Since my last muse of writing a blog, a lot has happened in my life and business. All of it has been good, I’ve just been so busy that I have not taken the time to write much.
For instance, I went to North Carolina last June to teach a woodworking class at the John Campbell Folk School. I had a wonderful time away with the family, met some great guys, and had a wonderful time…...but have not taken time to document the adventure with the photos and stories I gathered while there.
I’m the less-handsome guy in Purple, Go KSU Wildcats!
MISSION CASKET BOOK & PLANS AVAILABLE:
After Posting my Casket Stories and Photos on Lumberjocks, I have been overwhelmed by the response from readers. There is quite a long thread of folks wanting to build their own casket, or wanting to build one for a close friend or family member.
There are many reasons a person would build their own casket, including saving money, assisting someone with a need they have, doing something custom made because it is special, just because you want to, keeping your hands busy at something during the grieving process, a conversation piece, etc.
All of this email traffic about caskets has relayed to me some really sad stories, and stories of great courage, and exposed a real desire by some do-it-yourself folks to build a casket. And, there isn’t much on the internet or in Print Form to help you get started.
So, All of this internet attention lead me to a teaching invitation at the John Campbell Folk School in the summer of 2011 on the art of casket making. To assist the students in that class I wrote a step-by-step instruction book and drew some drawings, making the Book a total of 78 pages. I tried to use my Book as a way to teach the project, but also teach woodworking skills in the process.
If you would like a copy of my Book/Plans, visit my Etsy.com store to purchase a copy for yourself
And, I’m working on building a hydraulically run “monster” band saw log mill to cut up to 56” dia. logs, doing the effort with a friend…..and you’d think I would find time to post a blog about that story with some progress photos, wouldn’t you? We mounted the engine last Saturday, it’s coming together.
I will do a Blog at some point on this time consuming and expensive Build project…..when I get the time for doing that, and I’m ready for the google publicity that will come from such a Key Word posting. But for now, for more Monster Log Mill Photos I’ve hidden a little from google, Click here to see additional photos in the Comments Section of this project posting
And, I’ve done quite a few “Boy” projects for & with my 10 year old son, including a Wooden American Bow, Leather Quiver, Fringed Vest, and three pinewood Derby cars since the middle of December. Since I’m about a 10 year old in husky sized pants myself, I do really enjoy these projects, even if I don’t take time to photograph them like I should.
One of the projects, Pinewood Derby Cars with my son and daughter took a lot more time than I expected on the outset. To read that story, Click here, where I tell that story in this project posting
Honestly, not that anyone else would much care if I don’t write, but I like to use the Blog concept as a way of documenting milestones in my Journey. Sort of a Journal, that others can read. The stuff I don’t want others to read, I just don’t write. Make Sense?
Like so many of us that join Lumberjocks, it can quickly consume a lot of free time. As a solo-artisan, I don’t really have any free time. Free-time to me means no-pay time. I don’t make enough in the for-pay hours to pay for many free-time hours. So, I have to stay focused. If not the shop work to worry over, there is always the room addition on the house that isn’t done in it’s 2nd year, the old cars need work, soon I’ll be mowing the Ponderosa here again…....etc.
I realized that I was spending more time writing than I could afford, and so 3-4 years back I decided that I had to push more time into the shop, and less time on a keyboard. I have plenty of work to do in the shop, people waiting on me patiently….and not always so patiently, but there are times I just can’t stop myself from a “break-out” and going rogue.
The Quail Cane:
I was in Wichita yesterday delivering a new walking cane to a customer and his son. What a wonderful experience. I took my daughter along since she had a doctor’s appointment also yesterday. We were treated to a very special lunch, and then later a most wonderful and honoring trip to their private retreat to look at their trees. We discussed the Pine Beetle disease, cedars going rampant, wind damage, being missed by the big tornado in 1991. We met their dogs, all four of them, and saw how much love and care they give these four old friends that others call dogs. I can’t help but be overwhelmed by how such a tiny thing as working in wood can lead to such an honoring and respected time for me. I never got that working for the “Man” at the big corporate office job. I never even got a window, or a parking space…...ha, those were the days and those silly worries.
Hatman Jack’s Shop:
While in town, we stopped in to Hatman Jack’s Hat shop while in the area. Jack had sold a walking cane for me that I put in the store in mid-December, and so I was so glad I stopped. Jack always pays me quickly, and our relationship over the years has only needed a hand shake. I wish more folks were like Jack, but the world is what the world is. Thank God, I found a guy that isn’t like the rest. One time a couple of my walking canes were shop-lifted out of his store, and he insisted on paying me for them. We went round and round arguing gently with each other, and I finally agreed to allow him to pay 90%. It’s not often a guy will do things like that, and he’d never tell you about it, so I did.
Here is a Link to Jack's Hat shop website with photos
Horse, Not of Course:
The walking cane that Jack sold this past week was a Horse Head cane that I built and carved a handle for this past Fall for a “commission.” I had done a poor job of remembering what I was to make for the customer, and I messed up, and the result was that I needed to build another cane with a Bear Head, and the “Horse Head” cane didn’t have a buyer when it was finished.
Guys (I use that expression to include both genders, don’t hate me ladies) in “survive-it” mode, can’t afford to be stupid, and can’t afford to make mistakes.
I think I’ve made canes for something like 7-9 years now, and the oldest one I have on hand was made last Fall (2011) I think, so they all seem to find homes at some point, and usually fairly fast. I was fairly confident that the Horse Head would find a home…...but “when” that would be, I didn’t know. That makes a guy nervous who’s in Survive-It mode.
THE SURVIVE-IT PLAN:
My recession/depression business plan has been…...”to survive it.”
This may seem like a simple concept on the surface, but it has a lot of implications to what I do every day, week, month, etc. What I say “no” to is just as important as to what I say “Yes” to.
Keeping my mistakes to a minimum, getting details right for customers, doing my best and most creative work on everything I touch, are all parts of my “survive-it” plan. If I quit when the going gets tough, all of the previous 15 years of sacrifices will be for nothing. Press on, but do it smart, that’s my plan.
Inventory Reduction Mindset:
Part of my recession/depression business plan to “Survive It,” was to minimize inventory costs. This makes sense whether your company has one employe, or thousands. So, I stopped making much up without a commission already in place for it.
I used to try and make things for consignment stores, and various local art shows, and my Etsy store, and some things for my friend to eBay to keep the “name” out there. I thought I needed something to show, and be seen with, so I would spend free-time making something to show.
Made sense back “then”, but when the buyers stopped, the inventory started to look more like boat anchors, and I’m not in the boating business. Some of it I liquidated by cutting the prices, some I sold on eBay through a friend’s store, and one way or another, it just all seemed to vanish eventually. But, what I learned from the experience, I hope will not vanish quickly.
By going to Commissions-Only, my thought was that I could spend all of my time on things that I had buyers for already. I had an adequate supply of customers, and so I just pretty much quit making things, for the most part that were speculative. This decision drives my little rebellious ADHD brain crazy at times, as I want to make things that I want to make a times. Ok, ok, I want to do that most of the time, I’m no different than anyone else. Except the “survive-it” plan doesn’t allow much time for rogue warriors to whittle away free-time on things that don’t sell quickly.
Fighting the Break-Outs:
I still break-out from time to time, as it’s hard to always work on something that someone else wants me to build. I have times I can’t control myself anymore and I break-out to build something I have been wanting to try…...but then I have to find a buyer. And while I’m doing it, the pressure starts to build to get back onto a commissioned project. If the break-out project takes more than a short amount of time, I get nervous and pull off it and leave it unfinished. Which is even worse than finishing it I think. It’s why I have 4-5 guitars hanging in parts in my shop that I never finished. At least if I had finished them, someone might actually buy it. Hanging unfinished, it’s a boat anchor, although a pretty one, and they wouldn’t actually sink anyway.
So, I’ve been trying to keep my Break-Out projects short. For instance, I have a commission for a custom hunting knife, so while I have all of the knife making tools on the bench, I made a couple more damascus hunting knives that I will hope to find buyers for. I enjoy making knives, but not full time, so I’ll put the knife making tools aside soon, and get back onto the Commissions list.
In the meantime, I need to pay bills, and so I try to keep these “break-outs” to a few simple rules. 1) Make it a short break-out, 2) build something I’m confident I can find a buyer for soon, 3) use only materials and scraps that I have already purchased, and 4) let past customers know about the item that is available before the general market hears about it.
That last point was something I stumbled on by accident. You see, once you have a few years of customers under your belt, they more than not, will buy something new again, and I don’t need to worry over finding a buyer for long if they know that something is available, AND THAT I NEED HELP. If I just let those folks know, someone on that list will buy it. I have a “Newsletter” list that I use from time to time, and I can advertise something I want to turn into money in that method if I want to. Most of the time, God sends someone to HELP.
So, that’s the “break-out” guilty pleasure confession, and the rules I’ve made for myself to control the problem a little.
The Trouble with Commissions:
Ok, the “no-inventory” thing is great for a Survive-It business plan, as long as your only employee (me) can be controlled well enough to stay on the commissions, and the Manager (me again) can keep the details straight so that the Fabricator (me again) can build what the customer ordered.
BUT, this Commissioned thing has some struggles I’m dealing with that go beyond the “break-out” problem. I have learned to say, “no” politely to things I don’t want to do. I’ve also learned not to post a project on lumberjocks that I don’t want to repeat…..many times over and over. People find these project postings, and want a copy, or something similar. So, I’ve learned not to post something I don’t want to repeat.
Contemplating this Horse Head Cane mistake I made, and it’s implications, has allowed me to meditate on it in the shop while I’m working. I haven’t made such an outright mistake before. There have been other mistakes, some more serious and expensive than the Horse Head, but not because I wasn’t listening to what the customer was telling me. In those cases, I just made a mistake, a dumb thing, but not a pattern of mistakes. Now, don’t get me wrong, this Horse Head is not a “pattern” yet, but it can become that and it’s why I have been meditating on it and trying to solve the problem before it gets more serious. Some preventive-medication so to speak.
First, How Did I Get to This?
So, now I’ve had some time to contemplate how this all mix-up thing happened, and what I’ve learned from it. I cut my teeth so to speak, as a professional woodworker doing things for neighbors and family and friends. I really never went through that whole “hobby-turned-business-thing” like others do, I just plain quit my job one day and went from nothing to something in one strange day. I hadn’t done any woodworking from High School to age 33, and then one day just quit my job and became a woodworker. I had no tools, no portfolio, no shop, no customers….....I have told that story before, and if you want to read that visit the story here
Last week, another guy came to see me and spent the day brainstorming. He’s 53, has an undergrad degree in Math, a Masters in Electrical Engineering, a Doctorate in Medicine, and has worked for many years as a partner and doctor in a specialized field. Now he wants to walk away from all of that and become a woodworker, and he’s not currently doing any woodworking. We had a few things in common with our stories, only he’s invested 20 years more in the “wrong” career than I did. He starts his new Journey in March of this year. Just another day in the life a guy going “rogue”.
Ok, back to my point…..
In just a few months from the start of my new Journey, things started widen out to working with friends of friends. And then wider to people that met a friend of a friend etc. I had a pretty normal local following after awhile and seemed to always find something to work on. When I didn’t have woodworking to do, I’d caulk someone’s bathtub, or paint some window trim, or build a deck or fence. I even hung ceiling tiles and did drywall at times, window and door replacements, hanging a storm door, etc.
What I discovered though is that more people needed remodeling work than they needed high-end expensive furniture. I quickly found that I was spending most of my time doing something I didn’t want to do, and it was not the reason I had quit my corporate office job. Truth be known, I’d probably rather have an office job with vacation and benefits and a cranky boss than to sand drywall mud without all of the benefits. BUT, to do actual woodworking on interesting things, obviously I would rather choose the woodworker over the office job.
So, not wanting to do remodeling, I had to restructure, and made a new list of rules to control what I said I would do for people. With the Word-of-Mouth business plan, one job leads to another similar job. If you do drywall once, someone else calls for a drywall job, and on it goes.
Almost all of my work was word-of-mouth, local, and involved one-on-one conversations with people who would either come see me, or I would visit them. These meetings were often long and fun, and would easily set into my head what they wanted as we discussed options and came to the final decisions. I would go home in those days with a full understanding, and could start work fairly quickly on the project.
As things progressed, my backlog grew faster than I could get to it. And for the past 5-6 years, the backlog list has been several months out most of the time, and up to 24 months at times.
Then, the economy changed…...anyone else notice that?
When that happened, the practical Kansans rightly quit buying things that didn’t involve food or medical bills. As the backlog started to shrink, I wasn’t sure what the future would hold.
Then, the emails from peers in woodworking started coming in, telling about losing work, and shutting down business, and losing houses and losing wives, and such. It’s been a tough time for woodworkers if you haven’t noticed.
I got scared actually. I didn’t tell anyone, not even the wife. She was scared enough on her own without my losing confidence. But, scared guys can do dumb things, so I tried hard to control myself, and build my faith into the future based on what I have learned from the past. I don’t hold any “faith” in Government fixing anything, no bailouts coming for woodworkers.
Still, there is a Master Woodworker that I do have faith in. He has a book full of promises, and commands, and parables, and prophecy and fulfillment, lessons and faith building accounts of the past. I laid my faith on the Guy that worked in Nazareth as a Woodworker amongst a Jewish community of people that must have been hard to do business with at times. This Guy, He knows what it’s like to be in a tight spot with a woodworking business. My confidence in Him was built over a few years of successes, and lessons, and I decided that I wouldn’t put my trust in anything, or anyone, else.
Actually, none of us ever know the next moment ahead even in a Good-economy, whatever that is. Just remember a “good-economy” is just a bubble building up to burst at some point somewhere. But when a guy has a list of folks with 6-24 months of work ahead of him, he often starts to quit worrying so much about every day.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been days, generally back in 1997 and 1998 when I first started this as a full time venture that I would wake up on Saturday night about 2am in a panicked sweat, with no work to do on Monday morning. I’d look over at my peacefully sleeping wife, and imagine what fears her father had in my ability to provide for his daughter. Wow, that’s a load of weight. I remember well her dad’s expression when I told him that I had quit my job at the office to be a woodworker. Having a daughter myself now, I understand his expression better today.
This woman sleeping there peacefully had trusted me so much, that she had quit her job and stayed home full time, focusing on making great meals, and keeping house, and tending to me, and going to the Lady’s group meetings at church. Seeing her sleeping there in the bed, with me scared speechless was quite a burden on me, and just reliving it as I type, I can’t keep the tears from coming back again. Did I mention I was scared? I just want you to know the truth, as you may be reading this wondering what you are going to do, and I want you to know it’s ok to express it. Scared guys do stupid things, and pretending to be “strong” can just make pride-fulness look like stupidity to everyone else.
Running out of work in those early days actually happened three different times to me. All of it hit me in the middle of the night on a Saturday. In these panicked moments I’d throw a few prayers up to God about how I was overwhelmed with worry and doubts in myself, and asked Him to calm me. I never heard a verbal answer to those prayers, but I would calm down, feeling I had been listened to, and went back to sleep.
In those Times of worry, the next morning I’d go to church with my wife, and during the morning someone would come up and ask if I had some time to look at a project they would like for me to do. I’d pull out my calendar, while I tried to calm my heart so I didn’t shake when I spoke, and I’d scan the empty pages a moment, and say something like, “Yes I have some time, how about 8am on Monday?” It took three times for that same scenario to play out before I started to understand that God was working with me, and teaching me, and developing a faith in Him that went farther than true stories about other people that lived in the past. My faith was growing by experience in seeing Him work in my own life. And somehow at the time being short-sighted, I didn’t realize how important those early days were in helping me get through the coming days.
Ok, I say all of that to show how I got from there to here, whatever “here” is. None of us have more than a hope in something that goes beyond the moment we are living. The older I get, the more concerned I’ve become about a day of judgment that is coming, one called the “Bema Seat”, you’ll have to read about that in some other Blog by someone else. But, that day means that all of what we’ve done will be weighed, and that done for ourselves will be shifted out of the list, and what remains will be rewarded.
Ok, why all of that? Before my ever-changing Business Plan and Survive-It mindset will make sense, you have to know a little about how I’m wired.
Back to Commissions:
As my backlog moved from local people I met with personally, to emails from the internet, the chances of miscommunication have grown. And, with the economy shrinking, so have the projects I’ve been given to work on. This means that I’ve gone from working with a couple of families a year doing rooms of furniture, to hundreds of people I only know through emails who are buying small items with intricate details that come in pieces through dozens of emails with them over 12-18 months of time. It’s such a shift, that at times I feel completely inadequate to handle it.
This has brought about issues with packing boxes and shipping, and where to put all of those nasty styrofoam peanuts, where to find boxes, etc. But, the main problem has been with the communication cycle, and the length of time it takes for me to get from initial inquiry to actual shipment. For many things I make, its a 12-18 months cycle time. This means that over those months, each of the dozens and dozens of customers who have ordered something will write me dozens of emails each, and each email is written with the confidence that they are the only one I’m reading from and it all makes sense to me.
Some write a lot of emails, others not so many. But, I have to process all of that flow of information, and not make any mistakes with it. I have to remember birthdays, and anniversary dates, and wedding dates, and hospital stays, and planned surgeries, and all sorts of things that affect the priorities the customers I’m dealing with are working in. What could be worse than shipping a monogrammed wedding gift, only to find when it opened that it was the wrong person’s monogram on the wrong project? Hasn’t happened yet, but the odds are against me.
So, I made a Horse Head instead of a Bear Head. For a guy with ADHD like me (self-diagnosed), all of these hundreds of emails over the course of year coming in with intricate details that must be followed, it has become hard to keep it all straight. I get from 20-200 emails a month from new people just wanting prices, or checking on whether I’d build something for them, most with a story and a set of details they would like to be included in their project. So on top of the customers, I have to keep the requests of the inquirers straight also.
I’m not complaining, just expressing the difficulties in managing so many different things at the same time, and spreading the detailed communication over many months. I know my future in this business is dependent on how I solve these problems.
So, what do I do?
I try to be more organized with all of it. I try to say “no” to things I don’t want to work on. I try to print out the pages of emails and review them every time before I make something. But, there is that nagging concern with every project, that I will miss something as critical as making a Horse when it should be a Bear.
And in the meantime, I’m pondering what else to do that will improve my ability to get the details correct each time, and suffer back all of those ever-nagging “break-out” feelings that creep up on me.
Well, that’s about it for this time, I’m just another guy in the same struggle with you.
Back to the Shop now, thank God I have work to do.
(Note, all text, story, and photos has been protected in whole, or part, by copyright 2012, no unauthorized use of this material is allowed without expressed written consent by the Author, M.A. DeCou)
-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan - www.decoustudio.com