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Forum topic by Loren posted 12-13-2011 04:26 PM 4273 views 5 times favorited 52 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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Loren

7563 posts in 2304 days


12-13-2011 04:26 PM

I’ve been in woodworking for about 15 years; pro on and off so I have my skills dialed-in and I can be grouchy about whether or not certain things are worth the trouble. I’ll say for sure that I enjoyed learning the craft a lot more than I enjoy doing the stuff in it that pays bills.

(I have insomnia tonight. I’m just going to write some stuff and see where it goes. Forgive me my indulgences.)

I earn part of my income from woodworking, part from writing and consulting, part from buying and selling old junk, and part from marketing information products and software to email lists I’ve built since 2006. I started the internet marketing stuff because woodworking as a full-time thing was driving me bonkers. My other skills allow me to turn down tiresome or unprofitable woodworking jobs I might have taken a few years back.

You’ll notice that the people who write for woodworking magazines seem to both need the income and the promotion to make it as furniture designers to varying degrees. Cabinet stuff is a commodity and service business, but it’s not fun to be set up and paying the overhead of being a cabinet man when you really want to do solid wood furniture work. The tooling is different, as are the marketing requirements and lots of other stuff. Moreover, consumers are confused by cabinet shops that do furniture and vice-versa, and perhaps they are right to be confused…. running a cabinet operation and making fine furniture share many similarities, but when you get into it, doing both in one space all by yourself with minimal employees is very tricky and a prescription for working extremely long hours.

Now the question is whether you can be a custom furniture maker and take on more modest cabinet jobs to make some money, and the answer is yes, you can. When you start fixating on keeping edgebanders and forklifts in working health, you’ve crossed over to the dark side. There’s money to be made running a big shop with high tech machinery and a payroll, but you won’t be building up your cache as a furniture maker doing that, you’ll be running a commodity shop.

The thing is, about custom furniture that has contrasting woods and other elements that scream “craftsman made! One of a kind!” is that buying and owning these pieces makes customers who can afford them feel really good. It’s feelings you’ll be manufacturing when you make and sell fine work. The wood thing is your commodity, but your product is the feeling it induces in people who purchase it.

I’ve done a lot of custom work and I’m pretty sure, from a marketing point of view, that being a “custom woodworker” is a bad position. It’s good to have the tools and skills, mind you. The thing is, friends, that people these days want products that fit within narrow definitions. Customers, unless they are trained as designers (and architects seem to be the ones who are, far more than the interior design people tend to be) don’t know beans about specifying custom work. While the design people can sometimes spec the work well, they also have more of a tendency, from what I’ve experienced and heard, to not pay what’s due after the work is done. With homeowners and other “end users”, the sales and design process rests on your shoulders but they do tend to pay what’s agreed when the work is delivered.

I’m reasonably sure that in today’s market, where customers want to know what the product is exactly before they buy (“how do I know if I want it if I don’t know what it’s going to look like?”) that the road to success as a wood designer/fabricator lies in making your own cohesive product line. Then people can say, “oh, she’s the wooden spoon turning lady,” or ,”that’s windsor chair guy, you know, those New England chairs with the curved backs…” or ,” that’s the fellow who makes the crazy birdhouses,” or “that couple makes cherry furniture that looks like Greene and Greene”.

Like it or not, today’s customers want to pigeon-hole what you do in their minds. Only after they’ve done some pigeon-holing are they likely to feel safe asking you to do custom work for them.

Enough for now. Thanks for your comments.

-- http://lawoodworking.com


52 replies so far

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Dallas

2908 posts in 1143 days


#1 posted 12-13-2011 05:32 PM

Good points Loren.
Although I was in the building trades many years ago, and my dad tried to teach me custom cabinet work and custom wood work decades ago, I have just recently returned to wood working as a method to enhance my meager income.
I haven’t found my niche` yet, although I’ve gotten a few commissions for small items such as cutting boards, portable writing desks, worry boxes etc.
I find myself torn between wanting to do the custom furniture stuff like the portable writing desks and boxes because they are easier for me to visualize in my mind than cutting boards and band saw boxes and toys.

My preference would be to sell this stuff online rather than at craft fairs or flea markets, but it seems that getting the name out online is a slow process unless you use something like Etsy, which isn’t high on my list.

Rereading this, I see I’ve rambled somewhat. I know what I want to say but I don’t know how to say it. The bottom line seems to be that I’ll have to do what the market or the demographics require rather than what I want to do.
If I were in good physical shape, I’d probably go back in to custom interiors in houses. As it is, I pick up work rebuilding/repairing interiors in RV’s because I manage a campground. The problem with RV work is that the normal customer doesn’t want to pay for decent material, they also want it to look like the cookie cutter particle board crap that came in it in the first place….. highly unsatisfying to me, if for no other reason than it’s hard to take pride in something you know is going to be torn up or fall apart within the next five years because of the movement of the frame the piece is connected to.

-- Improvise.... Adapt...... Overcome!

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andy6601

79 posts in 1124 days


#2 posted 12-13-2011 07:58 PM

Good topic Loren,
First I want to say that as humans we like to catigorize things not just furniture, but everything and I think that is just how we are wired.

Second, marketing, marketing, marketing if you are doing this for $$$.
Right now I have been doing a lot of refinishing and repair work, I WANT to move back to building furniture and this is not my day job actually its my night job, when I have time. I am doing what is currently in demand for me. I enjoy refinishing but, after you do 4 pieces in a row I am growing a little tired of it. That being said you need to be flexible but have a niche or something that you are known for.

Third, I think as a “furniture maker” you have to pick a style and go with it, myself I can not make a high boy today and crank out some modern studio furniture the next, you can not be all things to everyone. So find a style and go.

Forth, I honesly think that people like the idea of custom furniture but are either intimidated by it, think that is way too expensive, or really just don’t have a clue. They get their pottery barn magizines and go this is what I want! Can you build it for half that price? I guess I really do not have much of an answer but this is just my observation of people. Lastly cabinets are a commidity so is furniture anymore and I have to agree with you when a cabinet shop tries to build furniture it is a losing propostion, the reason I say this is when I think of cabinets that is what I think of kitchen, bathroom, etc boxes with doors and drawers that is it. Maybe there are some shops out there that do both but I would think that it would be very hard.

Lastly I feel the ideal place to be is when you are doing something you enjoy and are able to have people pay you for that, or at the very least can do it at a profit and do what you like on the side and not starve to death. I also feel that in this economy people are willing to go outside of their comfort zones to get work because of how scarce it is, but if you do a bad job or really flub something up bad news travels faster than good news and may hurt you in the long run.

So my advice is pick something stick with it and the worst that happens is you fail, then pick something else eventaully you will find something.

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cabs4less

235 posts in 1418 days


#3 posted 12-13-2011 08:27 PM

Great read! I have owned and ran a cabinet shop for a few years now and tried to sell custom furniture at the same time and I agree it is bad way to go. I found myself disappointed in the quality of my cabinets ( not saying i cut any corners but a pocket screw compared to mortise and tenon is wimpy) and disappointed in my profits from furniture. I could build a kitchen in the same amount of time as armoire and make way more money. I still build kitchens and furniture but mainly now its what you were saying its modest architectural jobs. The economy is the main reason I primarly build furniture now people are just to broke to remodel kitchens in my area. I accept custom orders but I have found that building certain pieces and selling them on ebay is better for me than waiting on an order. It doesnt always pay off some designs just dont sell or take time to sell but after a awhile one can somewhat get a feel for sells and what doesnt. SOMEWHAT

-- As Best I Can

View SalvageCraft's profile

SalvageCraft

274 posts in 1182 days


#4 posted 12-15-2011 07:18 AM

I’m hearing some good stuff here, mainly backing up what I’ve suspected as I’ve been working to get my own woodworking business off the ground.
-Build yourself a niche and steer way clear of the commodities trap.
-Build things you like to build, and build them on spec rather than custom orders; put together a distinct product line.
-Market the !$@& out of your stuff!

These are all really good things for me to hear people with more experience agree on. Any other lessons you’ve picked up that would be really useful to a beginner?

-- Jesse --

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a1Jim

112104 posts in 2233 days


#5 posted 12-15-2011 08:00 AM

I have been in the furniture business for almost 25 years and I have had to do lots of work I would rather not do including working as a contractor. I agree in part with Loren in that if I were to start over I would specialize . I feel there’s more involved than just specializing in a particular product, It also involves how talented you are, what kind of market place your in and how unique your product is and all said and done it involves some luck as to what contacts you make and who your clients are. In today’s market I see major woodworking talents struggling to make a living so I don’t know that any of the normal rules of our woodworking business rules are really in play the same as they would be in a better market.

-- http://artisticwoodstudio.com Custom furniture

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SalvageCraft

274 posts in 1182 days


#6 posted 12-15-2011 08:11 AM

Oh, I’ve got a few things to offer on marketing though. Has anyone here ever heard of the ‘funnel’?
Basically, all of your marketing tactics are a way to funnel the best clients directly to you. You start off with an outline of your target market, identifying who you are trying to reach, and come up with a series of qualifications for your optimum client; let’s say it’s “people that need boxes”. The next level could be “people that need boxes and can pay X amount for them”, then it’s “people who need boxes and can pay X amount and like the way I make boxes”... And so on, from the most general to the most specific qualifications. The qualifiers can be whatever you want, depending on what your business is all about, or you can develop a specific funnel for each particular product you offer.
So, once you’ve outlined however many steps of qualifiers you can think of for your product or service, you brainstorm ways to get those perfect clients from the top of the funnel to the bottom: your happy client.
My handyman business for example could have “people who need home repairs” at the top level of the funnel. I then identify specific ways of reaching these people with the goal getting them to see my name and get them to visit my website. I do this through flyering, business cards, craigslist ads, and of course word of mouth. The next step is “people who need home repairs and can afford my rates”. I post my rates openly on my website. My site also explains a bit of what type of work I do and how I go about it, policies, blah blah blah… Basically, if people like what they see there, they prequalify themselves as good clients before I even get a phone call (the next step of my funnel). When they do call, I can go into any further details and usually either already have the job or tell them it’s not my cup of tea without having to waste time on bad leads, or wasted time and gas on estimates for lost bids, etc. Many times people have already decided to hire me before we’ve even talked.
Now that I’m done bragging about how great my marketing is… My point is I think that much of the reason that it can be difficult to find business is that it’s easy to put too much energy into leads and clients that aren’t your ideal customers.
Well it’s late and I may have rambled incoherently here, so I suppose I’ll just hit the sack and see what happens tomorrow!

-- Jesse --

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Loren

7563 posts in 2304 days


#7 posted 12-15-2011 10:36 AM

Succeeding in any kind of artisan work is challenging. Chippendale and Sheridan had serious business problems despite making furniture for the wealthiest titled clients (problems come when you can’t turn down the Duke’s commission because he’s an influential client, but you know he doesn’t pay his bills).

If you’re competing on bargain prices, relatively speaking, the work isn’t hard to get. The problem with that is you have to keep an eagle eye on your own costs and that the clients will resist price increases later and references will be to other clients looking for bargains.

There’s still a fair amount of high-end money out there if you are capable of the execution the work demands and selling the jobs, but I’ve talked with other custom wood guys who agree the “sales cycle” has become really extended, so closing the deals is taking more and more time. The other end of it is the rush jobs, but more often than not the client is asking for a rush and a competitive price, so the only place to make it up in is a quality reduction, which is not always simple to do in a smaller shop lacking the heavy equipment to do lower-grade but decently functional work quickly; a lacquer booth for example.

I’m keeping and eye on this thread. I’ll comment later.

-- http://lawoodworking.com

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SalvageCraft

274 posts in 1182 days


#8 posted 12-16-2011 06:47 AM

Boy, the title of this thread is “marketing and finding a niche”, not “there’s a hole in the bucket!”. Agreed, the economy is in the tanks and it’s a different game out there than it used to was, but as a young’un with all my naïveté and ambition, I see nothing but opportunity. If jobs are harder to get, that just means do more effective marketing, right? Reach more potential clients and streamline your sales process however you can. Filter out the folks that aren’t ready to commit and focus more time on identifying who is. A lot of people are still out there who want what you have to offer, but they just don’t know how to find you. Make it easy for them. Start an Etsy shop, make a Facebook page, post in lots of DIY forums, etc… Make sure all these links are easily identifiable between the different sites you use to boost your online presence. This helps google find you. Blog about your work on typepad or blogger or wordpress. If you are doing good work, people will notice. The Internet is big. It’s one of the reasons that the game is changing so much.
This past black Friday (and cyber Monday) surpassed last years sales by like 14% or something. People are still spending money, just in new ways…
Of course it will take time to put all this together. I’ve barely completed most of these steps myself! However, I strongly believe that diligence will win out.

...maybe I just needed to rant…

-- Jesse --

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a1Jim

112104 posts in 2233 days


#9 posted 12-16-2011 07:20 AM

Some good suggestions but The whole world does not evolve around just the internet. I’ve played the game of shipping product across country and I’m not going there any more. If your selling bird houses or oven rack pushers it’s not a problem but shipping a piece of full size furniture is to much of a hassle for a one man operation. I’m glad there’s people out there that art still optimistic. I say go for it guy’s and more power to you. I’ve read lot’s of books and taken classes on marketing and find it very interesting but theory is one thing and reality is another. I found that my local market is just to small to build a large clientele in the price range necessarily to make custom furniture profitable . That’s one of many things to consider when staring your woodworking business . You have to be willing to switch gears when you find your heading in the wrong direction and marketing does not solve all of those problems.

-- http://artisticwoodstudio.com Custom furniture

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SalvageCraft

274 posts in 1182 days


#10 posted 12-16-2011 07:39 AM

I agree the whole world is not the Internet and shipping a high oh is probably never aworthwhile plan. So what works for you now, a1Jim? Do you make more money selling pieces or teaching? I’d like to hear more about what IS working for people! What specific choices have you made that have benefitted your business while making you more fulfilled?

-- Jesse --

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a1Jim

112104 posts in 2233 days


#11 posted 12-16-2011 08:03 AM

Jesse
I do a little of every thing. I take cabinet jobs but only the ones that people are willing to pay for custom cabinets along with custom wood shop work, a small amount of furniture repair, I teach adult woodworking for my local community collage and from my shop ,that’s more of an advertisement than a large profit center and I own a contracting business that I do residential and commercial remodeling and woodworking for places like our VA hospital,post office and some custom homes.
All of these different avenues are necessary because my market place is so small . The town I live has less the 1200 people and the next largest town has a little under 20,000 population. I feel that places that have larger populations also has more competition . I think this is where local marketing pays off best when you have the population that has enough disposable income to buy custom furniture, then all you have to do is convince them your the one to do the work for them. This is a category I’ve never had a problem with. You easiest way to convince them is to do quality work.

-- http://artisticwoodstudio.com Custom furniture

View Loren's profile

Loren

7563 posts in 2304 days


#12 posted 12-16-2011 10:48 AM

I actually work as a freelance writer in direct marketing. Funnels, lead generation, list building and segmentation – I know a lot about it. In terms of client acquisition for custom millwork, such methods are most appropriate, in my opinion, for getting your toe in the door with architects, interior designers, and furniture dealers. If you’re set up to deal with the requirements of working with architects and designers, there is money to be made there but plenty of B.S. too and you have to have the tools and the skills to execute and install demanding designs.

That said, if you get the mailing address of anyone who expresses the slightest interest in your woodworking skill and mail them a postcard promoting your abilities and mail seasonal follow-ups, you would have a viable list of “friendly” people who would buy or refer others to you withing 6-24 months.

-- http://lawoodworking.com

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SalvageCraft

274 posts in 1182 days


#13 posted 12-26-2011 07:57 PM

Sound like you really do have multiple profit centers going on Jim! Good work!
I’m currently in the position where I haven’t done enough work to have built a reputation on, although the work that I have done has brought in some leads. I’ve also got this issue where the pieces are on a deadline to get out of the shop, and I haven’t been giving myself the time or space to photograph them properly before delivery. That said, I do have a few pics of odds and ends on my facebook page here: http://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10150268443531736&set=a.10150252692536736.327253.710846735&type=3&theater
It’s kind of a catch-22 right now between feeling like I need a good portfolio to get more commissions, but needing more commissions to build my portfolio. Shop improvements go hand in hand with that: I need to rebuild a few racks and tables in my shop to boost turnout time on my projects, but I need to be making enough $ for shop work to invest the time in shop improvements. All that said, I do feel I am slowly creeping along toward my goal of being mainly a woodworker who does some odd jobs on the side :)
Back to the marketing topic – has anyone here checked out Kickstarter.com? I’m planning to use it as a platform to take preorders on a new line of work I’m putting together. Having definite numbers to look at before investing a lot of time into production and shop improvements seems like a god way to go. I’ll just need to put some time into marketing my kickstarter campaign first, lol!

-- Jesse --

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SalvageCraft

274 posts in 1182 days


#14 posted 12-27-2011 06:41 AM

Weird. I just tried to use that facebook link and only the one pic came up… I best try to fix that! What’s worse s I gave that link out to a couple people recently, thinking it was the full album! I got to work on my marketing…

-- Jesse --

View Tennessee's profile

Tennessee

1447 posts in 1171 days


#15 posted 01-13-2012 09:44 PM

Nobody has put anything here for over two weeks, so I’ll stick something in.
There’s a lot of people posted here who are in my mind fighting a huge wall of competitors. For me, I took on a very common product in wood, and spent some real time improving it, and created a sort of niche. Then I started marketing, and more marketing, and more…
Sales were slow at first, but as my product got out there, now I get hits fairly often. Not enough to live on yet, but certainly way more than I thought.
I am a disciple of Ron Popiel. Nobody really needs a Kitchen Magician or an oven with no temperature control on it, and yet the man sold millions of them, because no one else at the time had one out there.
Improve on an existing product is the cry of Continuous Improvement people. They are dead right on.

What do you build? How can you make it unique and interesting and what people would pay attention to this “improvement”? You do that, and find them, and you will blossom like the spring lilies.

Paul

-- Paul, Tennessee, http://www.tsunamiguitars.com

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