Finding a Career...and a Lifestyle

Jay Slavec says that starting his business, Gila River Wood Works in Cliff, NM, at age 44 was well worth the wait.

By Ann Gurley Rogers

Gila River Woodworks

Cliff, NM

Year Founded: 1986

Employees: 1

Shop Size: 1,100 square feet

FYI: The population of Cliff is only 400, but woodworker Jay Slavec reaches customers nationwide through his Web site.


Jay Slavec had to try several professions before he figured out at the age of 40 that he was meant to be a custom furnituremaker.

“Right out of college I went to work for IBM, and I did not like that. My wife got a job teaching, which brought us to Cliff, NM. For a while I drove a bus for the school district. In addition to driving the bus, it was my responsibility to maintain it mechanically,” says Slavec.

This hutch combines both an “Old World” tradition with a southwest aesthetic. It features hand-forged hardware and is made from Ponderosa pine with a honey amber finish.  

That was about 16 years ago, and the parameters of his job changed even beyond bus maintenance — he was expected to drive between 40 and 400 miles to take student athletes to sporting events.That was when he decided that he needed to reinvent himself, he says.

Slavec says that he had felt a creative ability for some time. He spent a great deal of time in college in the art department throwing pots, which he enjoyed and did good work. “I figured, though, that being a potter would be a really hard way to make a living. You would just have to make and sell too many individual pieces each year,” he says.

He built an adobe house as his family’s second residence and says he did not find building a house to be all that difficult. Then after extensive soul searching, he decided to give furnituremaking a try.

From books to tools

Slavec began by going to the local library and reading all the woodworking books and magazines he could get his hands on. “I realized that I could look at a picture of a piece of furniture and the whole thing made sense to me,” he says. “I understand what is needed to build such a piece and I don’t forget it.” After reading and studying, he started practicing and before too long, he began selling pieces to friends in southern New Mexico.

His first commission was in 1990. He counted on word-of-mouth to market his business, and over time he developed a local clientele in rural New Mexico. The population of Cliff is only 400 and Silver City, which is 30 miles away, has a population of 12,000. There was a doctor in town who commissioned enough pieces that he could be considered a patron. But even so, such a sparsely populated region cannot produce enough clients to support a custom woodworking business.

On the other hand, such a location means low overhead, which enables Slavec to market successfully to the rest of the country with very competitive prices. His 1,100-square-foot shop is the original adobe house that he bought as his first residence. He uses a wood stove for heat, and his electric bill is never more than $30 a month. He has no mortgage, so his only overhead is the cost of materials.

Slavec owns his equipment outright, so his bottom line is not affected by monthly payments. He has a Unisaw, a 14-inch bandsaw, a 16-inch drill press, a hollow chisel mortiser, a spindle sander and a 12-inch benchtop planer, all from Delta. He also has several Wood Tech machines, including a 6-inch joiner, a brad nailer and a dust collector.

The shop also houses a vintage DeWalt 10-inch radial arm saw, a 12-inch sliding compound miter-saw and a biscuit joiner. He works with a Freud router table equipped with a Makita 3-hp router. From Porter-Cable, he has routers, a belt sander, and a 14.4-volt cordless drill.

Last year, Slavec grossed about $30,000. “Since my overhead is so low, I get to keep it all,” he says, but adds that his family could not make it without his wife’s steady income as a school teacher.

Furniture designs reflect the region

Slavec started out making Southwestern-style furniture, which is popular in his region, but he also finds that people all over the country like that style. One typical example of his Southwestern work is a classic bench made of ponderosa pine. Its geometric designs draw from Native American cultures, such as the Anasazi and the Mimbreno, he says. The piece sells for $1,200.

This contemporary-style hall table combines walnut with bird’s-eye maple that was salvaged from a local college being remodeled; it had been used in a basketball floor.  

Slavec also has expanded his repertoire to include some contemporary designs and traditional, antique-style pieces. For instance, an alder armoire, which sold for $6,900, reflects “Old World” Italian elements.

This past year Slavec had several significant local commissions. He obtained one because of an inventory of ponderosa pine he had acquired from a local mill. The clients liked the fact that the wood had interesting saw marks from the old circular blades that were used in the milling process, and they also liked the weathered look that came from air-drying the wood. Slavec used the wood to build cabinets for three baths, the kitchen and an office. The job lasted nearly eight months and he earned $21,000.

Also during the past year, Slavec completed two local projects that will give him a great deal of long-term visibility in the community. One was a set of doors built for the Sun Fire Gallery in Silver City. They are double doors of Spanish cedar.

“We have a lot of rain and snow here and, like teak, Spanish cedar holds up well when it is exposed to the weather,” Slavec says.

The second commission was for a set of gates, also of Spanish cedar, for the courtyard of a dentist’s office. Slavec charged $1,550 for the doors and $1,400 for the gates.

Web presence expands his market reach

A year ago, Slavec developed a Web site in order to expand his market base, and the results so far have been good. During Last December, he received six inquiries on a bed pictured on the site ( In January, he personally delivered a bed to a new customer in New York City.

This bench is classic Santa Fe style, which reflects Native American cultures in its use of distinctive geometric designs. It is made from Ponderosa pine. The customer asked for the color to match a Coca-Cola can; Slavec used a red wash and lacquer to achieve the look.  

The New York customer said she had been planning a bed for her efficiency apartment for several years. When she saw Slavec’s bed on his Web site, she said she had found what she had been looking for.

She wanted her bed to be made of cherry, however, and it needed to be smaller than the one pictured on Slavec’s Web site. But that one served as a starting point. She also was delighted that the price of the custom bed plus delivery was $3,200, only about half of what she expected to pay if she had purchased something comparable from a furnituremaker in the Northeast.

Taking the time to deliver this bed personally is another example of Slavec’s sense of what is important in his life. It would not occur to most people living a fast-paced lifestyle in an urban setting to spend two weeks to drive over 7,200 miles to deliver a commissioned piece. But “delivering this bed myself was part of the experience,” he says.

“First, I make it a policy only to do business for people that I like, and I felt that it was important to meet this client,” he adds. “Additionally, I thought that if I met her, saw the bed in its intended place and met some of her friends, I might create new opportunities. It turned out better than I had expected. My new client and friend greeted me with a present for my wife and two bottles of fine wine for me. And my traveling partner and I were able to do some sightseeing in New York.“

Currently, Slavec has clients in Dallas,TX; Tupelo, MS; and New York City. Since his return from Manhattan, he has received another commission through his Web site for a customer in Mesa, AZ. The job entails a coffee table and two hexagon shaped tables, with the type of wood yet to be determined. Slavec expects the price to be around $2,700.

Slavec’s friends have observed that as he has been developing his custom woodworking business, he seems to enjoy life more and smiles more frequently. Slavec concurs and sums up his outlook succinctly by saying, “Life is good.”

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