Tips for Increased Production in a Very limited Shop? Translate to Better Sales?

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Forum topic by barringerfurniture posted 12-18-2013 05:39 PM 1992 views 3 times favorited 17 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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223 posts in 1708 days

12-18-2013 05:39 PM

Topic tags/keywords: working process production lowering prices jigs templates

Hey everyone. As someone trying to break into this as a business (and wiggle my way out of my nail bags), I have been thinking more in terms of production lately. I wanted to share some of my thoughts and invite others to share theirs. Parts of this may only be relevant to those who design, build and offer some kind of “standardized” inventory of products. As a point of reference to what I do, you can view my work here or my website.

Basically, I have a three-part question: 1). What have you done to decrease time spent on any given piece (or work in general) you offer for sale without any compromise in quality? 2). Has this enabled you to lower prices on your products? 3). Has this in turn made you more successful in selling?

Here are my current thoughts:

Build in bulk. If it takes me 4 weeks to build a two-drawer coffee table, maybe it would only take 6 weeks to build two if I build them at the same time. Maybe 8 weeks for three at the same time. I could therefore offer them for less. Of course this requires a certain “leap of faith” that they will eventually sell at all. Does anybody work like this?

Establish conventions that can be used repeatedly regardless of design. Specifics may include standardized dimensions for joinery like mortise/tenons, breadboard ends, drawer construction, etc. These become memorized quickly, requiring little thought or time consuming layout. Any thoughts?

Jigs, layout sticks, templates? Are there any of these that make work quicker for you?

Establish a systematic process. (The following may be contingent on what tools you have to work with) First design, working drawings, cut list. Then make all basic cuts for width, length and thickness. Then do all milling like mortise/tenons, dados, routing and shaping. Then handwork (for me that’s mainly dovetails, handplaning tabletops and tuning up mortise/tenons). Then assemble, then finish.

Anyway, I’m working hard to develop some of these techniques and approaches in a very small shop with somewhat limited power tools (decent table saw, compound miter saw, band saw, 13” planer, not so decent router table) and a lot of good hand tools. Space for assembly and storage is severely limited.

Interested in any thoughts you all would like to share. Thanks for reading.

-- Scott Barringer, Sacramento, CA

17 replies so far

View DS's profile (online now)


2917 posts in 2416 days

#1 posted 12-18-2013 05:53 PM

3 words; Outsource, outsource, outsource.

Typically a component manufacturer will be better equipped and deal in larger volumes to give you advantages that you cannot afford on your own. The quality is typically excellent and the base costs are actually less since they are usually buying in larger material volumes.

Less time spent in your shop and more productivity, better quality and lower prices.

As far as selling and leaps of faith, I’ve never built a piece that wasn’t already sold. A coffee table for example can be placed in a retail showroom and sold as “made to order”. Meaning the prototype never leaves the showroom and you build new ones as they sell by the retailer.

Even a one man shop could handle 3 or 4 pieces a day with the right outsourcing program.

Standards are essential as you mentioned, but I would apply those standards to a good outsourcing program.
Focus YOUR energy on the things you do best and let your vendors do the thing THEY do best.

It’s a WIN-WIN-WIN for everybody.

-- "Hard work is not defined by the difficulty of the task as much as a person's desire to perform it.", DS251

View FellingStudio's profile


93 posts in 1678 days

#2 posted 12-18-2013 08:06 PM

The way I see it is that there are three components to the equation of producing more.

First, there is the actual production factor. In many respects this is the easiest part of ramping up to make more pieces. Workflow, tooling, designs, and workforce are all (but not necessarily the only) factors here. If you had an unlimited budget, it would be easy to say move into a bigger shop, increase your staffing, invest in quality tooling, etc. But, it doesn’t sound like that is the case, so the answer on this part of the equation is probably to examine your existing shop, work methods, work flow, and designs to see where you can improve efficiency.

Second, where are you going to store your inventory? Increased production means both more lumber coming through your shop and more finished product that you may or may not have the space to store until it sells. The obvious answers to this problem are to just pack the space that you currently have with your extra production, rent storage space, and last to find retail floor space.

Third, sales of your increased production is an issue too. Do you have other folks selling your work for you? Finding that retail floor space might be part of your answer here, but the crux of the matter is how will you sell the additional pieces that you are making.

So, yes, make a second coffee table when you get an order for one. You can always stick the second in a friend’s house until it sells. You will probably be able to increase your bottom line.

As to the exact how to ramp up production, I suspect that you know already what to do. You have mentioned much of it in your post, and you are going to be the only one that can really answer the question simply because you know your workflow. Jigs and layout sticks are invaluable to being able to produce repeatable results.

-- Jesse Felling -

View Loren's profile


10381 posts in 3644 days

#3 posted 12-18-2013 10:04 PM

In making simple stain grade furniture the most time consuming
parts are joinery and sanding.

Joinery can be simplified by using concealed joints instead
of exposed ones as a design detail. I use dowels. You
can get a used horizontal dowel drill for a couple hundred
bucks. They used to be used by face frame shops but
those guys have mostly gone to pocket screws.

.... and get a stroke sander.

If you are willing to do built-ins and kitchens, get
Jim Tolpin’s books on cabinetmaking.

If you want to do furniture, develop proprietary designs
that allow you to make parts in lots.

View Puzzleman's profile


417 posts in 2940 days

#4 posted 12-19-2013 12:00 PM

Another thought for your design process, is to make standardized components that work in 2 or 3 different designs. This way you make several of these components and have them available for whichever product is needed. Decreases assembly and build time as you become more proficient in building the components. You would just add a couple of extra pieces to turn in it into what the customer desires.

For example the 2 drawer coffee table idea mentioned. Can you make all your drawers the same size for all of your products? If so, easier for you to make or to out source as also mentioned above.

Concerning outsourcing, just because you can make it doesn’t mean that you should. I outsource several parts of my operation as my time is of better use adding value to the parts that the customer really cares about. Things that should be outsources are things that are needed but do not add much to the design.

-- Jim Beachler, Chief Puzzler,

View Tennessee's profile


2873 posts in 2510 days

#5 posted 12-19-2013 12:51 PM

I think first, you identify what your market will bear – in other words, what will sell in the quantities you are contemplating.
A good example is the bandsaw box guy in Utah. They started with about a dozen styles, made for show and festivals. As people asked them to add certain designs, (choo-choos, musical instruments), they made them standard and added them to the list. They now make over 60, if I remember right. The business is supporting two families, as I read it now.

Don’t stray from your core compentency. If you do jointed things well, stick to that. Taking on a commission that puts you into another realm of woodworking will almost always make you lose money. A local kitchen cabinet guy I know around me tried to take on a couple of dining room commissions. One he lost money on, the other was refused for him misinterpreting the customer.

My guitars, I almost never build one that is not sold. I outsource the necks to the CNC guys. I use one finish. I don’t paint, save for a huge upcharge.
My bandsaw boxes, I show them in a museum shop. I know about three to five a month sell, so that is all I build.

Lastly, my shop is set up (after three or four changes), so that I never have to walk more than a step or two to reach just about every tool I need to get the job done, including the radio and fridge. That saved me more time than anything.

-- Tsunami Guitars and Custom Woodworking, Cleveland, TN

View barringerfurniture's profile


223 posts in 1708 days

#6 posted 12-19-2013 03:45 PM

Really great advice all around. As FellingStudio said, I know a lot of what I need to do, it’s just a matter of implementing those things.

I have thought about outsourcing certain things. For me those may be frame/panel doors and anything turned – like table legs.

I think one main frustration (or perhaps just a realization) is that it absolutely should not take ONE MONTH to build a two-drawer Shaker style coffee table. When I sit and think about it, that seems ridiculous to me now. I feel like I ought to be able to cut that time in half, maybe more.

After the hall table I’m currently working on, my primary focus is going to be streamlining and modifying my shop drawings for efficiency. I have a small portfolio of work now, mostly in the same style. Should be very easy to standardize very much of the operation. There are a few piece-specific jigs and templates I can make too to save a lot of layout time.

As a wayward carpenter trying to break away from that, I also think I need to retain that sense of “being on the clock” better. Sometimes, all alone in my shop, it’s easy to lose discipline, procrastinate, think too much, etc. Speaking of which, time to get off the computer and back in there. Close to getting this table done.

Thanks all for taking the time to offer your thoughts. Great community here.

-- Scott Barringer, Sacramento, CA

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93 posts in 1678 days

#7 posted 12-19-2013 05:47 PM

Do you document how you spend your time in the shop? Approach it like a job, and keep a ledger with hours spent on a specific piece, and even break it down into milling, shaping, joinery, sanding, finishing, and what have you. That will give you an idea as to where you are being inefficient with your time, and give you a start into thinking about what you can do to improve your workflow.

And again, examine your workflow. How often do you move parts around the shop? Considering that you have a small shop, how often do you have to move machines around? What about changes to your jigs, templates, or machinery settings. Figuring out after the fact that you don’t have enough rail stock milled is really going to slow you down if you have to rearrange your shop to make 3 more feet, and it will probably cost more in lost productivity to go back and make more than it will to just make a little extra in the first place.

Regarding your two drawer coffee table, four weeks might be reasonable for the initial run considering that you may have to make adjustments to your design, templates, and process. However, subsequent builds of the same piece probably should be coming in closer to the two week mark that you are targeting, and really, is probably possible in a week with a little thought.

-- Jesse Felling -

View JAAune's profile


1798 posts in 2313 days

#8 posted 12-20-2013 01:47 AM

We’ve started to incorporate lean principles into our operations. We’re doing a lot of custom work or filling orders that have slight variations from one item to the next. Rather than creating batches which results in valuable shop space being converted to storage we look to eliminate setup time. This permits us to retain the flexibility of custom shops but achieve efficiency similar to production shops.

A good router table with precise adjustments is great and speeds up changeovers quite a bit. Even better is one good router table and half a dozen simple ones setup for specific operations. These don’t need fancy lifts or fences because they get setup and left as they are until the bit gets too dull.

Don’t buy a couple sets of wrenches and leave them in a tool box. Buy multiple sets when they go on sale and put the appropriate sizes next to each machine so they are ready to go when adjustments or maintenance are needed.

Don’t be a cheapskate on tools if it slows down the work. Tools that get used frequently and adjusted often need to be efficiently designed. This is why our primary router table has a lift installed. Just about any bit can be switched and setup properly in a minute or two tops.

Find good, reliable suppliers then use them as much as possible even if it costs a little more. The time spent researching online to get the cheapest deal often wastes more time than it’s worth. Getting a tape measure for $7 instead of $11 isn’t worthwhile if it took 15 minutes to locate the deal then process a transaction with a new store. Your shop rate should be well past $25 an hour.

-- See my work at and

View mbs's profile


1656 posts in 2936 days

#9 posted 12-20-2013 02:22 AM

There are a lot of great ideas here. I’ll add a couple more for you to consider.

Use a story pole instead of a tape measure. You will have less errors and the story pole will last a long time.

There is a manufacturing concept called lean production. One of the steps of understanding waste is to watch the process and classify how you spend time. There are a three high level categories 1) value added (making chips/dust and applying stain), 2) Non-value added (searching for tools, walking, unnecessary movement, thinking, rework, defects….), and 3) non value-added but necessary (paying taxes). Find a low grade video camera to video your movements throughout the day. It’s easier using a camera than using a log and it’s more telling. Classify the the time in the buckets. You will be surprised how much time you spend searching for tools and thinking! Do you wear a tool bag or apron inside the shop? Do your thinking about the next step while cleaning up the mess and reorganizing the tools so you stay organized.

I would a outsource some components as mentioned above and try to purchase material from the same large volume supplier. It’s likely that a large manufacturer can make your furniture for what you pay for your material if you buy your material in a retail store because they buy in incredible volumes. Does your current supplier drop ship material to your door now so you don’t spend time going to the store?

If I had to make money as a woodworker targeting repetitive projects shown on your website, I would have 1) a CNC router 2) one of the electronic fences on my table saw to set itself to a specific dimension (I would buy this for part repeatability and making less setup mistakes). I can’t recall the name of the fence right now. 3) either a stroke sander or a wide belt sander. 4) a dedicated multi-head dovetail machine (only if I were making the dovetails myself). All these tools can be purchased second hand and resold for what you paid for them.

I wouldn’t make more product than you can sell immediately. It will get damaged over time and you’ll have to store it. Consider doing something like woodpeckers does. “I’m going to make a run of tables in 6 months … sign up now for your copy. Then make the number people order. People who really want your furniture will likely be willing to wait.

You’re probably wondering – didn’t this guy read my situation about being in a small shop? Well, I think you’re opting for a low risk strategy that protects you from losing money and going in debt. But, In my mind, your low risk strategy almost guarantees you a low probability of success. Therefore, I’m skeptical that you can make a great living making the types of products on your website in your small garage with the tools you have. But, you can likely pay for the tools of your hobby-job while you continue to work your day job.

With your current strategy, and assuming 1) you cut your time in half on the coffee table and 2) you sold a table every two weeks, what would your take home pay be (After material, power, perishable tooling, scrap, taxes, medical insurance, delivery, internet, sales expense, 10% to 401K …...)?

BTW – I think your products are nicely designed and made.

Best of luck. I’d like to know how you proceed to see how it works for you.

-- Sorry the reply is so long. I didn't have time to write a short reply.

View JAAune's profile


1798 posts in 2313 days

#10 posted 12-20-2013 03:06 AM

Just looked and the website and thought I’d add another tidbit to consider.

If you can get that two drawer coffee table down to 40 hours and bring the price closer to $1,000 you’ll both double your profits and increase your potential client base. If this were my line of work, I’d want to be able to produce batches of 1 at 40 hours per unit.

Here are some construction techniques that I would consider for myself if I were to do this:

1. Build a dedicated jig for tapering the legs.

2. Consider floating tenons for the legs even though it’s not traditional. The speed advantages of using routers to create mortises can be lucrative. Build jigs that can be used to rapidly rout mortises in the legs in exactly the right place. Even if you stick with standard mortise and tenons it’s often faster to round over the tenon to fit the mortise than to use a traditional mortiser.

3. Outsource the drawer boxes with maple sides and a cherry front then glue veneer to the faces to get that perfect grain match. The cost is $90 in materials to save a day of labor.

4. Routers dedicated for slotting breadboard ends and sliding dovetails.

5. Dovetails would be done either by something like the Leigh jig ( I don’t actually have one of these) or a combination of the bandsaw and handwork. A bandsaw blade with no set on the teeth is perfect for making short cuts like that.

-- See my work at and

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417 posts in 2940 days

#11 posted 12-20-2013 12:35 PM

Another thing that I do is to read books and articles concerning lean manufacturing. I know that you are not making cars or widgets but the same principles will apply. I have learned several things which I implemented in the shop which was not a big deal but then became little ways of streamlining the business.

You are not just into woodworking now. You are into manufacturing with wood. This is not a hobby but a job. Treat it as such and get all of the information that you can concerning manufacturing, production business, sales and whatever else you can read. You will be surprised how much the same everything is. It’s just that we work in different mediums.

I view my woodworking shop as very similar to a restaurant. We both have a standardized menu of items with personalization involved. We both work to order.

-- Jim Beachler, Chief Puzzler,

View barringerfurniture's profile


223 posts in 1708 days

#12 posted 12-20-2013 04:03 PM

Thanks a lot guys. Great suggestions and a lot to think about. I appreciate some of you actually visiting my site (makes me feel all warm and fuzzy).

This weekend it will be my job to start with a list of everything I possibly can do in my current setup, to become more efficient. I don’t want to alter some of the time-consuming handwork I do because not only do I enjoy it immensely, I personally feel it adds beauty to the work that cannot be attained otherwise (I know it’s a can of worms and highly debatable).

I do keep very accurate time sheets that are arranged in terms of specific tasks (basic cutting, milling, handwork, sanding. finish, etc.) with codes assigned to each that I can later look at after adding up the time.

I plan on continuing to read through these great suggestions, but on my immediate list of changes are the following:

Jigs for all tapered legs to be used with table saw.

Templates for dovetail layouts.

Standardized drawer dimensions (This is mostly done already but can be refined)

Templates for breadboard end tenons and dowel locations.

Better vise for holding material to be edge jointed, which I do by hand.

Start wearing my bags or an apron in the shop.

Dial in shop drawings, cut lists, figure out which parts can be universal.

Confine hand-planing surfaces only to what won’t go through my 13” planer (I used to take a lot of pride in surfacing a great deal of my material by hand. Have to admit I don’t see as much benefit in it now. Table tops will still be hand-planed).

There are other things I’m sure I’ll think of but it’s a start.

Thanks again everyone.

-- Scott Barringer, Sacramento, CA

View mbs's profile


1656 posts in 2936 days

#13 posted 12-21-2013 02:04 AM

Scott, I posted a review on a shop apron in the review section. I know it has made me more efficient in the shop.

-- Sorry the reply is so long. I didn't have time to write a short reply.

View barringerfurniture's profile


223 posts in 1708 days

#14 posted 12-21-2013 02:03 PM

Thanks mbs! I’ll check it out. After some thought, an apron would be better than my carpenter bags for me because I often sit down to do bench work like chiseling out dovetails. That’s another thing though – sitting down slows me down. Gonna make a few changes so that I almost never have to do that.

It seems crazy to me now that I haven’t been wearing an apron. The amount of time I spend stumbling around, looking for my pencil and 6” combination square would be outrageous if I were to add it up.

Got a lot of work to do overhauling my entire operation – to the extent possible with what I have at the moment anyway.

-- Scott Barringer, Sacramento, CA

View mbs's profile


1656 posts in 2936 days

#15 posted 12-21-2013 02:51 PM

I don’t carry a lot of tools in my apron but I do have pens, pencils, square, tape, flat tip and phillips, screw drivers, small adjustable wrench, a drywall knife and the dust collector remote for for general tools. I always put them back in the same pockets too so I don’t have to think about where they are. I still find myself laying the tape and pencils on the bench but I’m better than I used to be at having the common tools available.

After reviewing several aprons I found that some work well for short people and others work well for taller people.

-- Sorry the reply is so long. I didn't have time to write a short reply.

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