More Than Just a Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts


Louis “Ted” Schwander (Sheet Metal Worker and Roofer)

What got me really involved was, when I was a kid—I'm talking about ten years old—I used to come with my dad and ride around with him on his truck. Not do anything, just watch. Then, when I was old enough to go in the shop and do little shop work to make extra money, I'd do that. When I hit high school, I started working for my dad every summer. And I worked all through high school with him.

When my Grandpa started the company, it was in 1928. So, you know, it was right around the Depression. My Grandpa made a good living doing just strictly gutters, down-pipes, flashing people's chimneys, that type of stuff. He couldn't afford to fire up any big company; he didn't have the money. But after getting the sheet metal company going, he lived the good life. I'll put it this way: my daddy took piano lessons during the Depression. So he did okay, and then the actual roofing end of it didn't come into play until my daddy took over as a partner. And when my daddy stepped in here, my daddy saw that, hey, if we get bigger, we start doing roofing, we can make more money. Because sheet metal men, they'll do roof repairs but they do not do any roofs. They don't strip 'em off, put a new one on. They know how to do it, but none of them do it. I have separate roofers and separate sheet metal people. So we had one shingle crew, one hot mop crew, and we had two sheet metal crews. And we had one guy that worked in the shop to make the metal. And that was the extent of the company. We bend our own gutters, our own capping, our own flashing, there's very little metal that we don't make ourselves.

Slates, they just don't use them because of the costs. If the cost wouldn't be so much, they'd be done all over. 'Cause that is really a Cadillac of a roof. I like the metal roof. But to me they're both as equal. A slate roof's a lifetime roof. The roofs that we replace now, excluding the hail, but the slate roofs we're doing [repairing] now is only because years ago, they nailed a slate roof with what they called a horseshoe nail. And it's the same nail they nailed a horseshoe in on a horse. It's a triangle nail. Well, what happened, it was made out of black iron, and the nail rots. And the slate starts slipping out. So that's the only reason why you go and replace a slate roof. But now the slate roofs we do, we use copper nails. So the nails are never gonna rot. So unless something damages these slate roofs, they'll be there for those people, their grandkids and their grandkids. We've got slate roofs that's over one hundred years old in this city.

I think people my age and older, I don't think people look at reality, the real life. I mean in real life, you gotta have garbage men; in the real life, you gotta have plumbers. And you know, it's a shame that so many [people who have] these high-tech paying jobs—computers, stocks, etcetera—they look down on the plumber; they look down on the sheet metal guy, a roofer. I used to have a big complex and feel inferior to people because I was just a roofer; I was a sheet metal guy, you know. And I hung with a lot of people that's had a lot of money. And it just took me years of finally learning, and that's when I even owned the company, that my dollar spends just as well as theirs does.

I like the competition. Competition, to me, is what makes a better company. Because it makes you tighten your reins, it makes you fight a little harder; it makes you sharpen your pencil a little bit more. The consumer gets a piece of quality and price.

Louis "Ted" Schwander was interviewed as part of the New Orleans Building Arts Project. Laura Westbrook edited More than Just A Trade: Master Craftsmen of the Building Arts in 2004 for publication online.