why I'll never make money at woodworking (but that's OK)

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Forum topic by jdh122 posted 04-13-2014 11:53 AM 1918 views 0 times favorited 20 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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996 posts in 2787 days

04-13-2014 11:53 AM

I just finished a blanket chest for a friend. I did the milling with machines but cut the dovetails by hand and handplaned all of the panels after glue-up.

The project used 24 bf of yellow birch, which sells for $3 per bf, about $5 worth of white pine for the bottom (resawn to 3/8 inch thick, hand-planed tongue and grooves). Hinges cost about $5, there’s a leather strap to hold it open ($3 belt at thrift store), plus a few bucks worth of tung oil and varnish. Say $90 in materials, which is how much I’ll charge my friend.

For the first time, however, I decided that I’d keep track of how much time I spent on the project, just for curiosity’s sake. Here’s the break-down (in hours):
milling and panel glue-up: 4.5
planing and scraping: 8
sawing dovetail joints: 3.5
chisel work on joints (including fitting): 4.5
boards for the bottom (re-saw, plane t&g): 1
make plinth/base: 3
install hinges and strap, apply finish: 2.5
sharpening: 2
clean-up: 1
TOTAL: 30 hours

I also kept track of my many times I cut myself (saw even a drop of blood): 6 times (mostly on the sharp edges of the boards, none of them were serious enough to need even a bandaid)

So if my time was only worth $15 per hour, which seems pretty low, I’d have to charge $550 for the chest, and that includes nothing for overhead and no amortization of tools and assumes I’d be able to sell it without investing any time at all. Selling it through any kind of retail store or boutique or whatever would mean that the price paid by the customer would likely need to be closer to $1000.

I am quite happy with this chest – the dovetails are probably my best yet and despite the fact that the grain turned on almost every piece of wood I was able to plane without tearout. Still, I doubt that anyone would think this chest was worth that much coin.

A more experienced woodworker could certainly knock off time simply by being better at things – 8 hours of planing and 8 hours to cut and chisel the dovetails seem pretty high. But I think that to make projects like this worthwhile financially you’d have to move toward machines – a router for the dovetails and a panel sander would cut 12 hours or more off the project.

This is my hobby not my job and that’s the way I like it, but it was an interesting thought experiment to imagine trying to sell work done through this kind of machine/handtool combination. I think I’ll try keeping track of my time the same way on my next greenwood chair.

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

20 replies so far

View camps764's profile


867 posts in 2329 days

#1 posted 04-13-2014 12:09 PM

Very cool write up and great perspective on it all. I keep track of my hours in projects as well. I like to do it for a few reasons. I play the same guessing game you just did, to see what I would have to charge for it to be worthwhile financially, and to see where I can add efficiency or areas where I can improve my technique to get better results.

-- Steve

View Belg1960's profile


1062 posts in 3034 days

#2 posted 04-13-2014 12:20 PM

I’m guessing if you had to do this for a living you would find ways to streamline alot of the operations. Many professionals work on way more than one project at a time to never have downtime. We as hobbyists seem to do this because we find it rewarding to create things with our hands. As a basement woodworker myself I don’t have enough space to build large projects, usually like making smaller craft style pieces. Family has found my repair capabilities handy. The longer we do anything the better we become at it. The project looks really nice and I’m sure your friend will treasure it for many years.

-- ***Pat*** Rookie woodworker looking for an education!!!

View jerrells's profile


918 posts in 2854 days

#3 posted 04-13-2014 12:20 PM

See my BLOG post of yesterday. I have spent over $1,000 on tools and supplies this year and have $0 in sales. To me that is not OK.

-- Just learning the craft my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ practiced.

View helluvawreck's profile


30765 posts in 2836 days

#4 posted 04-13-2014 02:23 PM

I’ll bet that you really enjoyed the making of it though. It turned out great and I’ll bet your friend was pleased.

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- helluvawreck aka Charles,

View jdh122's profile


996 posts in 2787 days

#5 posted 04-13-2014 03:01 PM

Steve: thanks. I don’t know why I never tried this before, as I’ve often wondered about time spent on projects.

Pat, you’re right that a pro would find ways to streamline, although postings on LJ from pros and people trying to become pros demonstrate that even then it’s a tough road.

jerrels: I just read your blog. Your work is excellent and I’m gobsmacked to think that someone could offer you so little for that beautiful scrollwork.

helluvawreck, I did enjoy it a lot, and it’s fun to see my skills improve (this is my third blanket chest).

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

View ChefHDAN's profile


1057 posts in 2819 days

#6 posted 04-13-2014 03:08 PM

jdh, IMHO never forget that knowledge and experience are gained with the practice, so there is a bit of intangible ROI for the work. Then figure what the theraputic benefits are of time spent in the shop and what some brain cruncher would charge to help you reduce stress and I think we at least break even for the time spent in the shop…

-- I've decided 1 mistake is really 2 opportunities to learn.. learn how to fix it... and learn how to not repeat it

View camps764's profile


867 posts in 2329 days

#7 posted 04-13-2014 03:12 PM

It’s kind of neat to see where your shop time really goes. I’ve seen a lot of the pros on this site mention that they do the same thing to help them bill/create efficiency. Even though you’re not making a living at it today, if you decide to build some custom orders down the road you will probably be able to provide a more accurate quote because you know how long certain operations take you.

I like Pat’s comment too, makes sense that as a pro you would have multiple projects running at the same time, and probably find ways to run multiple operations at once. E.G. doing all of your milling for multiple projects at once so you aren’t wasting time on setup. Or cutting all your Mortise and Tenons joinery at once to save on setting up jigs, changing table saw blades.

-- Steve

View camps764's profile


867 posts in 2329 days

#8 posted 04-13-2014 03:14 PM

P.S. I never mentioned that the trunk looks great. I love the idea of using a leather strap to hold open the lid. All the joinery looks nice and clean. Nicely done!

-- Steve

View bigblockyeti's profile (online now)


5103 posts in 1690 days

#9 posted 04-13-2014 03:20 PM

I’ve been working on a dresser for my wife for the past 3+ years as a back burner project. I’ve screwed up a few times, changed small design features a few times and spend way too much time pondering what finish to use. All in all if I were to take this approach to everything I’d have to sell it for well over $10K, and that just isn’t going to happen (at least not until the dollar is worth closer to what the Peso currently is). One of the many reasons why for me, this is just a hobby too.

View guitchess's profile


85 posts in 3678 days

#10 posted 04-13-2014 04:51 PM

$1,000 is quite cheap for a solid wood chest as this one. If you could find a furniture store that actually carried something comparable, they would be asking much, much more. The real issue is that the average consumer would rather have something bigger/fancy/cheaper that will last as long as they might need it than to have an heirloom quality piece that will last for generations.

I have a hard time with this subject. I make very good money working in the construction industry knocking out poorly designed homes that people pick out of blueprint mags, but would have to work for $5/hour to keep the cost of a quality piece of furniture low enough for them to buy it and place it in their new home along side the particle board junk. I’ve built million dollar homes that ended up being filled with softwood junk from Ashley or the like.

View Belg1960's profile


1062 posts in 3034 days

#11 posted 04-13-2014 06:49 PM

@guitchess, I’m an electrician so I see the same thing in my trade. They want what’s trendy now and then be able to change their decor in a few years. They buy junk fixtures and then want me to warrantee it.

-- ***Pat*** Rookie woodworker looking for an education!!!

View SCOTSMAN's profile


5849 posts in 3554 days

#12 posted 04-13-2014 10:18 PM

I don’t and never have made any money from my hobbies. For me thats fine,as I never entered into woodworking or machining to make money.When I finally go upstairs and home my oldest son gets all the machinery and tools, since he owns a business selling and buying tools and machinery for woodworking and machining so it all works out fine ,and I enjoy in the meantime. Just like my doctor told me too.Alistair

-- excuse my typing as I have a form of parkinsons disease

View mahdee's profile


3874 posts in 1737 days

#13 posted 04-13-2014 11:55 PM

$600/$800 for that work is reasonable unless you live in a farming or ranching communities where people just don’t care about where their blankets are stored. More and more, the younger generation are gravitating towards living with the earth and getting away from the life in the fast lane; which is becoming apparent that it is nothing but a false hope. Eventually, the appreciation will be towards a thing that will last a hundred years instead of pre-fabricated stuff. Give it 10- 15 years from now. I do believe in my kids and the common sense they possess.


View ChuckV's profile


3114 posts in 3496 days

#14 posted 04-14-2014 12:22 PM

This is great post and a great trunk. I did the same sort of thing when my wife asked me to build a second piesafe. I wrote up a detailed itemized bill for the materials and construction. Then I applied the “friends and family discount”. The grand total came to $0.05.

-- “Big man, pig man, ha ha, charade you are.” ― R. Waters

View jdh122's profile


996 posts in 2787 days

#15 posted 04-14-2014 12:54 PM

Thanks, ChuckV. I gave her the chest last night and presented her with an itemized bill. I actually decided to charge her 10 cents an hour for the labor.

guitchess: it does amaze me how much “high end” decorator furniture is made up fiberboard and particleboard and how few people (at least among my non-woodworking friends) can actually identify solid wood or a mortise and tenon joint (as opposed to table bolts, for example). mrjinx is probably right that things are changing, although I think it’s important to add that a lot of people can’t really afford to buy good furniture.

-- Jeremy, in the Acadian forests

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