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A Kennebunkport Style Adirondack Chair, 25 "Free" Lessons From My Woodworking Business

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Project by Mark A. DeCou posted 2537 days ago 13740 views 19 times favorited 24 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Digging through the old DeCou Photo Archives, I came across this project.

I started out just posting the photos, just to get them loaded. I think about 15 months ago when I was first picking out projects to post up on the “new Lumberjocks” website, I skipped this one, thinking that I never wanted to publicize these for sale. I was “done” with this. I took them off my website quite a long time ago.

At first I just posted the photos. Then, the more memories and lessons I was reminded of by looking at the photos, and thinking through the process, I came up with a way to write up this project story in a way that might be helpful to other folks looking for projects and ways to sell their woodworking.

It is common for woodworking folks to ask me questions when we meet, and a few common ones are:
A) “Where did you learn this?”
B) “I hate my job, can I really make a living doing this?”
C) “Where can I sell my work?”
D) “What products should I try to sell?”
E) “How do I learn to market myself, I hate promotion and marketing?”
F) “Can you help me?”

So, as I thought about this posting over the night, I saw that it could be a way to share some of the things that I share with folks when I get these questions.

These principles are what I have learned about my work, and it doesn’t necessarily apply to anyone else’s thoughts, ideas, or success. Glean what you can, toss what you don’t want.

So, here it goes….....
This project was my first try at several new things and I learned a lot.

I learned for the first time:
1) How to design a chair, learning what makes it comfortable, and not comfortable.

2) How to build a chair, and that they are complicated and time consuming, regardless of the style.

3) That building production ready templates is a long, expensive process, and before you do it, find a market for the product first. If they sell, make provisions for how to produce them below their market price.

4) That building multiple copies of a project is for some people, and “not” for others. It’s not for me.

5) That selling a product in direct competition to Walmart and Harbor Freight is a nightmare, they set the market price, even if I set the quality. People waddle through the Garden Center, see an imported chair assembled by the Night Guy, and they see ”$39.99”. That price sits in their head, and anything higher than that is seen as “higher.”

6) Non-woodworkers don’t see what I see. They can’t see that the wood is selected specifically for each part of the chair, that it is glued and screwed together, that the joinery is flawless and effective for daily wear, and that my chair will last, while another cheaper chair will not last. I learned that even after I showed prospective customers those points, this particular product wasn’t valuable enough to carry my price.

7) After educating prospective customers as to the finer selling points, quality, integrity of the wood etc., they make better buying decisions, and choose the $49.99” at the Major Retailer, instead of the $29.99 chair. Unless, they just want yard art, and then the $29.99 one will work great for them. Who cares if it only lasts 3 seasons outside? They can go buy two new ones then. Eventhough I helped prospective customers see the difference in my product, it didn’t carry them along to the $200 in value that I needed to show.

8) It was at this point that I started to learn that “Branding” was important to developing value for a customer. If it doesn’t matter that “DeCou” made it, then I should pick another product. I learned that people will buy things I have made, because I made it, but not every product is worth that investment.

9) I learned that using an unhappy “model” for brochure photos doesn’t help sell them. I should have taken another photo another day. She was right, “they are too expensive.” Took me awhile to see that she is right. My wife is my best critic and supporter, all in one. I ask her for input, and she tells me the truth. Sometimes it is painful, but it is the truth. Other folks may not tell me the truth. I have learned to trust what she says, even if I don’t like it, and stomp off in a “huff.” When I ignore her input, I am on shaky ground.

10) Marketing Feedback: Learning to read people’s faces and body language saying, “you want how much?” is an important aspect to selling woodworking items. Let’s face it, not all of us woodworkers are marketing gurus, or even extroverted personalities, and it could be that we need that help from others. I shared a show booth one time with some friends. They had a great product, and so we shared the booth costs. By the end of the weekend, the husband was banished from the booth by the wife. He just couldn’t say anything that didn’t make a shopper upset, so she sent him out of the booth. She was great with people, while he was great with wood. She was the creative artist, he was the hardworking constructor of the idea. They needed each other, and they learned that by showing their work. They learned at the show to use those qualities in each other. I think this is probably one of the most important lessons about why folks need to “show” their work. The direct feedback you get about your product, and yourself, is invaluable. You don’t need to pay a Focus Group, just set up at a flea market, and disappear into the crowd to listen to what people tell each other about your product. Whatever you hear, it is the truth to them. Don’t try to discount it, ignore it, or argue with them, “They” are the customers, and they have an opinion, and it is always truth to them.

11) “When the Art doesn’t speak for itself, the artist will”—Mark DeCou 1999

12 “When the Art doesn’t speak for itself, the artist must”—Mark DeCou 2005

13) “Demand” sets prices, not input costs. The demand for the product drives the retail prices, and not how long it took me to build it. My input costs are meaningless to the price that people are willing to pay. They don’t care whether I make $1.00 per hour, or $30.00. Well actually, some may care….and they will tell their friends about what a great deal they got at the flea market. Then, their friends might want one also at the same price…...it is a viscious circle.

I scoured books and magazines for about a year, and picked out what I liked best about each chair, and then incorporated all of those details into my chair. It is an original design, but it is based on many other examples of this style by other people. So, I can’t claim it as my own design, eventhough I designed it.

I guess make that:

14) pick out items to build that haven’t been “designed to death” by people that came along before me.

oh, and maybe this one as well:

15) don’t build items for sale that guys look at and tell their wives, “I can build that, don’t buy it.”

oh, and this one:

16) seat bottom slats with a knot in the middle, break.

I learned a lot in this process.

17) I learned that I don’t like building copies of anything. I started out by making the prototype, and then making some copies of it. I built 6 before I burned out on it. What I discovered after this revelation, is that my unique functional-art work I would later discover had value because, they weren’t any copies. People liked the idea of buying a one-of-a-kind item.

18) Selling high priced, labor intensive products that can be purchased other places at much lower prices is difficult. Eventhough they were comfortable, the best I sat in, people just didn’t care that much for that aspect of this chair. What I learned is that people weren’t looking to “Sit” in their chair, only to have it “sitting” in the yard for decoration. They were viewed more as a landscaping item then a piece of furniture. So, I tried to sell the copies I made, but ended up using them for gifts to family members. My prices were so high, that people just laughed, or nearly slapped me when I quoted this work. Afterall, there is a lot of hard work and time in these chairs, especially if they are primed and painted. (notice I repeated this point for emphasis). If someone asks you to follow them to a furniture store to quote a piece of furniture they saw on sale, but didn’t like a tiny detail of, run the other way.

So, I guess I had better add this one to make sure I remember it;

19) When a product is sold at a major department store, even if it is inferior in quality, it is hard to sell examples at a higher price, even to friends, despite the high quality. (note, this is repeated again, another way to make sure it is noticed)

20) Since this project “bust”, I learned that I need to pick out niche products. I’m not a factory, nor want to be one. I’m not a manager either, so hiring employees to manage is out of the question. So, I must turn to “Functional-art” pieces.

21) I learned to look for project ideas that require my unique abilities to do the work, require unique tools, and need lots of tedious time consuming steps to build. These principles make the item more complicated than most folks will want to tackle on a Saturday “project day.” I have never shown a piece of my “fuctional-art” furniture pieces and heard a man tell his wife, “I could build that.” They whisper other things, like, “that costs more than our trip to Hawaii last year…..”

22) “Believing” in the value and quality of my product is important to me…..maybe more important than customers care about, for this type of project.

Once I brought these lessons to my business plan and was willing to change my direction, people started buying things….....although they often still give me that look, “You want how much?” It is funny, people don’t think much about spending $10,000 going to Hawaii to play golf. But paying that much for a piece of furniture that their friends with love, and their grandkids will fight over, that’s a different story. For the few that it matters to, those are the customers. Just having the right “address” doesn’t make someone the right customer. Some of my best clients have been people that didn’t have that much money. They just loved art, and wanted it bad enough to sacrifice other things to get it. It is to those people that I try to sell my work now. Recently, a guy in his 3rd week of a woodworking business told me that his plan was to build heirloom quality pieces, but build them cheap enough to sell to the average person. I hope he reads this list, I discovered over the past years that those two thoughts are diametrically opposing forces of nature.

23) It is interesting though, I was trying to sell these chairs in the $250-$350 range, and I couldn’t sell them. I was convinced that it was just too high priced, and I couldn’t see how to reduce the labor costs. I thought then that people were just “cheap.” What I learned is that most people are economically sensitive, until they really want something. Then, the credit card is whipped out quickly. The ones that really want something are the folks that I make as customers. Although, I don’t take credit cards. I also learned that I only need 4-5 customers a year, and over a lifetime, maybe only a hundred. That revelation changed my business plan considerably. Years later, I have sold pieces that cost more than good used cars, sometimes more than two good used cars, and definitely more than all four of my used cars put together. So it isn’t just that people didn’t want to spend the “money” on the Adirondack Chairs, it was that they didn’t want “a chair for the yard” badly enough, to spend much money on it. They could easily see the quality was better than the Harbor Freight chair for $29.00, but most couldn’t see paying 10 times more, despite the quality, just for a landscaping piece.

24) I learned that it is probably better for my business plan to offer a class where I teach how to build these chairs, while giving out copies of the patterns in the process. This is the type of project, where a lot of folks expressed a desire to learn how to do woodworking, and to then build their own copies of my chair. Since I had been trying to protect my design, and sell the “product”, I declined the offers to sell “teaching” to people on “how” to build the chair. I’m now playing with the concept of how to market and provide teaching sessions on various projects, and this is one that I think might work in that regard. Even if the chairs themselves don’t sell well, they would be a hard enough introductory woodworking product for folks to learn lessons in working wood, and for me to recover some of the “costs” of learning. Also, I wouldn’t care if they decided to make lots of copies of the chair, even for sale, I don’t want to do that. Maybe I should charge a royalty…..........

25) Sometimes the “lesson” is worth the investment, and I think in this case, that is true for me.

So, eventhough the whole project concept of selling lots of copies of these chairs was a “bust,” despite how comfortable chairs were, in my remembering the “pain”, there is some wisdom here for others to grasp that might be worth my efforts.

Someday I plan to make a couple more of these chairs for our yard. I don’t take much time to sit in the yard now anyway, too much work to do…......Maybe if I built the arms to hold a keyboard, I could use the Adirondack at the computer….........
(hmmm, note to self,”ask wife if making an Adirondack Desk chair is a good product”.........na, don’t waste the breath…...she already thinks I’m crazy….....)

See, these Lessons are “Free” to you, but came at my “cost” and so I hope they are helpful.

Thanks for looking,
Mark DeCou www.decoustudio.com

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Want to See More of my Furniture Work?:
If you go to my Mark DeCou Website you will find that I have not updated my website in quite some time. I realize that I need to invest in improving my website, but until that is accomplished, here are some more Lumberjocks related lilnks with updated postings of my furniture work, sorted into categories. Thanks for your interest in my work, and your patience with my website.

Arts and Crafts, Mission Style Related Projects:
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  2. Arts & Crafts Orchid Stand w/ Wine Bottle Storage
  3. Arts & Crafts Style Morris Inspired Chairs
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  5. Arts & Crafts Style Inspired End Table Set
  6. Arts & Crafts Style Inspired Prairie Couch
  7. Table Lamps
  8. Arts & Crafts Carved Entertainment Center
  9. Mission Entertainment Center
Church & Worship-Art Related Projects:
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Art-Furniture Related Projects:
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Rustic, Western, Cedar Log, and Cowboy Related Projects:
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  6. Fun With Cedar Logs #1; Sitting Stool
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  8. Fun With Cedar Logs #3; Western Style Hat/Coat Rack
  9. Fun With Cedar Logs #4; Entryway Stool
Outdoor Furniture Related:
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  2. Outdoor Garden Wedding Arbor
  3. Outdoor Project: Cedar Wood Double Settee

(This text, and photos are protected by copyright, all rights reserved, M.A. DeCou 8-1-2007)

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





24 comments so far

View Don's profile

Don

2599 posts in 2762 days


#1 posted 2537 days ago

Is the chair your ddesign, Mark.

-- CanuckDon "I just love small wooden boxes!" http://dpb-photography.me/

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

1973 posts in 2990 days


#2 posted 2537 days ago

hey Don, went back and added some more details.

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

View Obi's profile

Obi

2213 posts in 2822 days


#3 posted 2537 days ago

Does the good lookin’ woman come with it?

View Mark A. DeCou's profile

Mark A. DeCou

1973 posts in 2990 days


#4 posted 2537 days ago

Hey Obi: I think that there are days that she would say, “Yes.”

take care,
Mark

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

View Karson's profile

Karson

34845 posts in 2985 days


#5 posted 2537 days ago

Well Mark, I guesss this project was not a bust. It firmed up a lot of things, “What Not to DO”

See you soon.

-- I've been blessed with a father who liked to tinker in wood, and a wife who lets me tinker in wood. Southern Delaware karson_morrison@bigfoot.com †

View Joel Tille's profile

Joel Tille

213 posts in 2829 days


#6 posted 2537 days ago

Nice chair Mark.

Even though not taking woodworking to the extent you have, when I have made pieces to give to someone, I often like to show others. The preferbial, can I buy one comes up. Then just like you said … “you want how much”. So for now we mostly give gifts. I guess I need to find my niche.

Thanks for sharing your story.

-- Joel Tille

View scottb's profile

scottb

3647 posts in 2912 days


#7 posted 2537 days ago

This is a great version of a classic.. some nice design differences… and yes there’s a lot of work in those chairs. I wonder if all those guys that said they could make it ever did, and their wives ended up with those insipid plastic knock-offs (or nothing at all)

-- 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 Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4435 posts in 2547 days


#8 posted 2537 days ago

Sometiimes learning what not to do is as important as learning what to do. I’ve had a whole lifetime of the first and am ready for some of the second. It is a nice chair, evan if the model doesn’t seem to think so.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View Dan'um Style's profile

Dan'um Style

12813 posts in 2568 days


#9 posted 2537 days ago

nice work and even better story

-- keeping myself entertained ... Humor and fun lubricate the brain

View CedarFreakCarl's profile

CedarFreakCarl

594 posts in 2638 days


#10 posted 2537 days ago

Great story and a beautiful chair Mark. I really like it’s “sturdy features”. Looks like it might even withstand my two and a half year old “furniture tester”. Thanks for sharing.

Carl

-- Carl Rast, Pelion, SC

View scottb's profile

scottb

3647 posts in 2912 days


#11 posted 2537 days ago

Yeah, a good adirondack chair needs to be able to just stay outside year round – not a problem in the middle of the country I bet, but we get everything up here!

-- 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 mot's profile

mot

4911 posts in 2621 days


#12 posted 2537 days ago

Well, I don’t have to get my wife to model for things to have that look on her face. I just have to be in the room. (I’m trying to be funny, by the way…in my usual stupid way.) I like the take on the chair. Good tip on the knot on the seat slats. I’m about to build some of these and that would be something I would have over looked.

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

View MsDebbieP's profile

MsDebbieP

18614 posts in 2745 days


#13 posted 2536 days ago

just think .. if people had really liked – and purchased these chairs—you could still be building the same old chair.
Life has a way of guiding you to where you are supposed to be. The trick is to listen!

-- ~ Debbie, Canada (https://www.facebook.com/DebbiePribeleENJOConsultant)

View Sawdust2's profile

Sawdust2

1467 posts in 2672 days


#14 posted 2536 days ago

Lot’s of good insight on the business aspect.

No one else can make a “Sam Maloof” chair but they make “Maloof like” chairs. Are Adirondack chairs so generic that it is like xerox is now generic for copiers? Would it be better to call it a Kennebunport chair?
(I used to live near Kennebunkport). There are lots of rockers but only one “Brumby” rocker. No one makes a “Brumby-like” rocker. [This train of thought developed from the “Adirondack” style.] Maybe your innovations made it “the only comfortable Adirondack chair”.

The other great point from your post is that it is often necessary to make a change to become successful. You are a good example to others.

-- No piece is cut too short. It was meant for a smaller project.

View Bill's profile

Bill

2579 posts in 2746 days


#15 posted 2536 days ago

Great story Mark, especially for those of us who are working on the “direction” for our business. I do not mind making copies of my work, and would enjoy it to some extent. Each time I make one, I can improve the process, improve my skills, and learn something. That something could be a better eye for design, a better sense of how the wood will look, or even a more critical eye towards quality. I can see for other people, such as yourself, repetition would not provide those answers.

I have also thought of building Adirondack chairs, and have been wrestling with the same thoughts as you. “Popular” items are readily available at the mass market stores. The quality may be lacking, but they hit the magic price point. So I have tried to build items that are not duplicates of what is available there. Unfortunately, this rules out a lot of items, including the Adirondack chair. However, finding someone that appreciates the extra effort, quality of materials, and more unique features makes even these Popular” items appealing to make.

Not only that, sometimes I look at it as a challenge to myself as to know I can build it. If I can build an Adirondack chair, then I can build another type of chair. If I can build an end table, then I can build another type of table. So sometimes it is a learning experience to go through, even if I can not sell it to someone else. That is how I felt about my FLW print stand. I just had to build it myself, even if I did not sell one. I may even make another to improve my skills. While it is somewhat unique, it also uses many of the same skills I need in building other types of furniture. So, if I repeat it, I am improving my results on it as well as my future items.

I did not mean to detract from your thread. I find what you said here very relevant and take the words to heart. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts and experiences.

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

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