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Developing Authentic Expectations While Working With Commission Customers

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Blog entry by Mark A. DeCou posted 2615 days ago 1598 reads 1 time favorited 6 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I have moved this information over from the Church Lectern project as I think it cleans up the Project Posting better, as most of this extra information was really just Blogging material. So, if you read this information in the Project Posting, then there is nothing new here. Let me know what questions you have, and I would also enjoy hearing tips from each of you on how you work with clients. I’m just figuring this out myself, so I have a lot to learn.
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Working with a client to develop what they want and need can be a challenge for some of us. I have learned that if I want to pay our bills, I have to listen and “hear” what someone is wanting me to build. I have also learned the hard way that people don’t generally like surprises. This means that I do some concept sketches in writing and also send progress photos through emails to the customer, just to verify that we are on the same page. It also gives them an appreciation for the huge amount of effort and the cost involved with making a piece of furniture from scratch.

To show the “Process” I went through on this project, I included some of my working sketches. There was a Forum discussion awhile back on whether to do drawings, or scale models, so, I decided to show the process I went through.

Here is the original concept sketch I quickly drew to communicate with the church board about what I had in mind. This is just to rough out the thoughts flying around in my head, that my quick, and wildly waving hands can’t express well. I can see things clearly in my mind at this point, but the sketch is a way to express what I am trying to say to someone else.

I have learned that some still struggle to see what I am talking about even with a sketch. When working with a committee that will make the approval decisions, I look for which folks in the group seem to be interpreting the drawing and my hand waving. I then make sure that I am communicating to them. The rest of the folks, seem to remain quiet, probably asking a lot of questions after I leave the meeting. When working with a client for the first time, there is some distrust on both sides. They don’t know how much to “trust” my design and decision making process, and I don’t know yet what they like. The more I work with the client, the successive projects go much smoother, and seem to require much less communication from both sides.

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Here is a more refined sketch, after I had some time to think about the concept a few weeks.


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Here is a third sketch I used to figure out the proportions, and bring the design to scale, before cutting up the wood. At the time of this sketch, I still haven’t progressed to the point where I am happy with the design. Later, I ended up changing the base of the podium, after I got the idea of adding the step stool in the bottom.


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This sketch shows some of the thought out dimensions, as the final idea is coming to the point that I can think about cutting wood. In this instance, I received the approval “nod” from the committee early on for my design concept, so I didn’t recycle back for approval again. I did send an email with the scanned sketch, just to make sure, and the next day got another “nod” this time in writing.

With some clients, I do a lot of recycling on details, it just depends on their personality, not mine. I prefer to work completely uninhibited and free, but I haven’t found that niche yet, except for things I make for myself.

My wife is very specific about what she wants me to build, and she doesn’t like to compromise. So, my ability to read people, and the situation, is very important to a successful commission project. Sometimes I make mistakes in reading people, and they in reading me. Woodworkers that build things first, and then try to sell them second, don’t have this worry, but they do have to carry the inventory costs. There are trade-offs both ways.

From this point in the process, I went straight to the wood and started making parts for the project, one at a time, selecting each piece of wood to maximize the appearance of the project. This means that I often don’t use the material the most efficiently. Engineers do that, not artists!

I strive to be completely unconcerned about the amount of material I use, and learned early on that the material cost is completely insignificant to the cost of my “labor” in my work, at least so far. If I started using exotic woods, this would change some, but maybe not. In an ideal world, it would not matter to me. In an ideal world.

This methodology of work, forces me to figure out the most crucial sections of the project to build first. The sort of parts that everything else will hinge off of. For instance, since the box made by the compound miters using the crown molding was the most critical, I built it first, and then worked my way up to the slant top, and then worked my way down to the bottom.

I work out all of my dimensions and part cutting in a process that allows me to find the length of each piece directly from the measurement of off the project. This means that I never am able to look at a cut list and cut parts to final length like the magazine plans all show how to do. I usually don’t even use a tape measure for this process, but actually hold up the board, and mark it to length with a sharp pencil lead.

Why no tape measure? Tape Measures are too inaccurate for me, but I do use them when it doesn’t really matter, such as rough cutting a board before stickering and curing. I find that I use my digital calipers more and more, but they only go to 7” long, so most of the time, I just hold the board and mark it’s length. This means that each cut is made more than once, as I leave it bit long, and trim it a couple of times to fit it perfectly. This is just one reason why I work so “slowly.”

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I am not organized enough to do scaled drawings, cut lists, and such, and so my process is more free-wheeling than most woodworkers would recommend. At some point, I hope to add CAD drawings to my work, but at this point, I am still with a pencil and note pad, and sometimes just scratch paper.

To me, there is also something “romantic” to me about seeing a set of black-ink hand sketches in a project book. My wife says that I don’t have a “romantic bone” in my body, so I don’t know what to call it, but I like the look of it. I try not to use napkins for sketches anymore, since they are hard to three-hole punch and file in my project notebook, seriously.

I assemble all of these hand sketches, material receipts, hardware warranty information, printouts of emails and written correspondence to/from customers, and my photos into a final project notebook that I put in a three ring binder and put up on my shelf in my shop. I never want to go into production on anything I make, but if I do make something similar again, it gives me a good reference to start with the next project. I do make a lot of templates that I always save, something I learned reading Sam Maloof’s autobiography several years ago.

The reason I work this way, is that there are so many details that I seem to only work out, after I have the piece sitting in front of me. I get impatient worrying about these details while working on a piece of paper, since I know that it will make more sense to me as I see it in 3-D as the project progresses.

I’m a trained mechanical engineer, so you would think that I would be better at organizing my projects, huh?. This is actually something I am trying NOT to do. Read on.

I have found that if I take a lot of time to do a detailed drawing, which I am capable of doing, then when I am working on the project, and a more creative revelation of an idea hits me, I find that I am resistant to making the new change, since I already have my drawing done. I also have a similar resistance if I try to buy too little material. I figure up the rough material I need, double it, and sometimes run short. In an ideal world, I would have wood laying everywhere to use at my will.

I have been stretching hard for 8-9 years to be an Artisan, not an Engineer, as my work surely needed more creativity, and less planning and systematic thinking. If you look back at some of the older projects I have posted, they are very mechanical in thought and design. This is something I recognized, but seemed ill-equipped to do anything about.

Colleges teach engineers formulas and principles, but rarely give them curriculum that explores, or extends, their creativity. Lab Classes are very method driven, which each step being repeated the same by each class group, makes for grading papers easier! Personally, I think more creative expression is something any good engineer would get mileage from while they are training in College for their life’s work.

I remember in the Spring of 1987 when I was being interviewed by a company hiring an new college graduating engineer, and they asked me point blank…”do you consider yourself to be creative?” I stumbled on the question, and it seemed like the room started to spin. I was normally quick with the right answer, making “interviewing” a minor-degree my Senior of college. Finally I muttered, “no, I don’t think so.” I was being honest.

Creativity wasn’t a large part of my thought process in those years. They didn’t offer me a job, and I couldn’t blame them. They are out of business now, so it was probably best for both of us at the time that I ended up with Exxon, a place where individualism and creativity are crushed, and conformity is rewarded. I only lasted 3 years there, and it should have been half of that amount of time.

So, I am trying to be more creative, even when held to the historic ramifications of something like an Arts & Crafts commission. I hope as the years go by, I can make more ground in this area of my work (fun).

If I was trying to pass blame, this could be why my shop is always such a mess. Or, it could be that I am a pack-rat, and not much on cleaning. I prefer to call this deep character flaw “eccentric and creative” instead.

This methodology of “work” (“fun” is a better word), is the subject of a future long-Blog article that I have been thinking about for several months. You see, I read an article about 8-9 years ago about the differences between an Artist and an Engineer.

The ongoing impact of this article on my thought process has been as significant as any article I have ever read. It is the reason that I am not interested in “Plans, Tips, & Tool Review” style magazines, but prefer ones that explore the mind of hard working artists. I have been hoping to bring some of this same passion to the lumberjocks folks, and if you read my other writings, I hope you will see this thread evident and continuing in most of what I write.

When I read the “article” back then, I honestly, and introspectively, looked at my work at the time, and I had to conclude that I was, indeed, an “Engineer.” I determined not to be at some point, and enjoy the thought of wider boundaries in life, while striving to be an Artist. I’m still striving for this ideal. Integrating life, work, and family into this “ideal” is another BLOG article that I have been pondering for some months now. Seeing my kids at 5 & 6 introduce themselves to visitors and customers that come to our home-shop, has had a huge impact on my thought process, giving power to my initial impression that having a home-based business was good for a family.

Since that day I read the “article” in my little shop in Wichita, I have worked hard to distance myself from the boundaries that Engineers are forced to work in (management’s thumb, cost, material limitations, functionality, customer demands, removing complicated-time consuming operations, worries about ramping-up designs for production, utilizing low-skill labor resources, etc.) This process has taken longer than I initially imagined it would take.

I posted a Forum Topic a long time ago asking for people’s thoughts as to the differences between an Artisan vs. Craftsman, and I have been enjoying the feedback. My thoughts on the subject will end up in a BLOG article at some point. I have thoughts on the matter but have been quiet about it so that I wouldn’t mess with anyone’s mind while I was trying to hear their heart on the matter, that is until today. Please visit the Forum Topic and provide your input. I haven’t heard from anyone on the subject for quite awhile now. Maybe I should have offered a free t-shirt for each entry. Hopefully, my appreciation and admiration will be enough.
http://lumberjocks.com/topics/18

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Here is another sketch which shows a more realistic version of a detail that I had to figure out. Once the Step was built, I did this “post-mortem” drawing. I sometimes make up a sketch like this so that I have a drawing that I can reference should I desire to build something similar in the future.

I am hoping to sell more Lecterns, so I took better notes on this project than others I have done. Some projects have no drawings at all, which I regret at times. This sketch is done with a straight edge, but most aren’t. Quick pencil, free-hand, drawings are my normal method.

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Here is a photo showing that the drawing is coming to “life.”


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Here is a photo with the oak wheels on the bottom shown. In this photo, I am still in the process at this point of trying to figure out how to make it work, and have not cut the hole in the bottom board. But, you can see my layout marks drawn on the board. I turned a long oak dowel 3” in diameter, and then cut sections off of it to fit for the wheels. I added a brass knob with a nickle plating on both sides of the wheel to act as a bushing for the oil-hardened steel rod that I used for the axle. To allow future access to the wheels, the bottom board was screwed into place so that it could be removed to make repairs to the wheels if they develop a problem.


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Things are coming together at this stage, and I am cutting the round oak posts on the sides to length. I turned the side posts on my Legacy Ornamental Mill, and easily milled the flat side on the back. I don’t know how a person would do this operation effectively without a Legacy Mill.


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Both side posts have now been fit to the cabinet middle.


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The front after delivery to the church.


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Here is a shot of the lift up top.

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Here is a detail shot of the corner posts I made on my Legacy Ornamental Mill. They are round, with a 90 degree notch cut out of the back, and small pointed flutes along the side.

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Here is a detail shot of the front ornamentation. The pieces were cut out of Oak veneered MDF, cove routed, and carved to get the details, and then painted with gold/bronze powder mixed with glossy polyurethane (the only good use for poly in my opinion, but that is another subject).

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Here is a detail shot of the turned column base. This part is made by gluing pieces of Poplar together, and using both my Oliver Lathe and my Legacy Ornamental Mill to do the work.


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This is a detail of the casting used for the column top. To do this work, I had to make a business decision about whether I could most effectively copy the carved work on the historic Altars, or do a casting. After months of worrying about which path to take, I chose the casting method, as I thought it would be the most economical, while giving me an exact copy of the original. It was a toss up whether I could make a better copy by carving a Poplar block, or learning to do a casting. The casting won. I used Polytek’s silicone material for the mold making, and then their Polyurethane casting material for the copies. It was a lot of fun to learn a new skill, so at some point soon, I will blog the process I went through.


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This final detail shot shows the routered and carved gothic-style panel (also called tracry). I used Oak veneered MDF for the material, carefully made a template, flush trim copied the template, and then did the pointed corners with a carving knife set. This was a lot of fun to learn how to do, and something I will be adding to my work in the future in some way.

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This was the competition Podium the church was previously using. When I was commissioned for the Side Altars and the restoration work on the High Altar and Sacrifice Altar, I went to the church and took a lot of photos. After seeing this little Podium, I asked the board members if they had planned to do something about the Podium. They didn’t have it in their plans, but they did want one that better fit the restored church. So, I proposed the new podium I sketched in the first sketch. After getting their “nods” I went to work on the Podium.

(All text, photos, sketches, and design is protected by copyright M.A. DeCou 5-21-2007)

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P.S.
If are you reading this Thread, then you might also be interested in:

Here are the posted projects from this Commission:
  1. Hymn Number Board
  2. Speaker's Lectern
  3. Processional Cross
  4. Matching Side Altars
  5. Restored Sacrifice: Altar: not yet posted
  6. Restored High Altar: not yet posted
I have blogged about this commission if you want to read more:
  1. Developing Authentic Expectations While Working With Commission Customers
  2. Commissioned Church Side Altars Complete
  3. Hanging Homemade Crown Molding: Suffering Through Mistakes & Learning Life's Lessons
  4. Crown Molding: Crafting Your Own Trim
  5. Arrival of the Historic Church Altar; Restoration and Making two Matching Side Altars
  6. Commission Award for the Church Altar Restoration and Matching Side Altars
  7. Church Altar Restoration and Matching Side Altars Project Bid Submitted

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Here is a list of the previous project postings from my other Church Work:
1) Roll Top Electronic Equipment Cabinet: http://lumberjocks.com/projects/34
2) Communion Table: http://lumberjocks.com/projects/42

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com



6 comments so far

View mot's profile

mot

4911 posts in 2639 days


#1 posted 2615 days ago

This project just amazes me. Thanks for the writeup. In my profession, expectations are VERY important. Finding out what is wrong, and fixing it is not that tough. Meeting peoples expectations is the hardest part. My expectations are based on my training and experience. Theirs are based on their desire. Often an incompatable situation that needs resolving before any work is done. Thanks for the writeup!

-- You can discover more about a person in an hour of play than in a year of conversation. (Plato)

View Bill's profile

Bill

2579 posts in 2763 days


#2 posted 2615 days ago

What an amazing process you go through Mark. It is very involved, but seems to pay great dividends. Of course, your craftsmanship is superb, so this can not be overlooked as well.

I read this once, and will probably have to again to get the full impact of what you are saying. However, thank you for sharing your methods with us. I hope to learn from them.

-- Bill, Turlock California, http://www.brookswoodworks.com

View Dick, & Barb Cain's profile

Dick, & Barb Cain

8693 posts in 2902 days


#3 posted 2614 days ago

From now on I don’t think you’ll have to try, and prove yourself to any of your new clients.

That’s all you have do do is show them the pictures of what you have done.

That should convince the right away.

-- -** You are never to old to set another goal or to dream a new dream ****************** Dick, & Barb Cain, Hibbing, MN. http://www.woodcarvingillustrated.com/gallery/member.php?uid=3627&protype=1

View David's profile

David

1970 posts in 2741 days


#4 posted 2614 days ago

Mark -

Thank you for this excellent write up and photos. I greatly appreciate you sharing your process.

-- http://foldingrule.blogspot.com

View scottb's profile

scottb

3647 posts in 2929 days


#5 posted 2614 days ago

great post! Love the before and after at the end. So glad they opted to upgrade the podium, the old one would have looked so out of place.

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- http://blanchardcreative.etsy.com -- http://snbcreative.wordpress.com/

View scott shangraw's profile

scott shangraw

513 posts in 2671 days


#6 posted 2614 days ago

It’s so interesting seeing how another full timer does things.My process is very similiar start out with rough sketches to get the idea ’s going with the client then I proceed to a more detailed drawing with diminsions etc.I Don’t take the time out to do cut list and and all the things they say you should do before starting.I had the great pleasure of working with Maloof in his shop for 5 days and he told me something very important that always stuck in my head”You have to be fast in making furniture if you want to make money When someone tells me it takes them 400 hours to make a peice I say My GOD MAN HOW DO YOU MAKE ANY MONEY”

-- Scott NM,http://www.shangrilawoodworks.com

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