Olivier Woodworks: A Legacy of Handcrafted Furniture
By Rebekah Giambroni
ave you ever thought about where the bed you sleep in or the table you dine at came from? Whose hands put them together? The art of woodworking and handcrafted furniture is alive and well in Natchitoches, and one family’s legacy of making unique, functional pieces continues after more than five decades in the business.
Chalon Olivier Ahbol is carrying on the love of handcrafted woodworking started by her father, George, when he began Olivier Woodworks in 1965. Upon entering the charming workshop and showroom at 117 Second Street, you are greeted not only by the gorgeous, handcrafted furniture that begs you to take it home but by the kindness of Chalon and her husband, Rob.
“We are able to do things just like he did,” Chalon said, regarding her and their builder, Mike Wilson, both learning under George.
Olivier’s exclusively uses cypress wood which is sourced almost primarily in Louisiana. The machines used for cutting, sanding, and shaping the wood are all at least 50 years old. The Ahbols say the older machines are simpler to maintain, and as the saying goes, “they don’t make them like they used to.” One such machine is the 100-year-old lathe used for sanding and shaping wood. George specially designed or modified many of the jigs used on the lathe specifically to make the pieces he wished to create. Chalon joked about the fact that everything at Olivier is handmade, “There’s usually a lot of sawdust. We’re proud of the sawdust.”
Olivier has a signature line of beds, tables, chests, and bookcases they always keep in stock. Their line is all inspired by the bayous, plantations, and Acadian French heritage of Louisiana. The craftsmanship and detail on each piece are a work of art. Complex tapering clover or intricate spiraled posts and ornate wave carvings adorn the four poster beds. The collection has a single unique chair – the Empire – which has a deeply carved seat making it surprisingly comfortable without a cushion.
In addition to their standard line, they take custom orders. Clients can sit down with Chalon and discuss what they have in mind, then a mock-up will be sketched and approved. After the shaping of the piece is done, it heads to the finishing room to be sanded and stained up to five times and all by hand. This devotion of time and attention to detail provides a piece so smooth and even you might be shocked that it is real wood. The pieces, like panels and posts, are hung on a clever swiveling system they created to improve efficiency when finishing. One interesting custom order the Ahbols mentioned was a custom bed with a hidden panel in the footboard. Upon the press of a button, it opened, and a television rose into view. With another press of the button, the television disappeared back into the footboard, out of sight.
Along with the shop and showroom on Second Street, there is a small gallery on Front Street that showcases many of their pieces, as well as photos of custom pieces clients have provided.
It was clear after a visit that furniture is not just a job at Olivier; it is a passion. Olivier is carrying on a passion to help others to outfit their homes with something beautiful and enduring.