My Journey As A Creative Designer - Woodworking and Beyond #439: Commission Work Ups and Downs

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Blog entry by Sheila Landry (scrollgirl) posted 08-22-2011 12:35 PM 1427 reads 0 times favorited 8 comments Add to Favorites Watch
« Part 438: Lesson 7 Is Posted Part 439 of My Journey As A Creative Designer - Woodworking and Beyond series Part 440: And On to Designing . . . »

Doing commission work can have its issues. I don’t really mind doing it – in fact I like it, but I certainly wouldn’t want to have it as a main source of my income.

Lately it seems that I have had several people ask me to do special orders for them. Since I am all over the place these days and not pressed hard under many deadlines, I made an offer on these jobs and took them on. I think it is a nice change of pace for me and good practice to do some things that I don’t normally do. I like the variety in work and I also like to be able to help someone who is otherwise stuck in finding a person to do their project.

The first job I did was for my friend Bernie. He had called and asked me if I would do some lettering for a sign he was making for the nearby church. Apparently the church had a new reverend and he needed a sign with his name on it. Bernie stated that he wanted the lettering to be done in a simple font – about 2.5” tall and he didn’t need anything fancy. All he needed from me were the letters cut from 1/8” plywood and painted black. He would do the rest.

Over the next week, I spent a day or so working on the sign. I don’t believe that I did it all at once, as I first had to draw the lettering, and then cut it out. I kept track of my hours and all in all with drawing, cutting and sanding it took a bit over five.

When I saw him last week when we went to the camp, I brought him the finished lettering. When he asked me what I owed him, I didn’t quite know what to tell him. Usually for work like that, I charge somewhere around $20 and hour. I know that may seem like a lot, as I used to charge a lot less for custom work such as that and Bernie is the one who told me that I needed to charge at least $15 or $20 an hour for my work. After all he said, it was custom work. Where else would they get such a thing?

I had a hard time however, looking at the small pile of lettering and asking $100 for them. After all, this was Bernie and he has helped me a lot by letting me use his shop tools when necessary. (I do pay him for that too each time we use it) He told me that he was certainly going to cover what I charged him in the cost that he would bill them, so I decided on asking $40 for the job. I thought that was fair seeing as it took me the better part of a day to complete.

On Thursday when we were in town we stopped by to see him and Ellen just to say hello. While we were there, the lady from the church came over to pick up the sign that he had finished. Bernie went out to the shop with her to give it to her and he returned to the house several minutes later. When he came in, we asked how she liked it and he replied that she didn’t take it. We were dumbfounded.

At first we thought he was kidding. But soon it was apparent that he wasn’t. When we questioned him as to why, he told us that she said that it was too big and she wanted the sign to be only three inches tall. The bad part about this was that SHE had brought him the piece of wood that he was to put the lettering on and told him that was the size she wanted. The wood she had brought was at least five inches high. I was really angry.

The woman was the wife of my former land lord when I lived in Digby. Even though they own over 15 properties around town and are very wealthy, she is notoriously cheap. A couple of summers ago she commissioned me to design and print some brochures for her church. After doing so and printing the 300 copies she suggested (they were double sided color printing and tri-folded – which I had to fold) I called three printing places to see what pricing they had. I took the LOWEST price of the three and divided it in HALF and came up with a price for her. I didn’t even charge her for the actual layout or computer work. When I emailed her that they were ready and told her how much she owed me, she hit the ceiling.

“I thought you could do it for almost nothing?” she actually said to me. “I am donating this to the church!”

Well, at the time I was really struggling financially and barely had enough money to buy food and I had to take whatever jobs I could, but when I dropped them off to Bernie’s where she was going to pick them up, I told him that if she didn’t pay the full amount I asked for them, then I wanted him to throw them into the fire and burn them. I would rather see them burned then give them to her under the circumstances. She did wind up paying and I vowed to never do another thing for her again.

So here I was feeling bad for Bernie for getting roped in by her cheapness once again.

It’s people like that who leave a bad taste in your mouth with commission work. I know you are supposed to get money up front, and I guess we all learn the hard way because people sometimes surprise you and can’t be trusted.

I have had better judgment with doing commission work since then, and I have done some nice jobs in between other things that I thoroughly enjoy. Some of you may remember the little bears that I made for the volleyball team in Ohio last fall. That was a fun job and I thoroughly enjoyed doing it. I also do some drawing for a man who lives about 50 miles from me and makes beautiful plaques. I have never met him yet, but whenever he needs something, I always try to fit it in no matter how busy I am because not only does he appreciate it, but he is fair and pays me what I ask. It is a good relationship.

I also had a request for a sign that I spent many hours drawing last year and ultimately the customer refused it. It wasted a couple of days for me and I was quite disappointed that I spent so much time trying to please him when he just flat out had no respect for my time. It left a bad taste in my mouth once again.

But recently I took on a couple of jobs ‘just because.’ I am doing some lettering for a customer and we are bartering for something beautiful that he makes. This job was fun because he is very easy to work with and is a fellow woodworker that understands the time and effort that goes into making things. I thoroughly enjoyed doing the lettering overlay pieces for him and it was a fun job, although it was one of the hardest lettering things that I have cut to date.

In cutting the letters yesterday, I had just about finished when I broke a letter. I had a wonderful day of cutting and felt right on top of things and was sailing right along on my scroll saw. The letters were quite small and I used a font that I thought would look very pretty but it made the work really delicate. When I finished the lettering part, I took the piece out and I promptly broke the bottom of the ‘t’ in the word August:

There was nothing that I could do but cut it over.

On the bright side, I was really enjoying the cutting and it was one of those days where I almost regretted that I was finished. It only took about an hour and a half to do and I just continued on and was able to complete the piece without incident the second time. I should be able to ship the pieces out tomorrow after I package them up today.

I have one more commissioned job to do to clear my slate, and that only entails drawing. I began working on it last night and should have it finished by today. Then I can get back to my own designing, as the next deadlines for my wholesalers are in a few weeks. Hopefully, you will see a flurry of new projects from me during that time frame.

Commissioned work can be a good thing, but sometimes it means taking a risk. Although I enjoy doing it from time to time, I wouldn’t want the type of business where I had to count on it on a daily basis. I like being able to pick and choose which jobs I accept and I like that I don’t depend on it for my main source of income. It is fun and satisfying though to help out on occasion and make things that are truly appreciated. Once in a while, it can be good.

Have a great Monday everyone. Enjoy what the day will bring.

-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

8 comments so far

View sawdust99's profile


26 posts in 2947 days

#1 posted 08-22-2011 03:38 PM

Best thing to do is get 50% up front. That way the customer agrees on what you are going to do for them and it is as they want. Get final payment when done. That way if they back out at least you have 50% of the cost for your trouble.


View ShopTinker's profile


884 posts in 2824 days

#2 posted 08-22-2011 04:16 PM

I also thought 50% down was customary. When we’ve hired work done at the office we’ve always been asked for 50% to 60% up front. I never though anything of it. When I’ve special order a recliner or sofa I’ve always had to pay for at least 50% to place the order. I’ve ordered some novelty items for our company to give away, that had our name printed on them, and we’ve paid between 50% and 100% up front.

-- Dan - Valparaiso, Indiana, "A smart man changes his mind, a fool never does."

View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9231 posts in 2975 days

#3 posted 08-22-2011 04:22 PM

I know that is customary and I told Bernie the same thing. It is sad because you deal with people that you are supposed to know and you think they are honorable and it is unfortunate that you find out otherwise. Bernie has been doing this for over 60 years and I don’t really think he will change his way. There is nothing to say however that I can’t learn from it and also my own experiences. ;)

I know you guys are right.


-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

View grizzman's profile


7836 posts in 3359 days

#4 posted 08-22-2011 11:47 PM

oh sheila, that just tears me up, i cant believe she did that to Bernie…...i would have torn her a new one..people who are that cheap don’t deserve to have custom wood work, man,,,she just toast my cookies…sorry for Bernie…when ive talked to people about wood work…they will say oh thats so pretty, i want one…when i tell them the price..oh i cant afford that…....i always think…...they want something nice, but dont want to pay …there use to walmart crap…..well i hope bernie does not do any more work for her…please dont tell me he is going to make her another one…...well ive got work to do…have a great week…grizz

-- GRIZZMAN ...[''''']

View Letorix's profile


119 posts in 2559 days

#5 posted 08-22-2011 11:48 PM

My motto is that no good deed goes unpunished…seems it always works that way.

Off topic, your scroll work interests me. Did you have to re-cut the whole thing or were you able to salvage mos of that piece?

View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9231 posts in 2975 days

#6 posted 08-22-2011 11:54 PM

Thanks, Grizz – he said he will DONATE it to the reverend! (EGADS!!) I had to walk away I was so angry. I hope the reverend finds out why Bernie did it. I know I am not recutting it.

Letorix – yes, I had to cut it over. Chalk one up to learning. Sometimes we all have to re-do things and I am no different. I think I just shaved the bottom of the ‘t’ too close. It was extremely weak. I was more careful on the subsequent piece and kept my concentration and it is nice. I wouldn’t have felt good about giving a glued piece like that and it was just tiny.

Live and learn, I suppose! :)


-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

View William's profile


9950 posts in 2898 days

#7 posted 08-23-2011 06:23 AM

I tell everyone who asks. broken pieces are part of scroll work. One of my sons was watching me cut some gable pieces once for a church themed clock. He’d been talking about pulling out an old scroll saw from under my bench and trying his hand at scrolling. After about forty five minutes of cutting, on the very last inside cut for the piece, the corner snapped off for no apparent reason. Well I had already prepared about five pieces to be cut, so I just threw the broken gable piece over into my waste bucket, grabbed the next piece, and went back to cutting. Soon after all this I noticed my son had vanished. I asked him later where he went. Turns out that he decided that if a scroller could throw three quarters of an hour of work into a bucket and start on another piece without thinking anything about it, then he didn’t think scrolling was for him.
Oh well, maybe when he gets older he’ll learn what patience is.

I’m sorry to hear about the church lady ordeal. Some people can be impossible. Now, everyone knows that my work is more a hobby than anything else. That’s what I call it anyway since I can’t seem to make any money at it. However, about a year ago I lost a friend over custom work. His wife wanted me to frame a 1955 copy of Time magazine she had. I searched all my favorite cubby holes in the shop and found some of the nicest wood I owned. I went and spend money out of my own pocket to buy the glass for it. I made her a very nice frame that she seemed to be just thrilled to death over. Then she asked what she owed me. Well, these were good friends and I didn’t know what to tell her. So I told her to just enjoy it. I went back home and thought no more about it.
The next day came and I was in the shop. She showed up, with a huge smile on her face, still beaming about her frame and tolling me about one triple digit quote she had gotten from a frame shop to do the same job. Then she practically shoved twenty bucks in my hand. I must admit I didn’t argue too much with her. I do have kids to feed and besides, I still hadn’t told her I’d spend eighteen dollars on glass. I hadn’t complained though. I was happy that she was happy.
Well I thought all was fine and everyone was happy.
Later that day her husband showed up at my shop. For the life of him, he just could not understand why a friend would charge his wife twenty dollars for a frame that “you proabably put together in five minutes”. Not only did he not understand it, but he was madder than hell about it and was cussing me up one side and down the other.

I laid out everything for him.
1. Frames with sealed glass and back and double dadoes to hold a magazine in between the glass and back to keep it from getting torn up does not get put together in five minutes.
2. Twenty dollars barely covered what I paid for glass.
3. I didn’t ask her for a dime. She practically shoved the money in my pocket.
4. She was happy with the whole deal.
5. If he was unhappy, all he had to do was come to me with respect and I would have gladly gave him the money back.
6. She told me a frame shop would have charge over a hundred bucks to do a frame for her.
7. In the past I had bought tools from him and had always paid for them. I’d never asked him for anything for free just because we were friends.
8. I have kids and was not exactly in the postition to be turning down money when someone is trying to get me to take it.
9. This was my shop he had just walked into and started cussing me, in front of my kids, for a pitiful twenty dollars.
10. This here was the door to my shop (that I was pointing to as I shoved a twenty into his shirt posket) and he needed to get his @$ out it and never step foot back in my shop.

Now here’s what I leanred from that.
When a friend asks if I can build something, I’m usually either too busy or I don’t know how. I do make exceptions, but it’s rare. I’ve only built things for two friends since then, and they were fellow Lumberjocks. So maybe if I only build things for wood working friends?

Anyway, Sheila, if it makes you feel anybetter, this world is full of nuts. We’ve all encountered them.


View Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)'s profile

Sheila Landry (scrollgirl)

9231 posts in 2975 days

#8 posted 08-23-2011 11:49 AM

Yes, William. It is pretty crappy how people can be. It poisons us from everyone who is nice. I try not to let it get to me though, but this time it did. As I said, Bernie is a big boy and it is up to him what he will do about it but I will never knowingly do another thing for that woman – at any price. I don’t deal very well with people like that.


-- Designer/Artist/Teacher. Owner of Sheila Landry Designs ( Scroll saw, wood working and painting patterns and surfaces. "Knowledge is Power"

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