By Leigh Ann Stuart, Photographed by Cheryl Gerber
40 years and have built their business on a foundation of family, craftsmanship and community. Producing mostly cypress lawn furniture such as swings, gliders, chairs and picnic tables, Unique Woodworks has been a McHenry family affair since the shop opened in 1992.
The McHenry clan is composed of Larry, a lifelong carpenter; Gwen; and two daughters and their families: Penny and her son, Matthew, 18; and Susan; her husband, Vince; and her daughter, Nicole, 9.
A graduate of Slidell High School (class of ’65), Larry studied woodworking before serving as a carpenter’s apprentice through New Orleans’ local carpenters’ union. Larry worked with his dad, a carpenter, as a kid and progressed to heavy construction as an adult. After Hurricane Betsy hit in 1965, Larry’s carpentry really picked up –– “I’ve built houses on my own,” he says –– but it wasn’t until he was laid off in 1992 that the wheels of his current career went into motion.
After building a set of Adirondack chairs for himself, Larry says, he set the furniture in his front yard and was approached by a stranger looking to purchase similar furniture. Larry sold the man the chairs right off of his lawn. “I then built some more [chairs], sold those, and the rest is history,” he says.
On the subject of history, much of the wood with which Larry builds is salvaged from sources including demolished buildings in the French Quarter. He also uses sinker cypress, which can range in age from 200 to 1,000 years old, from right off of the bayou floor. This sinker cypress is especially valuable for its beauty and strength.
“Sinker cypress takes on the characteristics of the mud it lies in,” Larry says. “And the wood is preserved; it will not rot.”
Almost since the company’s inception, Susan has worked on crafting pieces. “I cut the parts, and she assembles the furniture,” Larry says. A knack for working with her hands has made Susan a natural addition to the Unique Woodworks crafting operation. “Susan’s a tomboy,” Larry says with a laugh. “She was always the one to change her own oil, stuff like that.”
In fact, this tough cookie worked in the shop as long as doctors allowed during her pregnancy and was back six weeks after her baby was born. As you can guess, baby Nicole spent many hours in the shop, playing in her playpen –– until she was big enough to crawl out of it, that is, and follow her beloved paw-paw around the shop.
“She was right under my feet the whole time,” Larry says, quickly adding, “She knows not to play with the power tools!”
Now 9, little Nicole has acquired a loftier position in the family business: “When my granddaughter is not in school, she comes to the shop to inspect our work,” Larry says. “She lets us know if something is not done right. That’s how she got the nickname ‘The Boss.’”
Like many craftsmen, Larry enjoys the freedom afforded by a career as an artist. He says: “I like not punching a time clock, being able to take off and go whenever I want to. I enjoy meeting new people who come to the shop and meeting new crafters at shows. My wife and I also enjoy meeting old friends who we have met through the years at craft shows. We enjoy going to craft shows and admiring other crafters’ work.
“I don’t call it work because I enjoy what I do,” Larry says of his current vocation. “I could make a lot more money working somewhere else, but I wouldn’t enjoy it. Success is doing something you enjoy.”
Even the shop’s waste –– dust and odd pieces of wood –– strengthens the McHenrys’ relationships with their neighbors.
“We have people who come by for our sawdust and cutoffs from our boards,” he says. “The sawdust is used mostly for chickens and horses. One man trades sawdust for eggs. The people who get the sticks use them for tomato and vegetable stakes. They bring us lots of tomatoes and other fresh veggies.”
Hopefully the McHenrys and other families like them will continue to flourish and serve as reminders of the importance of love, family and craftsmanship.