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Can you really make a decent living at woodworking?

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mrbmcg

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Hi Guys

I'm wondering what peeps think of the above question?

About 18 months ago (~February 2003) I gave up a pretty good career in Electronic/Software Engineering to build myself a workshop and take up an HNC course in Furniture construction and design in the Autumn of that year. (Before you ask, I had a lot of savings due to a wee windfall)

The reason behind the rash move was that I really really love woodworking and had become somewhat bored with my current career. Anyway, I proudly built my 5m x 5m workshop.

The course turned out to be hopeless and I binned it after the first three months simply because I was learning more from reading and making sawdust of my own, and to be honest I had no intention of working for anybody but myself so the qualification was really incidental.

To cut what is becoming a long story a little short, for the last 10 months or so I have really struggled to make ends meet with the woodworking side of things, so much so, that I am back working 3 days a week as an electronic design engineer in order to pay the bills. :cry:

What I am finding is that although I get plenty of interest (mostly through friends of friends who I have done pieces for) people in general seem pretty scared of the price. I don't know how the pros on here charge, but basically I worked out and hourly rate of £10.00 per hour (picked out of the air based on the fact that I figured £20k per annum is what I needed to make ends meet wrt overheads etc)

£10 per hour for skilled (matter of opinion I guess :p ) labour doesn't seem too high, especially considering what other tradesmen get :shock:

People also seem absolutely astonished at the price of wood :shock:

Can anybody give any recommendations or the benefit of their experience? Am I overpricing or underpricing? What advertising do others do and do you find it effective? i.e. Yellow Pages, local press, Radio? Does anybody do any market research or do they fly by the seat of their pants? Do you make most money from private orders or for commercial? How wide and varied do you spread your net both in terms of catchment area and the type of work you take on?

I realise that this is probably a whole can of worms and everybodies situation is different but I'd appreciate folks points of view. :?
 

johnelliott

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This has cropped up before, and will again. Each time it does, I am one of the pessimists. My position is that it is virtually impossible to make a living from the type of woodworking that you are describing. The reasons are many- here are some-

People select furniture for themselves by going to a furniture shop where they can choose from many examples that they can see, touch, sit in, on, at, etc etc. The vast majority of people are not able to visualise finished pieces from sketches or even CAD drawings. Why would they want to order a piece from a maker?

The price issue. Consider what you would need to charge for a bookcase, for instance. Then go to a pine shop and check out the prices. This exercise is correct because most people don't differentiate between pine and hardwood. (Or even hardwood and veneered board!)

The costs of running any kind of business in this (and every other developed country) are considerable. Councils see businesses as cash cows that can be milked for the funds they need. Even if you don't pay rent you certainly ought to be paying business rates, which are quite a bit more than the council tax on private properties.

I reckon the best way to make a living from woodwork is to make kitchens. Kitchens are the only area where people are sometimes prepared to spend the kind of money needed to support a small business. Even so, you will need to be turning over just under the VAT limit (just over £1000 a week) to make a go of it. Making at that speed is perfectly possible, but selling at that speed is difficult.
John
 

Sgian Dubh

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It can be done, but it takes years of training, practice and experience to build up the necessary expertise, just like any other trade, skill, profession or business. It's not something you can easily learn as you go, just like an inexperienced electrician is more likely to electrocute themselves than wire a house successfully without suitable training.

It's a pity you gave up your HNC course so quickly for if it is decently run you would have learnt many basics, such as timber technology, an essential subject that you were asking about here a few days ago-- I'd guess it would have been an essay project delivered as a series of lectures requiring additional research on your part. It becomes second nature to know about wood and the problems you're likely to encounter with it, and basic timber tech is a step in the right direction of understanding the subject.

Probably the worst error you are making is charging far too little. £10 an hour (for a nominal 40 hour week) is probably not even covering your overhead which include workshop costs, advertising, holiday pay, illness, insurance, heating, machinery purchase, servicing and replacement, vehicle maintenance and purchase, depreciation, etc.. That's just an abbreviated list.

How is it that people know what you are charging for your wood and board materials? Are you breaking out your estimates and revealing every line item? It's none of the customers' business what you resell your materials for. How much are you marking up your material costs? It should be a minimum of 25%, and it would be better at 50% or perhaps even 100%, but you need a business model to establish your mark-up. Wood and materials don't get from the supplier to your workshop for free, and then there's the cost of storage, etc.. I imagine The business studies element of a HNC should cover at least some of these essentials.

For the moment you've done the right thing-- going back to part-time work to cover your day to day living. What do you earn per hour doing that, and what is the company you work for charging their customers per hour for your time? That should give you a clue of what to charge as a woodworker because your wages to them are either just part of overhead-- the ones I mentioned earlier, or a direct cost that they charge for.

This is all sounding like a slam, but it's not meant to be. Going into business as a woodworker is just that-- it's business. It's not romantic, with besmocked artisans lovingly crafting wood in idyllic rustic locations with cows chewing cud contentedly in lush meadows in the background.

Business is cruel, it's mean, it doesn't suffer fools gladly, it's all about profit and cashflow. Business needs both profit and cashflow like lungs need oxygen. You need to think hard about if you really want to be in business and if you do, you need a strategy, a business plan. What are you good at? What aren't you good at? You need to be able to understand a profit and loss sheet, a balance sheet, overhead, direct and indirect expenses, etc.. Slainte.
 

Steve Maskery

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Morning Bob
I would echo everything that has been said above.
In particular, £10 per hour is totally inadequate to run a business on. We pay our window cleaner that for about 15mins work. His overheads are a bucket and squeegeee, as far as I can see.

As a rule of thumb, charge per hour the number of 10Ks you want to earn in a year, as there are approx 1000 billable hours in a year. The rest of the time you are working and not getting paid. So at £10 per hour you can expect to earn 10k. If you are happy with that, fair enough.

This is why so much comes in from abroad. A Little Man in China earning 2K per year can live with the same lifestyle and standard of living as everyone else he knows. That, however, would not support my nice comfortable middle-class lifestyle in suburban Nottingham.

I think John is right. People see kitchens with different-coloured specs to "proper furniture". If you can stand the tedium of multiple boxes, and can develop a style which is efficient, marketable and quick, then maybe, just maybe you can make a living. But if, like most of us, you wnat to be a designer-maker, then you must either
a) treat it as a hobby and earn your crust elsewhere, or
b) get a good busines model (taking into account ALL your costs) and work on getting the right sort of customers (friends and family, no matter how dear, are the WORST kind of customers).

Sorry if all that seems depressing on a Monday morning, it just happens to be true.

Ah, if only I heeded that advice myself! I have very few customers, precisely because I do try to cost things properly, and most people just laugh. Those who are prepared to put heir hand in their pocket get somethng special, and value it.

Regards
Steve Maskery, MBA.
 
A

Anonymous

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This is a subject dear to my heart, as I've tried twice to do the same thing.

My own experiences are, the average person is just not willing to pay for qualaty, the people who are willing to pay already know of someone.

The jobs I did manage to get were for people that I was doing other work for anyway eg. fitting their kitchen and was asked to make bedroom furniture.

As mentioned kitchens could be a direction to go in, maybe more now than ever, a lot of people are getting fed up with the sameness of the high street shops.

I was lucky in that I had the kitchen fitting to fall back on, this may be the reason I could not make a go of making furniture, compared the fitting was easy money (and more of it).

At the moment I am making 3 solid pine kitchen units for a friend of a friend, she had already rejected a quote for £600 as being too dear, I am doing it for a lot less. After materials I am proberly on about £5 per hour but I am doing it in my spare time and have loved every minute of it.

Best of luck, do have a go you could be lucky.

Dan
 

devonwoody

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Most of the words above are the basics,
Many successful business men in the past have also used a technique which is allied to exhibitionism. Think of Virgin, RB is an exhibitionist of sought. He gets free publicity by some of his actions. I can think of other businessmen who created a name for themselves by clashing with authorities and again gaining free publicity.
You could build the largest garden bench in the world and perhaps get free publicity and customers might come flocking to your door wanting your work (hopefully not more gigantic benches)
Anyway another source of obtaining your goal (you might enjoy that on the way to success)
 

mrbmcg

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SD

I am sorry to say that the HNC course *was* hopeless. There was a section on the nature and behavior of wood and it was pretty interesting, however I simply hadn't seen *that* extreme a movement when resawing a board before. Lack of experience I guess is my crime. The guy who took the course said that he had never seen case hardening in the flesh and we shouldn't really worry about it - gives you an idea of the standard :cry:

There was no content on running a small business unless you took the second year HND course and I simply couldn't afford another wageless year unfortunately.

I know that I lack experience, what I am possibly trying to avoid is developing the experience required over a number of years then finding disappointment anyway. :cry:

I have done the courses with the local authorities on starting a business and whilst the administration etc. is a bit scary I am more than willing to learn. I agree that I am not charging enough, the problem I have is one of getting started. I cannot charge too much because I won't get any business (it seems) yet I cannot charge too little because I can't afford to. :cry:

I have thought about the kitchen business but it already seems pretty competitive in my area from the research I have done. It it generally true that the guys on here who do this for a living all do kitchen work?

For the three days I work as an electronic engineer I get about £20k per annum, pretty good yes, and enough to cover my living expenses comfortably, but no good for my spirit I'm afraid. Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday I'm a grumpy pain in the backside whilst Thursday and Friday I'm an amiable happy go lucky chap :p

My wife said much the same as johnelliot in that you have to try and break the mould of how your average person chooses their furniture. It's not an easy task by any means and one I'm just not sure I'm up to, which is a problem when you are trying to earn a crust from it eh? :cry:
 

Aragorn

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I don't tend to do kitchens (though I am doing one at the moment :roll: ). My line of woodwork is what I call custom-fitted furniture. Stuff like making cupboards, wardrobes, storage solutions such as window seats, home office, bars and fitted dining tables etc.

The advantage for customers is that they get to use all the storage space available rather than having to compromise with an off-the-shelf product. Of course it costs a lot more, but these are the type of customers who place a high value on the space available to them in perhaps a small flat or unusual shaped area.

For me, most of the time I get to build stuff that is enjoyable to do. It's often hardwoods, but mostly pine to be painted. There's always something interesting to tackle, such as how to best use the space. I enjoy the design part and working with the customer to realise their ideas. My preference is for making free-standing furniture in the workshop, and often this kind of work comes off the back of a fitted-furniture project. I'll sell it that way as well! Such as suggesting a coffee table to match, or a bookcase to follow at a later date...

I don't do woodwork full-time any more, but not because of the money side. As for what you charge - it's too cheap, BUT you have to weigh it out against how fast you can work. I haven't charged by the hour for years. I price up the job, based on what it will cost me to finish the project vs what is a reasonable price to ask for such a thing. It works out around £20 - £30 per hour, but I can make a pine fitted double wardrobe in 2 days. Can you work at that speed? If not it may not be reasonable to charge this kind of price.

I think everyone above has given sound advice. There's nothing wrong with having two jobs, and if at least one of them is what you really really want to do, then it doesn't matter if you don't make a fortune by it!

Very best of luck
 

mrbmcg

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I'd like to thank the guys who have replied with their sage advice.

I guess there are a lot of things to consider and it is the preverbial can of worms like I said at the start. Of course luck has it's part to play too. :)

Aragorn, your job description sounds just like what I would be looking to do. I don't really want to commission really complicated designs day in day out. For a start I don't think the "arty" side of my brain is developed enough to be good enough at it to succeed :p

What I am good at is problem solving and seeing a project through to the end, which is probably why I became an engineer in the first place. I have in a shortish space of time developed decent enough (I hope :p ) woodworking skills which I hope to improve given time. My background has meant that my computer skills (CAD and 3D modelling etc) are pretty good and that comes in handy too.

I just need somebody to pay me to do it eh? :p

It's a hard life! :cry:
 

Shady

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Lots of good advice. I think John Elliot is closest to summing up the situation. One of the biggest problems in the 'Peoples' Socialist Soviet Republic of the United Kingdom' is the sheer tax/ business stifling red-tape problem. It'll be even worse in Scotland, because you've now effectively got an additional layer of pigs with their snouts in the trough.

It is fascinating to compare this with the US based boards: the American legislation/tax burden is sufficiently sensible that entrepreneurs are rewarded, rather than regarded as a bottomless pit of money: their answer to the same question is basically 'yes, if you are willing to put the hours in'. In addition, their cost of living is less terrifying (a Canadian friend reckons that any given salary allows about twice as much 'living quality' there as here.)

The whole attitude here reminds me of the parable about geese and golden eggs: Gordon Brown and his minions ain't classicists: to them, any business is their re-election fighting fund, to be consumed as necessary in order that he's still in power after the next round..... :x
 

Chris Knight

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Bob,

I have seen this question asked and answered many times in various electronic fora over several years. The answer is always the same.

You say the arty side side of your brain is relatively undeveloped and as a fellow engineer who has the same problem, I have felt that this as much as anything would be a limiting factor if I ever wanted to turn professional (as I have retired already, there is not much likelihood of this but I have thought about it nonetheless!).

For furniture to be distinctive and desirable it has to have "sex appeal" and this depends almost 100% on the arty stuff I find difficult. I once worked with a car manufacturer and despite it being a technical product, all our research showed that - believe it or not! - the most important selling factor across the industry worldwide was colour. Of course there are other factors that influence people but I realise it ain't going to be how well my drawers slide in or out. It is more likely to be the way in which a bit of moulding catches the light - which I personally cannot see very well at the design stage.

I guess Aragorn's approach would suit me best but even then I rather fear that the pressure of meeting deadlines and earning a crust would take much of the pleasure out of my woodworking
 

Keith Smith

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I too agree with everything that has been said; especially you are not charging enough.

Bob, one option would be if you could find some niche product that you could make and market? but that involves batch production which rather takes the pleasure out of the job.

I recognise several of the posters here also write for magazines, it doesn't bring in much money but every little helps and it does your credibity (and price you can charge) no harm.

3 days electronics and 2 days woodworking sounds pretty good to me, if it means you have no money worries.

Keith
 

Sgian Dubh

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I'm truly surprised that your tutor had never seen case hardening "in the flesh." I could demonstrate it to him or her probably three times a week. Going on that comment I'd wonder what such an inexperienced teacher could teach.

Timber seasoning faults can be a major pain in the pants, and we as furniture makers need to know all about it. We shouldn't be fobbed off with, "Oh, that's the way wood is." It isn't. Poorly seasoned timber is mostly a dryers/kiln operators fault. Within reason skilled kiln operators should get it right 80- 90% of the time, but there are always fair cases where things go wrong as in every operation.

It's difficult to charge the full rate for work if you're not experienced and still learning. You can't expect the customer to pay for your learning experience with no discount. It's a difficult bind to be in. You need to make money, but you can only work at about a third of the speed of a skilled worker so charging full whack for something that will take you three times longer means you're overcharging.

The custom furniture makers clients don't buy at IKEA or the Conran Shop. Nor do they buy at department stores. They buy 'art' from artists in wood from galleries and directly from the 'artiste', sic. This means adopting something of an artistic persona, exhibiting at art galleries, your work being seen at invitational exhibitions, etc., and generally getting your name about.

In your area you should look for the website of Woodschool in the Borders, and the Scottish Society of Furniture Makers-- I think it's called that. The name Tim Stead comes readily to mind. Departed now, but the moniker Stonehenge Stead still sticks and you can see his influence in contemporary Scottish craft furniture. They had a group show during the last Edinburgh Festival opposite the Caley hotel in St. Johns Church at the end of Princes Street-- I'm not a church-goer so never remember church names.

Anyway, if 'art' furniture is not your style you'll need to service a need that people are willing to pay for. Kitchens and built in wardrobes are often less demanding stylistically but technically challenging, and this might be an area to explore. So too are items found at craft fairs and the like, but the work is much more mundane and less intellectually interesting if I can put it that way. That end of the market is more about economy of production and competing on price, but not entirely so.

I'd keep your part-time day job going until you find your true money making furniture niche, if there is such a thing for you, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a contented furniture making amateur without deadlines and creditors to worry about. Slainte.
 

Midnight

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It's not romantic, with besmocked artisans lovingly crafting wood in idyllic rustic locations with cows chewing cud contentedly in lush meadows in the background.
Gotta keep burstin that bubble huh..??

:wink:

welcome aboard Richard...
 

Shady

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It's not romantic, with besmocked artisans lovingly crafting wood in idyllic rustic locations with cows chewing cud contentedly in lush meadows in the background.


Gotta keep burstin that bubble huh..??
They were all quietly killed by the government during the foot and mouth crisis: might have spoilt the NHS statistics...
:wink:
 

mrbmcg

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Sgian Dubh":3b0gbww3 said:
I'm truly surprised that your tutor had never seen case hardening "in the flesh." I could demonstrate it to him or her probably three times a week. Going on that comment I'd wonder what such an inexperienced teacher could teach.
Honestly, SD that is an almost verbatim quote. His notes for the course were about 20 years old (not that the concepts are any different). The lady lecturing on "Design" was clearly on prescription medication and often fell asleep in the class. Workshop time was less than one day a week continually interrupted by the teacher taking time out to gather us round to laugh and joke at the classes mistakes and mishaps. The upholstery lecturer preferred to racont to the class about his time spent as the man inside the "Broxy Bear" suit. (The Glasgow Rangers FC match day mascot) instead of how to operate the sewing machine.

The only real subject of real value was the wood finishing class which I really enjoyed. So much so I now take it as an evening class (free materials and expert advice, you can't beat it :p )

Timber seasoning faults can be a major pain in the pants, and we as furniture makers need to know all about it. We shouldn't be fobbed off with, "Oh, that's the way wood is." It isn't. Poorly seasoned timber is mostly a dryers/kiln operators fault. Within reason skilled kiln operators should get it right 80- 90% of the time, but there are always fair cases where things go wrong as in every operation.
As a newbie, even armed with the facts it's quite intimidating returning to the timber yard with wood. I tend to try to work around it rather than confront them with it. Up in this kneck of the woods it's hard enough trying to get them to give them two minutes of their time never mind listen to you complain about their timber :oops:

It's difficult to charge the full rate for work if you're not experienced and still learning. You can't expect the customer to pay for your learning experience with no discount. It's a difficult bind to be in. You need to make money, but you can only work at about a third of the speed of a skilled worker so charging full whack for something that will take you three times longer means you're overcharging.
I agree wholeheartedly. It's part of the reason my hourly rate is so low currently. I feel as if I have to try to attract people who might not normally commission apiece and the easiest way to do it is via price I guess. As my experience grows I hope to increase both my speed and hourly rate as I try to gravitate to a position where I (almost) make a living out of it.

The custom furniture makers clients don't buy at IKEA or the Conran Shop. Nor do they buy at department stores. They buy 'art' from artists in wood from galleries and directly from the 'artiste', sic. This means adopting something of an artistic persona, exhibiting at art galleries, your work being seen at invitational exhibitions, etc., and generally getting your name about.
I agree completely. Getting noticed is the only way IMHO to give yourself the edge. There are probably several approaches and I guess different things work for different folks.

In your area you should look for the website of Woodschool in the Borders, and the Scottish Society of Furniture Makers-- I think it's called that. The name Tim Stead comes readily to mind. Departed now, but the moniker Stonehenge Stead still sticks and you can see his influence in contemporary Scottish craft furniture. They had a group show during the last Edinburgh Festival opposite the Caley hotel in St. Johns Church at the end of Princes Street-- I'm not a church-goer so never remember church names.
Yep, in the few moments of coherent conversation with the Design lecturer in between naps Tims work always seemed to crop up. It's really not my cup of tea though.....

Anyway, if 'art' furniture is not your style you'll need to service a need that people are willing to pay for. Kitchens and built in wardrobes are often less demanding stylistically but technically challenging, and this might be an area to explore. So too are items found at craft fairs and the like, but the work is much more mundane and less intellectually interesting if I can put it that way. That end of the market is more about economy of production and competing on price, but not entirely so.

I'd keep your part-time day job going until you find your true money making furniture niche, if there is such a thing for you, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with being a contented furniture making amateur without deadlines and creditors to worry about. Slainte.
I've no choice at the minute, but I am going to try to get a bit more creative with trying to get myself known a bit more locally. Might not come off but I'm determined to give it my best shot. Faint heart and all that....
 
A

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Bob

I only know one person who makes kitchens and I can't remember the last ime he made any money as he is too nice and won't charge what they are worth.

I think this is the secret to business - charge what you can.

Good luck with your adventure

Cheers

Tony

Who makes furniture for fun, not profit
 
G

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Having run my own business for thirty years (not woodworking) I agree that charging enough to pay the bills is the main reason so many fail.If you can work half your time to buy your bread and spend half doing what you enjoy you will be envied by a large number on this forum. Keep gaining skills and expertise but don't undersell yourself, you can always do a "special deal" if you build one in to the initial price.
 

Adam

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Tony":va4q4wbp said:
I think this is the secret to business - charge what you can.

Tony
Self-employed chappie I know had a "visit" from the bank. Bascially, they advised, if your clients eyeballs don't pop when you give them the first qoute, after they ask for some modifications to the intial design (which they invariably do!), raise the price between 25% - 100% depending on how brave you are. The guy telling him this was deadly serious, if they don't rupture an eyeball when they read the written qoute, take a seriously sharp intake of breath, wince, back away quickly, you are NOT charging enough. It simply doesn't matter about hourly rates, you charge clients at the price they are prepared to pay, not what you suggest.

I talked to him recently, and it really his working. He's managed to double some of his initial qoutes this way, when the client asks for change X, Y & Z he loads up the bill. Says it works great. Covers him for the jobs that go wrong/clients that won't pay etc. This is commercial work for companies, so isn't quite the same, many companies are lax on prices/qoutes etc - but it does make you think!

Adam
 
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