Several months ago, I emailed a guy asking him about a piece of equipment I saw in his shop online. We have the same mortising machine and I was having trouble setting mine up, mostly cause I didn’t read the manual fully. He tried his best to understand and help me, but I was a bit hopeless at the time. Eventually, I figured out the machine, but what developed after was a solid friendship.
Todd with one of his many works
Fortunate at that time also, Todd Clippinger took an initial interest in our situation. He understood quickly our dilemmas and difficulties and freely offered sympathy and wisdom. His depth of knowledge and experience with our current endeavors was a godsend. He helped validate and focus our efforts during very challenging aspects of woodworking and starting a small business. Todd knew what we were going through and offered tons of great advice.
After some time, I had a chance to repay his generosity and assist him with some of his digital developments. He was eager to learn some of the latest web applications in order to develop his online work and I was pretty familiar with much of his emerging interests. Soon it all became manageable and we found ourselves keeping in touch regularly.
Todd and his wife Rita live in Billings, Montana, near the Yellowstone River. His back yard is a wondrous, open range leading to awesome landscapes and scenery. When he’s able to pull himself away from the upper-mountain region beauty, he works to develop his professional life as owner and operator of the American Craftsman Workshop. He maintains a dynamic website as his primary venue to provide inspiration and knowledge-sharing. Like many, Todd believes in growing the woodworking community and certainly has much to offer. He has a strong sense of quality and reputation towards his work, esp. for clients. Each project for a customer is his sole focus at that particular time and his results speak volumes about customer service and product delivery. He is certainly a friend to the fine woodworking community as well as a credit to the professional trade.
Custom Prairie Chandeliers
Recently, Todd agreed to offer insight into his background and professional life in this written interview. Hope you enjoy.
BHW: Your background in woodworking has strong ties to remodeling work with your brother. This could have been a time that you were influenced by both general construction and finish/fine construction. What made you decide to pursue fine woodworking?
ACW: We grew up together in Ohio, but my brother and I took separate paths that converged on the Cooper House project (link) in 2004. He took carpentry/construction at a high school vo-tech in the late 80’s and remained active in the field ever since. At this time actually, this is his second year as a teacher at that same vo-tech program where he was once a student.
I started in ’97 as a handyman with no tools, skills, or knowledge of the trades. But I had a voracious appetite for learning and read everything that I could get my hands on.
As my skills grew I found that I liked to do remodel more than new construction. The hook for me getting interested in woodworking was replicating old trim and built-ins for the early 1900 homes that I worked on.
To understand the architecture and the style of the times, I started doing research. I found out about the Arts & Crafts movement, Art Nuoveau, Art Deco and how they were all related. I was fascinated by the designs and then absolutely captivated when I found out that there were modern day craftsmen building interpretations of the furniture and furnishings in those styles. Further research showed me that there is a whole world of custom furniture makers.
As a creative person always looking to challenge myself, I entered the world of fine woodworking. It was also a business decision to separate my work from everybody else in town. Instead of making myself competitive by being cheaper, I made myself competitive by developing my services as a designer & craftsman instead of just a handyman or contractor. I found that there are very few contractors that can design.
Through this journey, fine woodworking became my passion above all.
BHW: You have a pretty wide range of experiences that covers both woodworking and small business. In my short time of knowing you, I’ve noticed how you will try out many things and quickly figure out what is effective for your needs. What is your thought process when continuously choosing to work outside your normal comfort zone of familiarity?
Gathering unconventional material
ACW: I am always pushing the limits of my comfort zone. As I look back, I realize that my behavior constantly reveals that I am a bit of a risk taker. I used to be a real adrenaline junkie (when my body was younger and invincible) and I can see how the excitement in the adventure activities compares to the excitement of pushing your business or skills to the next level.
I am not afraid to fail but I hate it, so I am willing to take risks and I do everything that I can to avoid failure. It is the risk of failing and losing that creates the excitement. It’s the realization of success that creates the adrenaline high. I guess I am still a bit of an adrenaline junkie through another activity.
Trying new things and making a decision about what to keep or get rid of ends up being a function of survival. Something works, ensures survival – keep it. Something doesn’t work, leads to failure – get rid of it.
But during the decision process, I am willing to really give things an opportunity to work.
BHW: Starting and maintaining a small business, or “going pro” in the woodworking trade is something many people often think about seriously. But those that do it know it’s more than just having some tools and skills. What were some challenges that weighed on you initially?
ACW: It was difficult for me to convince the local community that I was more than a handyman because that is what I started out as. It takes constant work to shape your image and sell it to the public.
Starting up is difficult. But it is important for others to realize that I took my business of remodeling, that was closely related, and sort of morphed it more into the custom woodworking business. I have been building business contacts, relationships, and reputation since ’97 and that all has been valuable as I changed the level of service and product that I provide.
I’ve also been building a shop, gathering tools, and honing skills that directly supported my fine woodworking. So overall, I did not stop what I was doing and completely change direction. The shop and tools were not acquired to feed my woodworking needs, they supported my requirements to provide custom fabrication and repairs for my remodeling business. It was because of this that I developed the skills and a love for the fine woodworking.
BHW: Living and working in your local community, what approaches did you find most effective when establishing awareness of what The American Craftsman Workshop can provide? What demographic were you focused on and how did you reach them?
ACW: Identifying your target customer or demographic is one of the most basic and critical acts in business. Your entire strategy is then formulated to capture the business from that group.
As a handyman, there is a certain demographic that hires you and a certain level of guys that you are competing against. As my skills and talent grew, and I recognized my business self-worth, I started saying “No” to a lot of jobs that did not fit what I wanted to be or do.
I happened to get sub-contract projects from a couple of other contractors and found myself working on higher-end homes. I made good connections with the homeowners and they called me for future work. Then they started passing me around like a piece of candy, all of a sudden I am working for a different demographic that has more money and is interested in paying for the type of projects that I like and excel at.
Most all of my work in the past has come by word-of-mouth and it continues to do so today. The difference is that most of my clients today are business people and have a higher level of income that allows them to pay for the projects that I do.
A great way to gain exposure is to donate some work to charity. Rita and I both make donations that bring in more money than we could write a check for, and our actions support charities that we really believe in. Charity fundraisers are a great place to have people see your work and connect you to it.
BHW: At the same time, you still manage to find time to share knowledge with fellow woodworkers. Strictly speaking, that is not a normal, maximum profit use of time. Why do you do it so often?
ACW: You are right, it is a not a profitable use of my time, especially when I have so much work to get out the door. But not everything is about the money. Sharing is about the passion and it satisfies a piece of me that money cannot.
As a woodworker, I am amazed at what I have learned and am excited about what I do in the shop. I just want to share that experience with others so they can do it too.
Even though I am self-taught, I did have help from other craftsmen that were generous with their knowledge when I asked for it. They are not famous but they are great craftsmen. I feel a responsibility to share with others as freely as they shared with me. Sharing with others pays homage to those guys that helped me. That is why I came up with the motto “Share the Love~Share the Knowledge.”
I have also discovered something about sharing; helping other woodworkers has really challenged my knowledge (or what I thought I knew) and has taken me to the next level. So by giving, I have continued to grow.
BHW: I can’t help but think that we are not the age group most associated with savvy web development and social networking skills. What made you decide to take on this significant, digital-age commitment? How long until the wife becomes producer and executive director of your videos?
ACW: The last time I had used a computer was in the late 80’s and I was using dBase III and WordStar. Fast-forward to just 3 years ago and I bought my first computer.
It has been a bit of a climb up the learning curve and very frustrating at times, but overall I have enjoyed the challenge. I think the challenge is the attraction for me.
Working on the videos is just another way to be creative and to share the knowledge, and I love doing that. There is so much information transferred visually when it comes to woodworking, that is the value of video.
The computer seems to provide me with a good mix of the technical and creative aspects. We had a chimney fire a few weeks ago, and I told my wife the only things that mattered were the dogs and the computer, just be sure to get those things out of the house.
I don’t see Rita getting involved with my video productions, she still rolls her eyes when I make a video. I believe she thinks that her husband is some sort of man-child playing around with video cameras.
BHW: I heard you like hiking, lattes, and Dairy Queen. What else do you enjoy for relaxation?
ACW: Well, thankfully Rita makes me mochas every morning and I do cherish them.
The afternoon DQ Mocha Moolatte’s are getting crossed of the pleasure list as she says I need to cut back, and I must agree that I should drop a few pounds.
With the warmer weather we will be able to get out more for some of our great mountain biking, hiking, climbing, and rappelling.
One of my greatest pleasures in life is simply walking with Rita and the dogs. It might sound sappy, but I can’t fully express what a great time I have just by walking and talking with my wife and watching the dogs run around doing their joyous dog exploration.
BHW: Seems you get some visiting, miniature shop workers on Sundays. After a period of adjustment, the grandkid’s woodworking adventures look like a popular regularity. What are you plans to foster this new-found quality time with the youngsters?
Grandson Cole with his latest project
ACW: You know, I came to the realization that I had this great shop that the grandkids saw as the ultimate activity room. Instead of running them out and treating it as off limits, I embraced it as an opportunity to teach them how to behave in the shop and it’s worked well.
Kids are naturally creative. Instead of structuring all the activity, I just provide them with scraps of wood and supplies to let them figure it out. Since they are kids, I think that the freedom of expression is most important right now in their projects.
During their project construction, there is ample opportunity to teach them safety and how to handle tools. They are also exercising creativity and problem solving skills during this time.
To me, I don’t care if they end up liking woodworking or not, but I often wonder how their time in the shop will come to fruition in the future. Many of my own projects were obtained because I could think “outside the box.” This was my competitive advantage and it is a skill that applies to more than just woodworking or remodeling.
BHW: Anything else you’d like to add?
ACW: Yep, I am going to share the secrets to woodworking right here. The secret to woodworking is spending more time in the shop.
I developed my skills because of my trade. I get paid to work with my hands all day so that is to my advantage.
But the message here for everyone is to read the information whether it’s online, in a book, or magazine and then spend time in the shop DOING. That’s when it will all come together for you.
That is the secret to woodworking and it’s really that simple.
Well, that’s all for now. I was a pleasure putting this piece together and we hope you enjoyed it as much as we did. Take care.
Thanks for reading!
Your Arctic Woodworking Friend,
-- Troy Bouffard || Master Sergeant, US Army (Retired) || http://www.birchhillwoodcrafts.com