Durable designs, use of native woods drive custom woodworking business

Texas-based Louis Fry follows in the footsteps of traditional furniture makers of the past while blazing his own design trails.

This manuscript cabinet was created to house original John James Audubon prints in the large, flat file-sized drawers and rare books in the lower section. The design challenge, according to Fry, was to create a piece that could accommodate the large prints, without appearing too massive or bulky. Woods used include walnut, pecan, mesquite and wenge. The original artwork on the outside is woodburning and depicts some of the owner’s favorite native Texas flora and fauna. It was created by wildlife artist Kathleen Marie Wilson (kathleenmariestudio.com).

Nestled in ranch country 25 miles west of Austin, TX, master craftsman Louis Fry creates custom furniture for a discerning clientele base. An innovative designer, as well as a practical and successful businessman, he attributes much of his success to his status as head of a large family.

“The driving impetus for me has been that I have been the primary breadwinner for a wife and six children. That forced me to find those avenues that would both allow me to be creative and also be profitable and productive as a designer and as a craftsman,” he says.

After graduating from the University of Texas, Fry says he was inspired by attending an Arts-and-Crafts show in San Francisco in 1972. Realizing that he wanted to make things for a living, Fry returned to Texas, got married and worked with his wife batiking (decorating fabric), but soon realized his talent was more geared to work in three dimensions.

Self taught, Fry bought woodworking tools and read basic cabinetmaking books to teach himself the trade. When he ran across a copy of Fine Woodworking magazine, he realized for the first time that some people were following traditional woodworking methods and creating and selling their own designs.

“I felt very inspired by that and quit my day job — which was crazy,” he says. “I started advertising myself as a custom woodworker, and I was lying, because I had no idea.”

Picking up small jobs like bookcases or dresser drawers, Fry says he also read everything he could, including James Krenov.

The top and base of this dining table are mesquite, while the pedestal is made from live oak roots taken from a neighbor’s ranch. The glass center of the top allows viewing of the gnarly roots below.

“After about five years,” he says, “I realized that there was no way I could compete with manufactured furniture and would have to develop as a designer if I was going to have any future in the business. So I started doing a lot of drawing and reading a lot about the history of furniture.”

“I am not a modernist,” he adds. “I feel a connection with the furniture makers of the distant past.”

Moving out of his home shop, Fry found himself in a larger shop with three employees and working more as a manager than a woodworker. A desire to be more hands-on eventually brought him to the countryside, where he works primarily by himself these days in an 1,100-square-foot shop, producing 10 to 15 pieces of custom furniture a year.

Part of Fry’s success has been his business acumen. He rented space in a high-end showroom for a decade, where he exhibited several custom pieces he built on speculation.

Printed brochures and business cards helped him develop a client base and repeat business. And 10 years ago, Fry set up his Web site (ranchomondo.com/louisfry/), which includes a blog and newsletter. Fry says he receives most of his work from these sources.

One of the most striking aspects of Fry’s work is his use of native indigenous woods. He explains that because central Texas experiences extreme weather conditions that prohibit forest growth, wood species choices are limited. Often using wood planks from reclaimed mesquite and pecan trees, along with contrasting or complementary woods like wenge, curly maple or walnut, Fry says he uses the wood like a paint palette and generally uses no stain, sticking with a clear finish to show the natural wood patterns.

Fry also stresses what he feels is an important and often overlooked element of the green movement: durability.

“There is a paradigm shift we are all going to have to make in terms of consumption,” he says. “We have the technology and materials to make things that last 150 years. How green are we if the things we make are going to be replaced in 25 years?”


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