Today I spent some time at the workshop of my friend Will Andrews, a cabinetmaker who does custom work for a private contractor in Broadmoor. I know Will from being a regular during happy hour shifts at the bar, and I thought it would be interesting to learn more about what he does. I did, and then some. An engaging conversation in which I would learn a little bit about a lot of things, including classic restoration techniques, some New Orleans history, filmmaking, bartending, the implications of being gay in a largely machismo industry, and the great fire(s) that hit New Orleans in the 18th century. Oh, and some stuff about cabinetmaking, too.
Steve Spehar: Would you be considered an artisan? Is that a word you could use?
Will Andrews: Yes.
SS How do you get into something like that?
WA My family had a welding and fabricating shop, so I’ve always had a propensity towards using my hands. I went to a trade school in Milwaukee.
SS Is that where you’re from?
WA I’m from St. Louis.
SS You went to school in Milwaukee, and you studied…?
SS Really? They offered that?
WA It was like the last bastion of that. Basically, after we were done, they quit the program. Because you know, the whole world is Home Depotized. No one cares anymore.
SS How do people learn these days, do they just become apprentices?
WA Or, you just take the time out to do it in your spare time, until you’re good enough at it that you can get people to pay you to do it. What I picked up in school was all…maintaining the machines, but I can do all kinds of weird old fashioned stuff, that hardly anyone knows how to do anymore.
SS What kind of stuff is that?
WA Old restoration stuff, like veneers and French rub, and things like that, that no one uses. How to shellack and mix stains, do weird little joints.
SS Do you do a lot of that?
WA No. It’s rare. But sometimes. About once every other month I volunteer at the Historic New Orleans Collection.
SS What is that place?
WA They’re a huge non-profit, and they collect…old shit. (we laugh)
SS Is it like a museum?
WA Oh yeah.
SS So it’s old furniture from the region?
WA Furniture, paintings, daguerreotypes, everything…
SS All representing New Orleans at different eras?
SS Interesting. That’s going to get a hyperlink. (laugh)
WA Yeah, the Historic New Orleans Collection is like 8 buildings in the Quarter chock full of old stuff.
SS No kidding? That sounds really fascinating.
WA Check it out.
SS I need go to check it out.
WA Madame John’s is that old old house on Dumaine, that’s the only one that’s still around from before the fire. That and Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop.
SS Which fire are you referring to?
WA Uh, seventeen eighty something….[The Good Friday fire in March of 1788 destroyed 4/5 of the young Spanish colony, and most of the rest in a second great fire in 1794]
SS It was a fire that destroyed most of New Orleans?
WA The whole thing.
SS It was all wood of course.
WA All wood.
SS Except Lafittes.
WA Yes, and Madame John’s Legacy, and I think the convent, as well. The Ursulines Convent.
SS This is another thing I just learned.
WA Madame John’s is run by the Historic Collection, and you can go in it, walk around.
SS Is it mostly originally furnished?
WA All originally furnished. Some reproductions. You’re not allowed to touch the original stuff.
SS So you do restoration for them.
WA I know some of the directors there, so occasionally they ask me to help out.
SS Without giving all the gory details, give me an overview of how the process starts for you. Does someone give you a design? Do they just tell you what they want?
WA Well, it runs the gamut. You meet people, and you talk to them, and they find out that you’re not a Neanderthal, so then they start trusting you, and then they start asking your opinion. Sometimes people have their decorator, or their architect, or some other bitch, that’s in the middle of it…(we laugh)
SS It sounds like the way a wedding planner can be for me.
WA Totally. To them you’re some slack-jawed idiot that runs the tools, you know.
SS “I have hammer. I build.”
WA Exactly. But now, the longer I’m here—uptown is not that big of a place, and everyone knows each other—so now my reputation is getting out.
SS Right. So they come in with a blueprint…?
WA …or with a page out of a magazine, or sometimes they’re just like….’darling, make it happen.’
SS What’s your favorite thing to work on?
WA I like modern stuff. Anything. Tables, chairs, I love suspended furniture. Crazy stairways, things like that.
SS What are you working on right now?
WA A big entertainment center. Here’s the drawing…. There’s the lower portion, and then there’s a huge TV, of course. Bookcases, here and here. And then….(picking up two columnar pieces) It will be put together on site, because you could never fit it through the door.
SS Oh, so you have to kind of Akia-fy it? For lack of a better phrase.
WA Yes, exactly. Modulize it.
SS Modulize, okay. That’s the word. What are your most relentless tools, that you use all the time? The table saw?
WA Yes, the chop saw. Essential. You can do a lot with those two things.
SS I love this workshop. I’ve always had an abiding interest, somewhere behind everything else, in working on furniture. It’s probably too late to venture into that.
WA The thing is, I’ve never done anything else. Except bartending.
SS You did tend bar, for a minute?
WA For years. I bought a huge dilapidated Addams Family-style house in Milwaukee, in the ghetto. I’d put in work all day at the cabinet shop I was working at, then I’d come home and work on this house. I couldn’t do carpentry constantly, it was burning me out. So it’s like, how do I get money? So I got a job bartending.
SS When was that?
WA I bought it in 1998, sold it in 2004, maybe.
SS Made a profit?
WA Lots. It was such a beautiful house. All it needed was some attention. I felt that the neighborhood was going to come back, it just needed someone to start.
SS You restored it yourself?
WA Yeah, so I could do that all day, then go to work in the bar. Make an ass-load of money. It was a gay bar. (he laughs.)
SS Make an ass load of money. I get it. Is that place still there?
WA Yeah, it’s called Fluid. (We are both laughing.) And it was like during the Will and Grace, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy era on television
SS Tell me a little about that. Being gay in this business. Is your lifestyle any kind of a…I don’t want to use the word barrier, but…do you notice that in the world of contracting and construction?
WA Yeah, some guys don’t like it. Usually, if they badger me about it, I’m like, ‘what are you, like interested or something? What’s your problem? Why are you worried about it?’ All of my immediate co-workers, they love me and they love my boyfriend [filmmaker Tim Wolff], and they’ll say to the person ‘pack your shit up and go if you don’t like it.’
SS Do you and Tim work together?
WA No. He’s a filmmaker, and he writes and stuff. He did that down here, he used to make doors and windows, and after Katrina, that was all washed away. So he fulfilled his dream of making a movie. After the storm.
SS That’s awesome. And what’s the movie?
WA It’s called The Sons of Tennessee Williams. It’s about the gay Mardi Gras krewes. And the over-arching civil rights implications of dressing up in drag in the 60’s. In a way, New Orleans was the only place that you could do that. There were like queens in Harlem and stuff, back in the early days, but here it was definitely much more acceptable, especially on Mardi Gras. It used to be against the law to wear a dress, except during Mardi Gras. He interviewed a lot of old men, really old timers that were busted by the cops and they’d all run out into the swamp in their gowns…
WA Yeah, and climb trees and get discovered because the cops were shining a light into the trees and their tiaras are shining back at them. (We are laughing again.) I love those stories. Swimming the bayou. It was better than going to jail.
SS How long is it?
WA It’s a documentary, it’s about 50 minutes, you can find it on Netflix.
SS I’m going to do that. Do you see yourself doing anything different down the line? Having your own company?
WA No. No, I tried that before. I can’t get out there to hustle people for jobs. Paul [Badeaux, the contractor he works for, and where the workshop is located] is an old school New Orleanian. He knows everybody. It’s word of mouth. They do great work, they’re trustworthy, they get jobs done in time. I get to focus on actually making stuff.