Louis Walsh knows stress. As a Fort Lauderdale police officer, he’s familiar with the sort of long, difficult days that, when they’re done, require a relaxing hobby to take the edge off. He’s not the first person to discover woodworking for that. “It’s relaxing after a long day at work,” he says.
Where he differs from most other woodworkers though, is in the scope of what he does. Something that he originally did for himself – building furniture for his own home when he wasn’t particularly impressed with what was on offer in the big stores – has now grown into a one-man, home garage-based business.
It’s not a huge business, and he’s happy to keep it that way.
“I don’t see it being something that I have a warehouse for,” he says. “And mostly, it’s done on my free time. Most woodwork takes time.”
You work for an hour or two, then comes the curing. The waiting. Then the hour or two. It can be an exacting process, which is part of what Walsh likes about it.
“I do think – and I’m a perfectionist – if I see one little smudge on the entire project – everything’s coming off and I’m restarting.”
What you do is you sand it down and do it right, apply the finish – and then you wait. “The second you rush it is the second it starts to look bad.”
Walsh first learned these skills as a boy.
“Growing up, I would help out my grandfather,” Walsh says. “He’s got a few apartment buildings, and whenever somebody would move out we’d renovate the apartment. He’d use me – cheap labor.”
As he got older, he’d go to the Swap Shop looking for inexpensive wood furniture he could refurbish. He began to notice certain differences – or rather, a certain lack of difference.
“What got me into custom stuff was, after working on refurbishing certain items and getting to know certain kinds of woods, I would go to furniture stores and see an astronomical price,” he says.
He could tell what kind of wood was being used – whether or not it was quality. When it came time to furnish his own house, he wasn’t impressed with much of what he saw. He decided he could do better. “I just got so fed up with how much furniture cost. I thought I can go out and make this on my own, and it will be made out of the genuine product.”
So he made his own furniture. Then a piece here and there for a friend. And then, in the way these things can happen, people mentioned his name to other people, friends of friends began to get in touch and Walsh had a small business.
He thinks word of mouth has been what’s grown his business because custom-made furniture is not always something people consider. They think the price will be astronomical or they just go to the nearest big store to pick something out “because that’s where you go to buy furniture.”
“Honestly, most people don’t even think about that kind of (custom-made) stuff until it gets mentioned to them.”
One advantage to keeping things small and custom is that Walsh gets to do exactly the kind of work he wants to do.
“Everything I’ve done is 100 percent custom,” he says. “There are certain styles that people request; there are certain styles that I just won’t do.”
For example, river tables – a wood table with a bright blue epoxy “river” running down the middle – are hot right now, as any scan through Instagram or Pinterest will show you. And, Walsh says, they do look good. But they’re not for him.
“As cool as that is, there’s actually so much wasted product in that,” he says. “And it’s so messy that I won’t do those.”
That’s not to say he doesn’t draw on inspiration from other woodworkers. He’ll show prospective clients different versions on a broad theme, then get down to making something that’s just for them.
“Basically everything that people request is 100 percent original,” he says. “Most people don’t know where to look and I’ll bombard them with 20 or 30 pictures of pieces that other people have done.”
Not that the job is clear-cut once a style and concept have been picked out.
“Let’s say you find something you like,” he says. “Now I have to hunt down the availability of the wood.”
He tells the story of a plan for a walnut table in a certain shape. But Walsh, who uses small suppliers and can’t just order any piece of wood to a certain specification at any time, couldn’t get walnut in the right shape.
“We’re kind of at the whim of Mother Nature,” he says. “A lot of American walnut, people don’t realize, but it’s not a very big tree. They don’t really go over 30 inches. And most American dining room tables are about 33 inches in width.”
Eventually he found what he needed in mahogany. “For me personally I could care less about the kind of wood,” he says. “It’s all about bringing your idea to life.”
Prices can really range depending on what customers want. He’s used galvanized pipes for an industrial look. He works with a blacksmith if, say, somebody wants a table with iron legs. That drives up the price but hey, if it’s what you want…
“I’ve seen the legs cost more than the table,” he says. “I like to keep it simple (but) I can get as complicated as they want. If you want complicated legs, we can do that.
“When it comes down to it, it’s 100 percent custom; what do you want, what matches your style.”