Father’s legacy continues through daughter’s craftsmanship
Juanice Gray | Editor
I have three antique pieces in my dining room. One is a sewing machine inherited from my great-grandmother. It’s the fold-away machine cabinet style with the foot treadle. The other pieces are my table and a buffet, also inherited. All three are solid wood, still look amazing when they get a coat of wax and are by no means worn out. They’ve stood the test of time.
Too bad they don’t make furniture like that anymore. Today’s generation won’t be leaving their furniture as a legacy…or will they?
One company is still hand making solid wood furniture that will become the antiques of tomorrow.
Olivier’s in Natchitoches is rich with history. George Olivier opened his shop in the 1960s and his daughter, Chalon Olivier Ahbol, is continuing his craft as well as making adjustments for the future. She and two employees continue to work from the same location on Second Street near the NSU main entrance where her father built his furniture, and his reputation for quality.
Ahbol said in 2015 when started coming down from Shreveport to spend time with her dad as his health began to decline.
She ultimately took over the business in 2017 after her father passed away. “My husband and I made the decision of what to do with the business. I never really thought growing up that I would take it over, but at that point, I just knew I had to.”
She also has two younger brothers that do not live in Natchitoches but periodically come in to help.
“My dad had this location. He moved here in the mid to late 60s. I vividly remember him showing me how to walk to the shop after school. I remember this, we stopped at the light (at the NSU gate) and he said stop. Then I told him I could skip all the way to the shop!” Ahbol said. “In one of my (elementary) classes, we were going to do a field trip to the shop and I was so excited to let my friends see what was here, and what we did here and what my daddy did.”
She said they still use the same machinery and methods George used when that class visited.
“I was always a little crafty so I would make little things. We would play in the shop but he never formally, that I remember, taught us how to put a piece of furniture together. We were able to play in the shop, so I was able to use the tools, the bandsaw, early on.”
“We are continuing, and making modifications,” Ahbol said. “We’re changing with the times.”
Olivier’s now offers a smaller bookcase and accent pieces like candlestick holders, an ice cream caddy and charcuterie boards to reflect Ahbol’s vision for the future. “On any cabinet that has more than one drawer, we put in soft close drawer slides,” she said. This is in contrast to the traditional board on board slide. “We’ve also created a couple different headboards to go along with our pencil post bed.”
Ahbol said she noticed people continue to like the pencil post bed, but now the trend is stacking pillows. In response, they created a couple options for a higher headboard for stacking pillows. “We also have finials for the top of the pencil posts.”
A horizontal gun cabinet has been modified from her dad’s design.
“His opened from the top and to open it one had to move whatever was sitting on top then lift the drawers out. We designed a stationary top and then added sliding bi-fold doors on the front that tuck out of the way so you can access the three drawers,” she said
Even the method of designing the furniture is old school. “We have all of our designs in a book. They are hand drawn with measurements. We don’t use a computer to do our designs,” Ahbol said. Carpenter Mike Wilson draws the piece being built to scale in the notebook, with all decorative aspects, and the piece is built entirely from the drawing.
Wilson met George Olivier in a sculpture class at NSU. George was speaking to the instructor about the shop and Mike asked about it. “He worked for my dad for about five years then went out on his own. Then before my dad passed away, I reached out to Mike to ask him some questions and consult with him about making some things. He helped me out, no problem at all,”Ahbol said. “After my dad passed away, it was just me making pencil post beds and the end tables and tables; I could do that by myself.”
Wilson got drawn back into the fold when Ahbol was asked to make cypress doors. “I said I don’t, but let me get in touch with someone who does,” she said. “He (Wilson) said I had all the tools we’d need, so we could do anything like that together and use the shop. So, we had an order and made the doors for the Many Catholic church.” He then helped out with other projects before she approached him to return to the shop. “Thankfully, he said yes and came back in about 2018.”
Olivier’s can make almost anything that can be crafted of solid wood, but there is a catch, it must be cypress. “We only use cypress. My dad liked cypress and so that is our niche,” she said. “It’s a very beautiful wood. Every piece looks different. We get the number 2 that has the knots and the swirly grain.”
Their style has a unique Louisiana feel that is their trademark.
Ahbol said they get their wood rough. In the wood industry, it’s called 4 quarter or 8 quarter, meaning it is a true 1-inch or 2-inch. “We will flatten it, plane it, saw it, sand it, cut it to shape and put it together,” she said in explanation of the manufacturing process.
Then the wood is moved to the finishing room. “We hand stain it,” she said. There are no short cuts. Employee Brenda Bosco works in the finishing room. “I’ve asked if we could use a sander and it’s always ‘nope, it has to be by hand’ no matter what.” Even pieces like the spiral cut candlestick holders are hand sanded and stained. “It’s tough to get into those grooves and get it right,” Bosco said.
Each piece of wood has a minimum of 4-6 layers of topcoat. The process is repetitive, “We stain by hand then put a topcoat, then we sand, seal, sand, seal, sand, seal, all by hand, until perfect,” Ahbol said.
As a general rule of thumb, the build takes about 12 weeks. Ahbol said the actual work hours for a small piece like a chair side table is only a few hours, but the finish room takes a minimum of a week and a half. “It’s not a quick process. There are no shortcuts,” she said.
The pieces are put together old style as well by using mortice and tendon, tongue and groove, dovetail and shiplap. A few pieces are put together with pocket screws. “We have several methods of joinery (when you put your joints together). And when there is a piece where you see the back, we use real wood and shiplap it.”
Ahbol, Wilson and Bosco are taking this traditional solid wood concept into the future. “What direction are we going in? I think we’re more flexible with products like the desk that changes from a seated position to standing. We’ve made different head boards too. I believe we’re trying to listen to the customer. We’re also in the process of designing a bed that doesn’t have posts. That will be something different, a little more minimalist but certainly real wood. The gun cabinet is a different design we’re really excited about,” Ahbol said. In fact, they had an unusual request for an urn. A former classmate asked her to make one because the craftsman who used to make them passed away and the family had no one to do the urns.
“We came up with a design we’re proud of based on measurements given to us,” she said. The design is not morbid and not the traditional shape of an urn. It has the Olivier aesthetic.
How to purchase
While the furniture is traditional craftsmanship, the ordering process is completely modern. They have a website, www.olivierwoodworks.com, phone, 318-352-1427, a showroom on Front Street that is open Saturdays when it is warm. The workshop is open weekdays from 8 a.m.-4 p.m. A 50% deposit puts them in action with balance due upon receipt.
As wood ages it goldens, and for anyone looking to make tomorrow’s antiques a part of their legacy, Olivier’s is the gold at the end of the rainbow.