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Woodworking Skills In The Real World

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Blog entry by Todd A. Clippinger posted 1594 days ago 947 reads 0 times favorited 21 comments Add to Favorites Watch

Woodworkers Want To Know

Woodworkers often ask me how to make a living out of the shop. This is a short question that requires a long answer. Here, I will give some context of how woodworking skills apply to the real world using my experience as one example.

In my case, I get projects because of my remodel business. In 1997 I started out as a handy man with no training or skills in the trades and no tools. I had a contractor that guided me and gave me a lot of work for my first year and a half. I read everything that I could get my hands on about remodeling and how-to. I was as passionate and obsessed about remodeling back then, as I am about woodworking now. I soaked in everything and the guys that knew me called me “Sponge Todd.”

At the time, I was not even aware of fine woodworking or custom furniture. The highest thing on the skill level chart that I knew of was a trim carpenter. The natural progression in carpentry was to start out as a framer, and then over the years as your skills grew and your body broke down, you became a trim carpenter.

By retirement, you became the legendary trim carpenter that only worked on the high-end homes, showed up and left when you wanted, and was cantankerous. This would frustrate everybody, but you were “the guy,” so the clients would never say anything because if they pissed you off enough, it would be time to walk and that would show them because nobody hung crown moulding like you – HA! Well, that is not exactly how it works, but I do know some characters that just about fullfill that scenario.

OK-Get To The Point

Recently I looked at a project that is a perfect example of what I want to share. It includes replacing the stair rail, balusters, bench, and bookcase. The challenge is to make them more appropriate for the 1920’s style of the house. The floors will also be refinished and that work includes going up the stairs and down the hall.

This is the “Before” photo taken for bidding purposes.
SV102933

This job is perfect for what I do. I don’t like new construction, I don’t even like doing additions. Most often smaller jobs like this get relegated to the handyman that does not have any sense of design. Typically, they will inflict tasteless work on the house. This type of work can be seen in the photo that was done during a previous remodel.

The projects I favor are homes from the early 1900’s that had some horrible remodel design inflicted on them in the 70’s or 80’s. I create a remodel that is considerate of the period when the house was first built. My goal is to make the work look more like it was part of the original design.

How Does This All Apply?

My work relies upon applying the skills that are part of the woodworker’s repertoire. Not only that, but I am continually challenged with a variety of situations that require good problem solving skills combined with an eye for design. I have been in the field long enough to know that it is tough to find a contractor that possess both trade skills and design sensibilities. This is my competitive edge as opposed to trying to be cheaper.

I have my own small business because I like having control of the design and building process. I can pick and choose what part of the project that I want to do, but I am not trapped in any single compartment such as framer, sheetrocker, cabinet maker, painter, and so on.

My favorite part of the project is the design process. I don’t care if it is designing furniture, a built in, or a remodel, I love the design process. I love hashing out ideas with clients and they enjoy it too. They may or may not have any idea of what they want, but when I get them involved they get excited about the project. If I was just the cabinet maker, a sub contractor, I would never get to partake in the design process as I do now. I would always be building someone else’s design.

After the design process the hand skills are applied. I enjoy the mix of cerebral stimulation balanced with the physical aspect. Remodeling is where I first developed my hand skills that I carried into the shop. Granted, using power tools in a remodel is not the same as hand cutting dovetails or carving for a highboy, but don’t discount the skills that an individual will develop in my line of work.

Define What You Really Like To Do

Do you like variety and being creative? If you start making furniture how much variety will you have? Not much if you have only a few pieces to offer. Your need for creativity may even feel stifled if you are a slave to making a certain product. My business provides me a continual variety of challenges.

If you have a business that produces cutting boards but want to design a line of Shaker influenced furniture, you will feel like a slave as you churn out cutting boards to fill orders. The point is to be aware of which direction you take your business.

If you want to build furniture but start doing home repairs, now you become known as a handyman. That is a tough one to get away from.

In many ways I am fortunate, I have enough time behind me that I have built a reputation and I have done various things so I have figured out what I specifically like doing. I enjoy a blend of working in the shop and in the field but I don’t like heavy remodels anymore. I enjoy being creative, building with my hands, and providing something that people can use and enjoy for years in their home. This is very satisfying to my mind, body, and spirit.

This is my experience for how woodworking applies to the real world.

The goal of this entry was to provide a context for how woodworking skills can be applied to make a living. I hope this information helps others that may be thinking about moving their career to the shop and are wondering how they will get work or what they will build. It is a very romantic notion that can be disappointing or it can be rewarding if the right decisions are made.

That is all for now.

Your friend in the shop – Todd A. Clippinger

Share the Love~Share the Knowledge

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana, http://americancraftsmanworkshop.com



21 comments so far

View buffalo689's profile

buffalo689

170 posts in 1610 days


#1 posted 1594 days ago

” The natural progression in carpentry was to start out as a framer, and then over the years as your skills grew and your body broke down, you became a trim carpenter.

By retirement, you became the legendary trim carpenter that only worked on the high-end homes, showed up and left when you wanted, and was cantankerous.
Insert stair guy, remove retirement and you got me pretty close Todd ! 25 years of getting beat up by builders and gc’s and the boxing matches of pricing and getting paid, ME GRUMPY..That’s why I love my woodshop ! I like to feel the customer out, design and deliver something that makes them happy! Satisfaction makes the shop a happy place!

-- bill

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8722 posts in 2702 days


#2 posted 1594 days ago

Yep, that has a lot of truth in it actually.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana, http://americancraftsmanworkshop.com

View dannymac's profile

dannymac

144 posts in 1619 days


#3 posted 1594 days ago

I’m really not all that cantanterous and i still enjoy the rough framing every once in a while. I don’t have to think about it, I just do it. It’s like a day off for the brain. Though I’ll admit it be a little painful by the end of the day.

-- dannymac

View mikethetermite's profile

mikethetermite

417 posts in 1869 days


#4 posted 1594 days ago

You are right about finding the right trim carpenter. In 2000 my wife and I had a custom home built (right next to the old one). The trim carpenter did a great job on everything. Fireplace, cabinets, and lots of molding.
In 2005 my Ford F 150 caught our house on fire and it burnt to the ground. Hired the same contractor and trim carpenter. About half way finished the trim carpenter cut three of his fingers off. Another trim carpenter finished, or tried to. Sure makes a difference. We are still correcting his work.

-- Mike The Termite ~~~~~ Working safely may get old, but so do those who practice it.

View canadianchips's profile

canadianchips

1831 posts in 1600 days


#5 posted 1594 days ago

I am with you on this one Todd. I came out of Millwork and Cabinet making school back in 70’s. Worked at a shop in the “BIG CITY” for almost a year. I cut the SAME number of boards every day, carried the same sheets every night for over a year. Quickly realizing I wanted out in the field. I chose to move back to where I grew up and started my own reno business. Specializing in kitchen cabinets. When technology changed, taste in cabinets I did not have money to by the tooling i needed. I continued to build SPECIAL cabinets out of my shop and still remodelled houses.I would tell my customers up front, they will pay more for what I build, with that they will get a one of a kind item.If someone seen what I made and wanted the exact same I would tell them NO. The first people paid good money for a one of a kind and “I couldn’t make the same thing twice even if I tried . ha ha)If people label me home handy man – okay. I DO know how to pour the footings at the start of a home and I do know how to finish the wordwork at end of building. And everything in between.I found remodelling challenging. Never knowing what was under what we were getting into.In my case my mother was a interior decorator. When the time came to give clients ideas I would bring her along and as a team WE all decided what needed to be done.I only wish I were not as old and tired. I would do this same thing over again in my next life ! ONLY BETTER.

-- "My mission in life - make everyone smile !"

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8722 posts in 2702 days


#6 posted 1594 days ago

Candianchips – thanks for the great story.

The feedback here can help see how the woodworking skills have a practical application.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana, http://americancraftsmanworkshop.com

View MercerRemodeling's profile

MercerRemodeling

47 posts in 2214 days


#7 posted 1594 days ago

I totally get it. I spent the day today replacing rotten siding on dormers, fixing plumbing leaks, and adding outlets in a basement for a realtor to sell the home. I enjoy most aspects of remodeling but would rather be building a bookcase for someone. I do get to use my woodworking skills but not sure how to get away from being a “handyman” and still make a living.

View Beginningwoodworker's profile

Beginningwoodworker

13337 posts in 2276 days


#8 posted 1594 days ago

Great post, Todd. I find myself in the same boat Todd, even thou I took up building construction in college, I pefer small remodeling, I am never in one camp or the another, I like framing, trim work, and even cabinet making.

-- CJIII Future cabinetmaker

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8722 posts in 2702 days


#9 posted 1594 days ago

The goal is to get categorized as a contractor instead of a handyman. The term handyman is more often equated with lower prices and you will find yourself bidding against guys that charge way too low.

If I find out I am bidding against a certain group of guys, I know that I am wasting my time. I know the group that I should be bidding against if I am competitively bidding.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana, http://americancraftsmanworkshop.com

View Beginningwoodworker's profile

Beginningwoodworker

13337 posts in 2276 days


#10 posted 1594 days ago

Yes I’ve Agree, Todd I am thinking about going into the home repair and remodel business you got any tips?

-- CJIII Future cabinetmaker

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8722 posts in 2702 days


#11 posted 1594 days ago

Charles, the home repair and remodel business will keep you hopping.

Get the required licenses for state and local business, some liability insurance to cover yourself, you can operate as a DBA or sole proprietorship, get some business cards made up, word will spread fast and you will be in business.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana, http://americancraftsmanworkshop.com

View Beginningwoodworker's profile

Beginningwoodworker

13337 posts in 2276 days


#12 posted 1594 days ago

I will have to take a contractor license test first. What kind of home repair and remodel jobs I could take on?

-- CJIII Future cabinetmaker

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8722 posts in 2702 days


#13 posted 1594 days ago

Charles – There are so many things that people have repaired from bad cabinet doors and drawers to poorly operating windows and doors.

People will call you for anything and everything.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana, http://americancraftsmanworkshop.com

View Beginningwoodworker's profile

Beginningwoodworker

13337 posts in 2276 days


#14 posted 1594 days ago

Ok thanks for tips, Todd. I am going to pick a Hitachi CR13V 10 Amp Reciprocating Saw and a Hitachi NR90GR 3-1/2” Gas Powered Round Head Framing Nailer and a set good levels, I got every thing else I need for repair work. I help my dad replace most of the trim on the house.

-- CJIII Future cabinetmaker

View Todd A. Clippinger's profile

Todd A. Clippinger

8722 posts in 2702 days


#15 posted 1594 days ago

Charles, sounds like a good idea. In remodel I find that I use the finish and brad nailer as much if not slightly more than the framing nailer.

I remember looking at your tools outside and thinking that you pretty much have a jobsite setup going there.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana, http://americancraftsmanworkshop.com

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