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By wallace
Hi all I was thinking recently about how much a carpenter or joiner or even a cabinet maker earns as a living. Historically has it always been a decent job to be doing. For instance in the victorian era or the fifties. I have a friend who has been doing joinery, windows kitchens and now he is self employed and he can earn £1500 a week. yes he does the hours but that is still a nice wage. In my last place of work that would be over a months wages.
By Jacob
wallace wrote:Hi all I was thinking recently about how much a carpenter or joiner or even a cabinet maker earns as a living. Historically has it always been a decent job to be doing. For instance in the victorian era or the fifties. I have a friend who has been doing joinery, windows kitchens and now he is self employed and he can earn £1500 a week. yes he does the hours but that is still a nice wage. In my last place of work that would be over a months wages.

It's not a wage it's turnover. Different thing altogether. You are probably earning more than your mate over a longer period say 10 years, especially if you take into account the benefits; holidays, sick pay, pension, job security, redundancy money, etc etc.
If your mate has to stop for any reason at all his income drops to less than zero as he has overheads to cover, as well as mortgages and other commitments the same as wage earners.
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By Jelly
In the timber industry (primary and secondary convertion, planing and moulding) as it stands today, pay tends to be a little lower than comparable positions in other industries... However it does offer a degree of job security which is increasingly rare elsewhere; its harder to find a sawyer or wood machinist than it is to fill most other skilled positions.

Equally, factory based woodworkers (more in line with the sense you mean) tend to earn in line with other skilled or semi skilled factory workers.

There is a perception that tradesmen in general have high earnings; but as they increasingly tend to be self employed or part of small partnerships; their earnings in real terms (after overheads, tax, losses and misc. expenses) will tend to be rather less impressive.
By Stormer1940
I think it all delves down to if you want to work for someone!

A lot of the general public don't understand all the outgoings of a running business. I remember a plumber talking about a customer who asked him to come out and quote up and when the plumber said well I charge this per hr and it's going to take this long the guy then said "I wish I was on your hourly rate". The plumber replied well when you take out taxes, van insurance, van license, gas safe etc I'm not really taking home that £25 p/h.

This is with all self employed guys who have all these running costs. If you are savvy then I think you can earn good money. Is it really a love of labour as the boys in the workshop use to say.

I'll let you know if we earn a fortune in years to come but the empire is still building so you will have to wait a little longer :lol:
By templecarpentry
The wage is what you make of it, if you are busy its good, if you are quiet then not so good. If you have high overheads, then you have less pay etc.

For me it boils down to this.

If i want a day off i take it.
If i want a two hour lunch break i take it.
If i want to work early and finish late i do.
If anyone tries to tell me what to do, i remind them that i am the boss of me.
If a potential customer is rude to me, or i dont like them or sense that they are untrustworthy, i dont have to work for them.

You get higher pay because people pay for the skill, not the time. An hourly rate for a plumber is normal, but for a cabinet maker like me its Price work all the way. I have a workshop to pay for, mortgage, fuel and vehicle running costs, public liability insurance, business insurance, accountant fees, unpaid holidays, no sick pay. It's well justified.

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By wallace
Thanks chaps but I wasn't trying to find the justification for you guys earning what you do. I was trying to compare the jobs historically. Would a cabinet maker of say 150 years ago enjoy a relatively good way of life compared to other people of the same era. I'm not saying the likes of gillow but a 'normal' craftsman.
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By AndyT
Interesting question. There must be sources for this sort of thing but I'm no historian. However, I have heard of Henry Mayhew. He was a contemporary of Dickens and wrote a huge survey 'London Labour and the London Poor' in which he interviewed people about their working lives, across the whole huge span of trades, from the skilled artisans to the barefoot children searching for anything of value dropped into the Thames-side mud.

You can read most of his work on-line these days, and this link and this onetake you to his reports on carpenters, joiners and cabinet workers in 1850. (Letter 64 - on the dishonourable 'slop trade' and how it pushed down wages is not yet available on-line at that site.)

He was very thorough, so there's plenty to read. He describes the new steam powered mills to plane and mould wood and their effect on wages.

"In our shop," said one of my informants, "a machine makes any sized tennon by a single motion passed over two saws. That, of all machines, does most harm to the efficient joiners; it will do thirty men's work. We have only this machine and the steam saw. I reckon that twenty-five such machines are kept going in London, and so 750 men's labour is done away with. In one house I know of there is a morticing machine by steam, which will do twelve men's work...The opinion of the journeymen generally is, that machinery cannot but make the trade worse and worse every year...If carried out to its full extent, of course it would displace human labour altogether (except the few children that would be required to tend upon it, and the few makers of it) - and when all labour is displaced, what is to become of the working men?...

"I am a jobbing carpenter, and in very great distress. All my tools are gone - sold or pawned. I have no means of living but by parish relief, and picking up what I can in little odd jobs along the waterside."

It's not all gloom:

The operative cabinet-makers of the best class are, to speak generally, men possessed of a very high degree of intelligence. I must be understood to be here speaking of the best paid. Of the poor artisans of the East-end I have a different tale to tell. I was told by a cabinet-maker — and, judging by my own observations, with perfect correctness — that of all classes of mechanics the cabinet-makers have the most comfortable abodes. The same thing may be said also, if in a less degree, of the joiners and carpenters; and the reason is obvious — a steady workman occupies his leisure in making articles for his own use.

"Within my recollection," said an intelligent cabinet-maker, "there was much drinking, very much drinking, among cabinet-makers. This was fifteen years back. Now I'm satisfied that at least seven-eighths of all who are in society are sober and temperate men. Indeed, good masters won't have tipplers now-a-days." According to the Metropolitan Police returns, the cabinet-makers and the turners are two of the least criminal of all the artizans; I speak not of any one year, but from an average taken for the last ten.

(Mayhew provides a chart showing the relative level of criminality among the different trades.)

I recommend reading the whole thing; there are several worthwhile abridged versions of his work in print, widely available.
By wobblycogs
If I thought you could get £1500 a week after overheads for doing woodwork you wouldn't see me for sawdust :D

I'm coming to the conclusion that being self employed is not all it's cracked up to be. For sure there are some upsides but it's ruddy hard work and for the pleasure of it you see the tax man take a huge chunk of your income. Perhaps it'll become fun again when the country finally comes out of recession and people start spending a bit more.
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By AndyT
Looking around on the same site I just found this earlier letter where Mayhew gives more information about how wages were being forced down by middlemen. The old system (enforced by closed-shop trade societies) had fixed prices for various categories of work. What you can see here is how rising population - and the introduction of machinery - broke up that system and forced wages down. The products that the paying customer got would not have been as good as before, but they saw the low price and the shiny varnish and bought them regardless.
By marcus
The products that the paying customer got would not have been as good as before, but they saw the low price and the shiny varnish and bought them regardless.

That has a familiar ring to it.....
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By AndyT
I'm on a roll now...

This is from an 1883 book "Toilers in London by One of the Crowd" describing the 'slaughter shop' system that was driving down prices and earnings in cabinetmaking.

A cabinetmaker describes how much he will get for a chiffonier that he has brought on a barrow from his workshop, to sell to a retail furniture dealer. It should be read in a cockney accent, but the temptation to drop into Yorkshire is hard to resist...

"What shall I get out of that chiffonier If I let it go for five-and-twenty shillings? Well, it ain't quite fair to take it at that, because that's what we call a 'pole-axing' price - something wus than common slaughtering. I suppose I shall get twenty-six for it; that will pay me five-and-six for two days' work. Of how many hours? Oh, if you work for slaughterhouses you musn't talk about hours. I started on this job on Thursday tea-time, and I worked till eleven, and I was up and at it at five and I worked till a bit after twelve a-Friday night, and I was up at five again this morning, and I polished him off about four in the afternoon. Thirty- five hours is it? Very likely. I never reckon it. What's the use?"
"It seems a large piece of work to get through even in that time," I remarked.
"It is all a tight fit to squeeze it into the time, I can tell you," said the poor cabinetmaker, wiping his forehead at the mere recollection. "Course it's scamped. You wouldn't find it out if you was to take a candle and go over every inch of it; but I know it is, and the slaughterhouses know it is. They don't care. As long as a thing is 'viewy' they don't mind. There is a good solid week's work in that bit of furniture for a man to give his honest mind to it, and allow himself time for sleep and wittles. But it's wonderful what a man can get through when he's spurred enough.

Much more here.
By Cheshirechappie
Worth remembering that in the mid to late 19th century, a 70 hour week would have been regarded as normal, with overtime worked on top of that sometimes. Mealbreaks would account for about an hour a day, making that about 64 actual working hours a week. Wages varied between not much and starvation. Working conditions could be pretty basic, as well - one old reference I saw to the terms and conditions for employment of draughsmen in Robert Stephenson's Newcastle locomotive works allowed the drawing office a fire in winter, but the draughtsmen had to supply their own coal.

Some trades did better than others. There is an old phrase, "Carvers are starvers", which perhaps suggests that wages were even lower for some branches of the trade.

The best time for wages was probably the 1950s and 1960s. There was more work around than labour, and less by way of consumer temptations to waste it on. Things started to go downhill in the 1970s for all sorts of (probably contentious) reasons, though oddly the rise of the designer craftsman started at about that time.

Unless you're a very good businessman and have exceptional talent, the wood trades are no way to make a fortune, and never really have been, but a reasonable living can be made. The same applies to most skilled trades, except when their newness means a dearth of people with the skill - think of computer programming in the early to mid 1980s; now plenty have the skills, and the rates have dropped, not helped by outsourcing of work offshore. Since woodworking is as old as wood, and new skills such as CNC operation rapidly become commonplace, the scarcity factor rarely applies.