee pot to work in the morning and that has made it worth it for me."

He worries about the size of his shop and his home, but still maintains a fondness for his small shop space.

"It has a certain charm, but as you can see it is incredibly cramped. I like it most of the time, but sometimes it is just awful, I'm tripping over everything. I'm usually doing so many different things at a time, to coordinate dry times, when I can make dust time, everything like that, it really requires a lot to be able to manage what I do in that space."

The game plan is to buy a house and build a shop when the timing is right. In the interim, he can continue to outsource and produce his larger work at other locations. It takes organization, finesse and patience, but so far he is still able to get the results he wants.

"A lot of people search for one thing their whole life that they're passionate about; that one thing that they can really go for and they love. I've been extremely fortunate finding it twice. I still love playing music , and I love my woodworking."

Contact: Dan Alleger Custom Woodworking, 1311 Harmony St., New Orleans, LA 70115. Tel: 504-931-5134. www.danswoodworking.com