Going Pro?

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Forum topic by Tim posted 10-04-2007 10:29 PM 2162 views 2 times favorited 27 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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28 posts in 4173 days

10-04-2007 10:29 PM

I’d like to get a few opinions on setting up a professional furniture shop and making a full time living at it. I love making furniture and I’d like to do it all the time. I know I probably don’t have all the right ideas about going pro so tell me what you think and please don’t be shy. If your a pro tell me what you honestly think.



-- Measure twice!!

27 replies so far

View RJones's profile


317 posts in 4327 days

#1 posted 10-05-2007 06:03 AM

Wow I surprised there hasn’t been more action here! Anyways here are my thoughts.
No I am not a pro, by that I mean I don’t do this as a full time profession. I did, however, about a year and half ago start a part time business woodworking and so far things have been pretty good. As much as I would have wanted to jump out full time I am glad I didn’t as I have learned sooooo much about what really needs to happen before I do and when I am ready to make that jump I should be able to with minumim risk.
So with a year and half of part time work under my belt I would offer these thoughts

1. Woodworking is just a small part of it you will need to wear the accounting, marketing, manager hat as well if you can’t do them all well you may very well fail or at least not succeed.
2. you will need to be a self starter, can you get youself out of bed in the morning?
3. Do what you say you are going to do, don’t miss a deadline
4. Don’t work for nothing. Probably the best way not to do this is consult an accountant to figure out what it really costs after electric, phone, glue, screws, gas, etc Currently my accountant has me enter all my time and job expenses so that at the end of the job I can see if I really made money based on my bids, so far I am not doing so well but better understand and I am getting better.
5. If you do work for friends treat them as clients, no breaks, no missed deadlines
6. Don’t just go out and buy tools willy nilly, if you need it go get and buy the best you can afford and then go one step better
7. Get at least 30% down if not 50% before you get started
8. Communicate with your client keep those line open, BTW it helps if you are a people person
9. Do you mind working 50-60-70 hours a week?

I think there’s a bunch more but it’s been a long day (go figure yes I am just getting out of my shop) I guess I would suggest doing it partime and see how it goes, worst case it doesn’t. Better to have tried and failed then never to have tried at all



View Fingersleft's profile


71 posts in 4068 days

#2 posted 10-05-2007 12:23 PM

Hi Tim,

Great Question! And I agree with everything that RJ has offered. Its all good stuff and should be carefully considered before going into any business.

Let me offer some of the thought process I went through before even thinking about selling any of my work. Much of this came from lengthy discussions I had with a fellow local woodworker, named Dave, in Colorado who made the decision to turn pro some 5 years ago. Therefore, much of this is his comments, opinions.:

1. Dave (and I agree) decided to build what he really likes. Therefore, he has developed about 10 pieces which he showcases. Of course he can modify any of these pieces – different sizes, finishes, etc. to create suites of furniture, etc. Paul’s comment – I you don’t love it, the customer probably will not either. Dave’s position is “If you love it, buy it. If you don’t love, don’t buy it.

2. Dave considers himself an artist. Therefore, he rarely accepts custom work outside of his core pieces. Dave feels that to do so, makes you no more than somewhat skilled labor. This takes into account that a customer is not a designer or a furniture builder, and makes it more difficult for the customer to rationalize paying high prices for furniture.

3. Dave trys to keep his overhead at a minimum. He rents a commercial shop. So between rent, insurance, phone etc., he has at least $1,000.00 in fixed overhead before he turns on the lights.

4. Dave is not at all shy about pricing his pieces up to some startling levels. $3,500 for a writing desk, as much as $6,000 – even $10,000 for a buffet and hutch, for example. He is looking only to maintain a core client base of about 10 buyers which purchases 2 to 3 pieces of his work per year. In my opinion, his work stands up to these prices. While his workmanship is high quality, similar levels of quality can be seen in some of thr project we see on this site. He has told me that while it is sometimes tempting to cut his prices in half, which would still produce very acceptable margins, he would have to build twice as many and deal with twice as many customers to make the same net income.

5. He uses a lot of exotic hardwoods, as he feels it enhances his pieces and creates the sense that the pieces are truely unique and distinctive. Therefore they should and do command a premium price. I’ve seen his work. The pieces show very well. Although to my eye, a few of them are somewhat too exotic. I didn’t partcularly like his zebrawood chair, for example. But he tells me thst he doesn’t position these as “every day furniture.” He positions them as unique pieces of art.

6. Dave works through a number of local decorators in the area. Therefore, he is reaching a very small, but affluent client base. He claims that his “customers” are these decorators. He claims that his big initial mistake was to try to reach customers directly in the first few years, when he was unknown.

7. He works with a very good upholsterer who provides these services using only top quality fabrics and also provides him new leads.

8. He does not attend trade shows or woodworking fairs, as he thinks it cheapens his work and finds that customers seem to think he should be lower in prices.

9. He advertises heavily in local art and culture magazines.

Has this approach worked for him? He tells me that after 5 years he nets about $65 thousand a year, after expenses. Unfortunately, he believes he can never reach more than about $75 to $80 under the best of circumstances. All in all, I think that’s some degree of success, while the total amount of net dollars is not particularly high. My thoughts: he’s doing what he loves and he likes the environment he’s created for himself.

Certainly, there are many approaches to turning pro and many markets out there. And anyone who is even considering the idea needs to find a venue and a process which is comfortable for them. That will not insure success, but make it more easy to tolerate the lean periods. I think Dave has found his niche. Maybe some of these ideas can help you find our own set of ideas and your own approch to the market.

-- Bob

View Moron's profile


5032 posts in 4065 days

#3 posted 10-05-2007 01:00 PM

first rule in business

always make more money then you spend so having said that

find something you DO make money at, and do it again and again and again. Leave the “romance, the glory etc” at the door.

I simply hate working with laminates and melamines, making simple boxes is so BORING but the fact of the matter is, I’m not just good at it, I’m also fast at it and it’s what makes me my $$$$. After almost 25 years of woodworking, doing banks, schools, commercial and industrial millwork and then moving into doing $100,000 kitchens (not inclucing sinks, tile, appliances”), coffered ceilings and expensive furniture I have gone to my roots of doing (no offence to anyone)..............the basics because thats what paid the bills.

I have often been asked “I’m thinking of opening my own shop and starting a business?”........which I almost always reply to….....”Your &^%$#&^ crazy”.

I’m not trying to bust your bubble but too many folks will tell you what you want to hear, not what you need to hear. Take for instance China, they make solid cherry furniture that is soldfor less then I can buy just the raw material. I can buy a kitchen with solid maple doors, boxed/packaged and delivered to the job site, all with top of the line Blum hardware, for less then the price of melamine alone.

The great masses of people shop at the Brick, Leons, good Wal-Mart. They are not educated on hardware, on the differences in melamine papers and grading and or joinery of wood and frankly…’s all about price. For those who do want quality furniture and cabinetry…............why would they gp to the “new guy”? and not buy from someone with a great reputation?

I have priced more then one job where the client has said that he can get said price “X” for 1/2 the price of “X” and I said thats impossible. I’ve gone to check out the work of “1/2 X” and found it to be top notch only to see them bankrupt 2 years down the road.

Self Employement can be very rewarding, both emotionally and finacially but the road to get there isnt an easyone to travel.

Best of luck to you

-- "Good artists borrow, great artists steal”…..Picasso

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Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 4134 days

#4 posted 10-05-2007 02:38 PM

Roman is correct; the objective is to make money. That’s business The other part of business is to please the customer. A happy customer is a return customer and will send you customers. Can you compete with China and the big box stores; don’t even think about it. If you can’t make a profit do something that will. I lose bids to guys that won’t be around in a year. That’s the way it goes. I won’t discount and I won’t cut prices. You’d better like 80 hour weeks, doing your own bookkeeping , bidding, visiting clients, talking to bankers, designing, and taking out the trash. By the way if the toilet is plugged or the electric needs fixing don’t even think about calling someone else. You can’t afford it. Be prepared to get up and go to work at 5:30 AM and quit when you can’t go anymore. You probably won’t be able to afford health insurance for the first five years so make sure your wife has a good job with benefits. Be prepared to lay awake at nights trying to figure out how to build a certain job and how to make the money stretch and how to tell the banker that you will be late,,again. If you’ve never had your own business you might be in for a shock.

On the plus side, if your kid has a baseball game in the afternoon you can take off and go be there for him. You can also feel a great pride in the accomplishment of a job well done. Good luck.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

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Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 4134 days

#5 posted 10-05-2007 02:44 PM

I just looked at your shop. You realize that if you go into business that the hunting and fishing will probably cease for quite a while, don’t you? Later, when you are very successfull, maybe.
Well, unless your wife is an attorney.LOL

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

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Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4578 days

#6 posted 10-05-2007 03:03 PM

Just a few misc. thoughts, as I don’t have much time this morning

Full time is so different than part-time, or hobby woodworking, that there isn’t any comparison, or much in the way of overlapping wisdom.

Selling pieces once in awhile, is not the same as “having” to sell something constantly.

You’ll consider sanding off the inscription to your wife on the bottom of the gift you made her one Christmas so you can sell it. Even Sam Maloof sold a piece that he had inscribed to his Wife. The story is in his book.

It is not about woodworking, it is about money, and staying ahead of bills.

You can romanticize it as much as you want, but it is a business, with a huge investment in time and resources.

It will cost you everything you have to give it, and you’ll only dream about what more you could sell so you could feed it again.

It is a constant battle, and if you are ahead one minute, something breaks down, or the transmission goes out.

If you have another income source, pension, trust fund, inheritance, lottery winnings, or someone else in the family working, that will help.

Don’t plan on making any profit for a long time.

You will want to invest every penny you make for a long time, either in tools, shop space, transportation, wood inventory, computers, digital cameras, skill education, show fees, advertising, website….....on and on.

You will never be done investing in a woodworking business.

I think it is very critical to figure out what you are best at, and get a shop and tools and skill base set up for that niche. This is your Image. It is what you are selling.

It doesn’t do any good to buy all of the tools to make Large Home Entry Doors, if you end up selling jewelry boxes.

Cash out your 401K, you won’t be retiring anyway, and you’ll need the capital.

You can’t compete in any regard with a factory, or anything that is made in a country that has people willing to live on less money than you.

Doing drywall and house painting, or cutting lawns, pays much better, are you sure you wouldn’t rather do those things?

Finding people that are willing to pay for your time to make handmade “Anythings” at American labor rates is pretty difficult, in any medium, in any market.

Wait until customers are begging you out of your day job. Put them off as long as you can do it.

Are you willing to risk everything?

Your reputation is more important than your abilities.

There is always someone down the street that can cut dovetails faster, but do people want to do business with them, or collect their work?

Plan on living at well below the “neighbor’s lifestyle.” In fact, you will probably need to move to a cheaper neighborhood.

You’ll start looking at your shiny new pickup truck, and finally figure out how many board feet of slabbed walnut trees you could buy if sold it and bought an old clunker.

My best, and only running, pickup truck is a 1972 GMC Sierra. I heard a rumor that someone was going to give me a 1981 Dodge pickup, but that is rumor at this point. I had to sell the big new 4×4 truck I had back in 1996, so I could get out of debt, before quitting my dayjob.

I have met few people that went full time with an art based business without help from someone, either a spouse, a sugar-daddy, an investor, a grant giver, etc. Ok, ok, I have not met anyone that did it alone. I would love to hear about someone that did, so if you know of someone let me know.

Making wood products is the easy part.

I used to think it was more about “making” wood things.

I have learned that it is much more about “selling” things.

People don’t buy my “products,” they buy “me.”

If “I” am not interesting and collectible to them, then they just see my high priced products as too expensive.

Nobody really “Needs” what I sell.

  • Taking this adventure could be analagous to someone that lived in Philadelpia in the mid-1800’s when they got the silly idea to go “West, to make it rich.”
  • They dreamed about it everyday, and in every situation. Finally, they couldn’t contain the excitement any longer and they started to talk to their friends and family. All of their family and friends thought they were nuts.
  • “Why, just tell me why?” their wife screamed and cried as she fell asleep every night.
  • Pressing ahead anyway, they sold everything they had to buy a wagon and team and the tools for the trip. They studied and dreamed, and learned to shoot, make a fire, and repair wagon wheels. They learned to do accounting, when they should have learned how to grow food.
  • What they actually needed on the trip, was the opposite of what they took in the wagon.
  • Grouping together and hiring an experienced, and sober, Trail Guide was the only way they survived the first few weeks.
  • Momma’s Piano was left along the trail to pass a ravine and climb the opposite bank.
  • The next Pioneer passing the trail, tore apart the Piano for fire wood.
  • Enemies were at every bend, and behind every bush. Fear was an ever present emotion, to the point that it became what felt “normal”. The fear of accepting defeat was the biggest fear, so they pushed on West.
  • Their only set of reading glasses were lost while crossing a flooded creek. But that was ok, there weren’t any newspapers to read anyway, and they could still see the sights on the rifle barrel. And, news of life back in the “City” didn’t seem important anyway. The newspapers had all been used up a long time back in the journey for wiping paper.
  • They buried children along the trail.
  • Along the trip they wished they had started out years before, when they were younger, and had less to sacrifice. Medically, they should have started 10 years earlier.
  • When they arrived at their destination, there weren’t any roads, an accurate map, telegraph lines, or mail service, and more time to learn and work hard.
  • After the journey was complete, the cabin was built, the homestead stake was registered, and now the real work had just begun.
  • The only horse they had left to pull the plow, died one night.
  • The seeds for the 1st crop brought in the wagon got wet and rotted.
  • Enemies visited regularly and took anything they wanted, sometimes killing family members in the process.
  • But, there was a lot of “elbow room, green grass, and a good water source.”
  • The first crop was lost to grasshoppers.
  • The second crop lost to prairie fires.
  • The third crop lost to migrating buffalo.
  • The fourth crop lost to drought and wind.
  • Still, going back to Philadelphia was beyond consideration.
  • And because some brave individuals took that trip, the rest of the country was settled.

I live on a Family Homestead. This is why I sit sometimes and look out across the hills, and wonder how anyone had the courage and tenacity to come to this spot with only a wagon and a family, and start everything from scratch. No road, no school bus service, no mail, no phone, no fences, no water well, no anything. With their own hands and hand tools, they set up a Homestead. Me? Well, I get frustrated that I have to stop work and paint the house they built. Makes you think, huh?

Three generations later, none of the family wanted the place, and all four House plots along our winding dirt road are out of the Homestead Family’s hands now. There is a lesson to learn in that somewhere.

We have lost that Pioneering “sense” in today’s culture with interstate highways criss-crossing us everywhere to everything. What do we complain about now? Potholes, and internet service that is too slow, and road rage. We watch the clock all day long so we can get home and do what we really enjoy, Hobbies. I no longer have Hobbies. I like the focused effort it takes, I need that focus at times. It is easy to get sidetracked, hard to stay on track.

The mailbox is a good way to stay on track….........a daily walk to the mailbox wondering what bills are in there, makes you get back to work quickly. You have to beat your wife to the mailbox, because she has learned to hide the Tool Catalogs that come consistently each week.

I think the closest we can get to “Pioneering” in today’s culture, is to go backwards in lifestyle, and sacrifice everything and start up a family business from scratch.

Taking over someone else’s business is a different journey all together. Instead of building the Homestead House and digging a Water Well, you’ll be reroofing, or painting the old house. Make sense? Buying someone else’s “Pioneering” work might be better for you.

In the midst of all of that “glory,” and history experienced by the Pioneers, we are also reminded that the journey cost the original inhabitants of the land everything they owned and valued. You can’t blame them for putting up a fight.

Today, we stand for a brief second or two at the City Park to view a bronze statue of a Pioneering Lady with a baby in her arms. And after pausing for just a second, just before you really stop to think about the “Woman and her baby”, you have to tell the kids to ”be quiet, stop hitting your sister, and eat your Happy Meal, we have to get going, your soccer game starts in 15 minutes.”

There are a lot of lessons to be learned from reading about the Pioneers, turning that wisdom into the fortitude that it takes to go full time with any business, much less one that depends only your own hands to produce work that you sell.

I think you have to be so impassioned, that going back to a desk job appears to be the worst kind of torture. Something you would never consider. You need that motivation to press on every day. Even Sam Maloof says that he thought of quitting many many times, but his wife just kept saying, “keep trying.”

Would I go back to working for the “Man”? I hope not.

The benefits to working in family woodworking enterprise are tremendous, just not immediate, or easily obtained, nor financially rewarding.

Selling real estate starts with passing a test and getting a license. Driving a Truck starts with passing a driver’s license. Starting to practice Law, Medicine, or Chiropratory, all starts with a degree. There is no starting point with woodworking in this country.

The next time I log on at lunch time, I will try to post more of the “benefits” to consider.

I’ve scared myself again to the point that I need to get back to the shop!

Are you a Pioneer?
If so, keep dreaming, I recommend it.

There is “plenty of elbow room, green grass, and a good water source.”

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

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Mark A. DeCou

2009 posts in 4578 days

#7 posted 10-05-2007 03:16 PM

Good insight Thomas Angle. I forgot about doing my own wiring and tool repairs. Good stuff!

Why are we doing it??? Head’s need examined?

-- Mark DeCou - American Contemporary Craft Artisan -

View RJones's profile


317 posts in 4327 days

#8 posted 10-05-2007 04:40 PM

Yeah what Mark mentioned! Looks like you have recieved a lot of honest no BS feedback which is awesome!


View Bill's profile


2579 posts in 4333 days

#9 posted 10-05-2007 04:49 PM

So much to think about…all great thoughts from those who have done it.

-- Bill, Turlock California,

View Thos. Angle's profile

Thos. Angle

4444 posts in 4134 days

#10 posted 10-05-2007 09:06 PM

I don’t know, Mark. I’m sitting at this darned computer figureing out a bid when I’d rather be in the shop building something. I need the bid done because I need the money. Crap.

-- Thos. Angle, Jordan Valley, Oregon

View Tim's profile


28 posts in 4173 days

#11 posted 10-06-2007 03:49 AM

Thanks guys. I appreciate it. Especially Mark. It is a passion but I don’t have too much experience. I’m getting out of the Navy in three months and looking at a few options. The input is really good. Thanks again.

-- Measure twice!!

View closetguy's profile


744 posts in 4064 days

#12 posted 10-06-2007 05:17 AM

After six years full time in this business I would recommend you print out Mark’s comments and read them three times a day for the next month. Then ask yourself if you are ready for the wild ride. You can make a decent living at this full time. I do, as well as many others, but moving from hobby to full time requires a whole different mindset.

When you do this for a living it becomes less about woodworking and more about business. The road is littered with great woodworkers that “crashed and burned” because they couldn’t get past the passion and understand where and how to sell their work. It comes down to leads. No leads, no sales. Its that simple.

Don’t worry about Walmart or Rooms to Go. If you want to build and sell high-end furniture that commands a high-end price, your potential customers do not shop at these stores. They are not going to call you from a newspaper ad. To be a bull, you have to run with the bulls. My business really took off when I started getting referrals from interior designers. Customers that come to me through these sources have the financial means and always buy big.

90% of closing a sale is all about how the customer perceives you. Lots of people can build a cabinet. But who does the customer feel the most comfortable with. If you have the personality of a lemon, you won’t make it. Occasionaly, a customer will go with me even though I was not the lowest price. Their comment usually is that I seemed more confident and had a better graphic presentation. Salesmanship is extremely important.

I had a difficult time my first year in business because I didn’t understand the importance of leads and how to generate “quality” leads. I would thow a few ads out in papers and distribute flyers and waited for the avalanch that never came. All I would get were window shoppers and people who have a Walmart price mindset.

If you can’t find a buyer for your product, your are marketing to the wrong customers….

-- I don't make mistakes, only design

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 4499 days

#13 posted 10-06-2007 05:20 AM

Wow – them Pioneers. Those are the ones with the gumption to leave Europe and head here… some their children lost that sense, others moved west… and here we demean them by calling them “settlers”. Implying that they settled for wherever the wagon broke, or the horse quit. Giving glory to those who made it on to california – and built piers when there was nowhere further to go… yet they too lost the pioneer sense in a big way.

Good words of wisdom Mark, et al.

I’ve talked to one (self employed) publisher about what it takes to get a book made. Writing the book is the easy part he tells me. The real work is in the business side – accounting, managing, promoting, selling and so on. Same advice from a Phototgrapher who’d put out his own shingle. you’ll work well past 40 hours on the work you want to do, and an equal amount of time on all the stuff you didn’t go to school for – and likely don’t have a mind for.

The biggest problem we, as creatives face, is not having the business experience we need, OR not pairing up with someone who does. We think we can, or have to, do it all ourselves – because we can’t afford to hire that work out. Hopefully we can find the right friend, family member or ? to partner with… we don’t all have our own private sugar daddy. – and our spouses don’t want to be stuck at jobs they may want to move on from because they are providing the benefits.

I wish I had the right mindset to be a teacher, thus affording me the time to make a real honest go of a part-time hobby income… well maybe in time.

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View scottb's profile


3648 posts in 4499 days

#14 posted 10-06-2007 05:26 AM

Oh, and then there’s the advice that Steven Wright gave me (yes that Steven Wright)

(something to the effect of) Take a chance, try something new, just go out and give it a shot.

you might fail, but you might succeed… just fail quick, and try again – learn from it.

Milton Hershey had several failed chocolate companies before he settled in PA and tried again. It took Sam Maloof a long time to make a name for himself – if he retired in his 60’s most of us wouldn’t know his name.

Good perspective Closetguy!

-- I am always doing what I cannot do yet, in order to learn how to do it. - Van Gogh -- --

View gene's profile


2184 posts in 4056 days

#15 posted 11-01-2007 02:52 AM

I am retired now. My past experience in starting a business involving construction, custom cabinets ,custom furniture, etc. was to have a market set up before I opened the door or expanded into something new. Also, never!, ever!, put all of you eggs into one basket. Should something of a disagreement arise and you only have one outlet, You could loose all of your business over night.

The next thing is to have adequate finances, so that you can live for the first year without taking a dime out of the business to support yourself. If you feel that this is possible, Then I say go for it ! It is a very rewarding experience to be self-employed. There are some draw backs also. Say, when you open your mail and most are bills and don’t forget Uncle Sam ( seems half are from him wanting more money ) and that adds up to a lot of stress.

I am not trying to discourage you or to be negative at all. However, 9 out of 10 small businesses fail in the first year or two. That’s just a fact.

Should you go for it. I wish you all the luck in the world and may you prosper!

God bless

-- Gene, a Christian in Virginia

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