Ruelles' Passion, Livelihood Rest In Restoring Antiques
By CASEY MURPHY
Business Editor, Tyler Morning Telegraph
Gene and Deb Ruelle met on a blind date and spent it "junking."
Even though she didn't know what that meant at the time, she and her husband of 35 years have spent their lives together collecting their own antiques and restoring others.
The couple works together doing all things related to antiques -- restoration, repairs and appraisals.
Deb Ruelle is the only person around who does chair caning and seat weaving. The nearly two dozen chairs sitting in front of their store will take her three to four months to complete.
She's finished installing the weaving on a 1900's Art Noveau parlor set that now sits in the back workshop. That's her husband's domain.
Gene Ruelle will painstakingly work to restore the wood on the antique set.
The couple started their business 30 years ago in a 400-square-foot garage apartment converted to a workshop behind their home.
Ella, a black cat they picked up on the roadside, greets customers at the door of their small, quaint shop -- aptly named Ruelle's -- tucked away at 526 S. Broadway Ave.
The Ruelles were one of the first to buy into the downtown concept, buying the building in 1990, he said. Mrs. Ruelle returned from a trip and asked him what he had done that weekend.
Well, he had sat around, watched some television and bought a building, he told her.
The rest is history.
"People always ask how we can work together like we do," Mrs. Ruelle said. "It's built a strong marriage."
Working on antiques gives her a sense of history, she said.
"And I think people like the story," her husband chimed in. "Our customers always have a story to tell us about their furniture … and it's always interesting."
The couple also does on-site restoration.
Ruelle has refinished the banister and handrail on the staircase of the historic Bonner-Whitaker-McClendon House and has restored the wooden bar and walls at Rick's on the Square. One of the most interesting pieces Ruelle has restored was a 19-foot long Victorian bookcase once owned by President Glover Cleveland. And he just finished restoring two doors -- one from the 1700s and the other from the 1980s.
"Our customer base extends from the common and ordinary to the elite," he said.
The niche they have found as the only business in Tyler doing their kind of work has sustained them throughout the years, Ruelle said.
Now more than ever, people are repairing and refinishing their old or broken furniture instead of throwing them away, partly because of the economy, Ruelle said. He also has seen his work as a board-certified appraiser increase because people are selling their assets.
Mrs. Ruelle said people also are looking at having good, American pieces because most furniture now is made in China. She said people are cycling out of a disposable society. In the 1970s, people would buy something and throw it away after it wore out.
And the "kids" now are into 1950s retro furniture, Ruelle said. Antiques offer so many different periods, styles and architecture that makes it so interesting for people collecting.
A lot of the tools found in their shop are a collection passed down from their fathers.
Mrs. Ruelle's father was a builder in Houston before moving to Tyler and working as a handyman and carpenter who took her on jobs since she was 6. She proudly displays a restored wooden toolbox from the early 1900s that belonged to her grandfather.
Ruelle's father was a machinist who worked for Ford Motor Company for 45 years.
Both of their fathers could do plumbing, electrical and crafting work.
An interest in antique collecting has also been passed down to Ruelle.
His grandmother was an antique collector who walked into a store with $5 in the 1940s to buy bedsprings. Instead, she used the money to buy an antique clock and said "the kids will have to sleep in the clock." Later she discovered it was worth about $5,000.
"We've inherited the clock from his dad," Mrs. Ruelle said. "It's now worth $7,000."
Ruelle also points out a trunk, the first antique his grandmother ever gave him and which got him started collecting.
When they started their business in Tyler, there were eight other refinishing shops and they were told they wouldn't make it, Ruelle said. But no one else was doing the hand rub finishing he was doing and no one does it now.
When he had just started out, Ruelle walked into a local antique store and asked the owner if she knew anyone who did hand-rub finishing. The dealer replied No. It was her lucky day, he told her, and he walked out with three pieces to restore.
Before entering the business, Mrs. Ruelle was a dental hygienist and her husband did stage work for theater in Houston.
Ruelle began restoring furniture and Mrs. Ruelle wanted to quit her job as a surgical assistant because of the stress it involved. One day she came home and her husband showed her a videotape on how to weave and cane old chairs. She thought it looked like something she could do so she studied up on it, teaching herself the art.
She now has people in Dallas and Houston seek her out for her work.
Weaving was developed in the Victorian era when people had time, Mrs. Ruelle said.
"It is a slow art," she said. "I think I've learned if you don't have patience, you shouldn't be doing it. … Very few people have the patience."
Ruelle said you have to have a lot of patience in their businesses. Sometimes you can do something a dozen times when restoring a piece of furniture before you get it right. And it's taken him an hour just to get a screw out of a chair because it was embedded into the wood.
Ruelle also manufactures a non-toxic, non-flammable beeswax polish, something he developed in 1987 by collaborating with a scientist.
"It's totally green," Ruelle said. "We were green before green was popular."
Even the restoration is a green business because you're saving wood, he said.
One of his customers for the polish is Tiffany and Co., which ships it to 114 outlets throughout the world for a line of jewelry that incorporates wood. They also sell it to Boy Scouts of America, which uses it for its pinewood derby cars.
They sell a lot of the polish on their website: www.ruelle.com.
Ruelle didn't know when he started the business that you have to be part scientist, part craftsman and part artisan. You have to know the compatibility of the chemicals and finishes because a procedural error can cost you a restoration and you have to start all over, he said.
Ruelle also was the first to electronically submit appraisal reports securely to his website secure.ruelle.com He is accredited and board certified by the American Society of Appraisers and in November, he launched the new green technology, which allows appraisers to share their files securely without having to print or bind the reports.
Ruelle also has testified in court several times as an expert witness in cases where values were in question..
The couple began their business when their son, Justin, was an infant. He worked at the shop throughout college and now a teacher in Tyler, still helps out occasionally.
"I think our business is so unique because it's diverse," Mrs. Ruelle said.
"It's a really nice pace. It doesn't feel like work … it just feels like life," she said.
"Because we love what we do and people pay us!" her husband said.
The only new furniture in their home is their bed and couch; pretty much everything else is a collection of English and American fine furniture, Ruelle said.
Mrs. Ruelle collects kitchen memorabilia and cooks on a 1940 circa Chambers stove.
The couple still goes "junking" in Tyler and Dallas. Their home is too full to buy anything other than small antiques, they said. And Mrs. Ruelle knows what to expect for her Christmas and birthday presents -- it's always an antique but always something unique.
The combined love for collecting and restoring antiques keeps them loving their work.
"You feel good at the end of the day because you know you worked hard," Ruelle said. "Tyler has supported our business from day one."
Ruelle's is open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday and by appointment on Saturday. They also will go on site to give estimates and do some restoration work.
"I don't think there are two people who have been in the restoration business as long as we have," Ruelle said. A lot of people don't know about the shop because "we don't toot our own horn; we're kind of just tucked away," he said.
Mrs. Ruelle said they will continue doing their jobs even in retirement.
"We'll grow old gracefully," her husband said.