|Forum topic by Loren||posted 12-13-2011 04:26 PM||6523 views||5 times favorited||52 replies|
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.