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How to change career to woodworking

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petermillard

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I bet I’m not alone among serious amateur woodworkers in wondering whether I could make it professionally...
My preferred part of the trade would be in custom furniture making, but I realise beggars can’t be choosers (at least not to begin with)...
And is there anyone out there who has ever made a career-change to woodworking? I would love to hear about it, good or bad.
Lots of solid advice here already; the question’s been asked but no answer forthcoming, but it’s an important one - “custom furniture making” covers a huge range of activities; many here seem to be assuming ‘fine furninure’ but it could equally apply to fitted wardrobes and alcove units; what’s it to be?

Similarly, ‘making it professionally’ is a lot less to do with your woodworking skills than your sales and marketing; have you run a business before? Do you understand what’s involved, and what’s required of you legally? if not, then a short course on business may be of more value than any woodworking course.

And yes, I made the change ~20 years ago, after ~20 years as a photographer; but I’ve always been self-employed, and have never had a regular wage to walk away from. I started out doing handyman work, and worked that up to custom cabinetry and fitted furniture over the last 6 or 7 years, via lots of painting & decorating, garden sheds and fencing, flooring, kitchens, bathrooms, general house-bashing and the odd garden room / studio /office.

It’s been a very satisfying couple of decades in many ways, but also very hard work - as someone said further up the thread, it’s a younger mans game, and one that I stepped back from earlier in the year with no regrets whatsoever.

Best of luck with whatever you decide. P
 

Renoj

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We’re currently in the process of moving from desk bound self employed to wood work self employed and there is a huge amount to consider to make it a profitable undertaking.
A few points below in no particular order.

- Space needed, way more than you think
- how many months can you pay your mortgage without income before things start getting scary?
- cost per item - materials/time/consumables (if you’re being honest with your time it’s normally a surprisingly high price)
- Branding/sales/website/social media
- a good accountant is worth the money, they will save you money and stress


My 2p is that one off fine woodwork in particular is a very difficult sector to enter. As has been said being more salesman than woodworker is unfortunately key.

one piece of advice I remember coming across ages ago on a forum that really stood out was roughly along the lines of “get good at making items fast.” I work/have worked with some of the bigger ultra high ticket furniture makers and although amazing quality they fly through projects as the operating costs are so high.
 
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shed9

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As others have stated, lots of good advice here, to add my £0.02 worth and this will reiterate most of that advice;
  1. Be mindful of what you think that career change will be in terms of your enjoyment of working with wood and if this won’t just be a different version of ‘unrewarding’.
  2. Be prepared to accept that being a salesman is actually more important than your end product. This is not always the case, sometimes people find a niche and sales tend to work themselves out, however this is rare and transient when it occurs – either way it’s not a circumstance you can count on when starting out.
  3. Have a chat with your local authorities on what business advice they can put you in touch with. Most LA’s will signpost you to free advice and access to courses. These people deal with career changes all the time and can advise on the pitfalls as well as the benefits. They have probably seen this transition in people more than most and are well worth the time to seek out. Side note however, before proceeding do make sure those people are only working for / or on behalf of the LA and / or government; ironically an awful lot of these advisers have made the leap themselves to setting up on their own and will talk you into needing their ‘own businesses’ service or product. This should be illegal in my opinion but shockingly isn’t.
  4. Depending on the size of your current employer, perhaps speak to your HR about going part time. Be transparent on what you intend to do and discuss how both parties can benefit form that. Be very careful in this step mind and be sure you understand or are aware of the internal politics as much as you can be before imparting this info to them. These are trying times, businesses are shedding jobs, just having the discussion that you are thinking of leaving pretty much makes you a redundancy candidate if that comes around. A lot of business have already started the HR1 consultation process to coincide when JRS / furlough (supposedly) ends next month. Maybe worth waiting that talk out if you can but depends on your relationship with your employer I guess also.
  5. Your option of investing in an already operating business in exchange for training (and possibly a share of the business) may be quite viable. An existing business will have financial history that will evidence its own (or lack of) viability. This is pretty much how government intervention works anyhow, a government scheme invests in a business to support capital expenditure or growth in exchange for commitment to jobs relevant to the cash injection. Government grants are capped to a percentage whereas you have negotiating options depending on your own cash reserves. Get this documented through the proper channels if you take this route with conditions to reclaim your funds if need be or more intuitively stagger that investment as you learn and build your relationship. You can possibly still retain a part time job as above.
  6. As others have stated, stick to the script and keep talk to a minimum, by all means wax lyrical about the cricket or last night’s TV but when it comes to your service and product, keep it tight and professional. You will always get the response of “but IKEA is less” or their budget won’t allow it. If you have already costed what you need to charge before advising the customer, their response or language doesn’t change the reality of those financial calculations. Walk away, it’s hard but unlikely to end well for either party if you don’t.
  7. In any small business, cash is king. Do not underestimate this fact. This accounts for so many businesses going under in my experience. This can be crippling at every stage of development from start-up to well established. Without sufficient cash reserves you are at risk. This is so important so do not lose sight of it.
  8. There is a whole raft of business specific aspects such as your market, P&L, etc. A good adviser will go through this but also read up where you can. Plenty of good books out there.
  9. This is a business, recognise the business as an entity in itself. Get a good accountant if you don't already. A good one will pay for themselves in what they save you in time, deductibles and advice. When you explore options, essentially interview them as potential candidates. Make them sell themselves to you. I once went to accountant and asked them what they could do for me and what made him better than the practise down the road, I kid you not when he replied "gosh, I've never been asked that". Ten years time served and no one asked him why they should use him???
  10. Cash is king, did I mention that?
Sorry for the wordy response, my day job involves managing multiple businesses and supporting them, albeit generally the much bigger ones but it's all relative.
 

billw

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In any small business, cash is king. Do not underestimate this fact. This accounts for so many businesses going under in my experience. This can be crippling at every stage of development from start-up to well established. Without sufficient cash reserves you are at risk. This is so important so do not lose sight of it.
With my accountant hat on, this should always be number 1 on a list of considerations. It is by far the leading cause of failed business.
 

akirk

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As others have stated, lots of good advice here, to add my £0.02 worth and this will reiterate most of that advice;

Lots of good bits removed...
  1. In any small business, cash is king. Do not underestimate this fact. This accounts for so many businesses going under in my experience. This can be crippling at every stage of development from start-up to well established. Without sufficient cash reserves you are at risk. This is so important so do not lose sight of it.
  2. Cash is king, did I mention that?
Sorry for the wordy response, my day job involves managing multiple businesses and supporting them, albeit generally the much bigger ones but it's all relative.
I will add my bit - my day job while mainly focused on websites has a large management consultancy role working with startups - and we see quite a lot of people looking at career changes - particularly in times of recession / change when suddenly working for yourself seems more attractive... however, if there is one thing that you should focus on it is as above -cash is king. Cashflow (or lack of) is the biggest killer of businesses - ultimately, a business is about making money and as is famously said by Mr Micawber:

Mr Micawber said:
“Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure nineteen [pounds] nineteen [shillings] and six [pence], result happiness. Annual income twenty pounds, annual expenditure twenty pounds ought and six, result misery.” ~ David Copperfield
over 600,000 businesses start each year, and the stats suggest that 80%+ of businesses fail - in an analysis of why, the top 5 reasons were:
- No market need (no-one wants to buy the product / therefore the price is wrong / therefore the financial basis for the business is wrong = no cash)
- Ran out of cash
- Not the right team (less relevant if just you - but could apply if you don't have the right skills - e.g. marketing / running the business)
- Get outcompeted (in this market that basically means people buy Oakland sideboards and tables rather than yours - can you compete, if not = no cash)
- Pricing / cost issues

so the top 5 are dominant with reasons which basically fail to bring in the cash needed...
one of my clients was a high-end woodworker / cabinet maker / etc. - doing museum restorations and working for the National Trust, and doing commission work - he had staff as well, yet he still struggled to make it work financially and is now working for another company who make high-end kitchens... I commissioned a desk from him many years ago, and it cost me over £5,000 - realistically, even though I was then living in the wealthy Cotswolds, there were very few people who were commissioning that kind of work - amazing desk though!

If you are doing this for you - i.e. as a lifestyle business then all you need is to bring in the cash to live - you don't need to worry about building the business - which allows you a much tighter cashflow - you need to sit down and work backwards:
- how much cash in the bank do I need each month
- then add on the taxes you will pay to take that home
- then add on the capital costs (equipment to purchase / replace / etc.)
- then add on the monthly overheads (workshop / website / accountant / petrol / etc.)
- then calculate how many hours you want to work each day (remembering that the maximum work days in most jobs is 52 weeks x 5 days minus at least 28 days statutory holiday = 232 days) so if you need to earn £2,000 cash per month, that might need income of let's say £4,000 per month = £48,000 p/a = £206 per day or c. £25 p/h for an 8 hour day...
- now sit down and work out all the products you can make - Selling cost minus materials cost, divided by time (e.g. my desk was c. £5,000 with c. £3,000 of oak / walnut in it = £2,000 gross profit - if we needed £25 p/h then can it be made in 80 or fewer hours - if so, then it is viable
- so for all products, you need to balance the price at which you can sell it in the market with the above formula and where the selling price is higher than the formula you have products that are viable - all others you will effectively lose money...

now that you have a list of viable products, you need to look at how many of each you might need to sell per month and work out where the market exists - e.g. if a desk like the above description makes sense financially and gives you £2k (half of your monthly need) if all you were selling was that desk - could you sell 24 a year? where is the market? This is not a linear process, because at the same time you should also be looking in the other direction - what are the trends / who is buying what / what market exists without many people serving it / is there a market which you could undercut or exploit / etc. - and use that information to put ideas through the above process...

then you have to consider the startup phase - the way this basically works is that you discount your needed income in initial months by using saved cash - this is dead cash, i.e. you may never get it back - consider it the buy in to making your idea work - of course a business which you look to grow would see this as investment (or seed) capital and would expect to see it returned, but if you are building a business just for you, it is the tool which buys you the ability to set up the business - to work it out you simply need to factor in how long it will take you to get going / what reduced income you expect and for how long / what capital funds you need initially (e.g. machinery) / etc.

so it is a very unromantic process - it is all about the costs and figures - the issue I see a lot is that people go into businesses which were hobbies and they don't factor in their time - that is not a business, it is a short journey to a stroke! As is oft quoted on Dragons' Den: Turnover is vanity, Profit is sanity

There is a lot more to running a business - e.g. you can get into looking at the costs / profits / amortisation / etc. of each item of machinery - do I buy a CNC machine, how many hours life does it have - how much would I have to earn per hour with it / etc. etc. - but that is for another day, and less of an issue for a lifestyle business - if you get the above basic facts and figures sorted, you will soon know if it is viable or not - and the truth is that it is a tricky market sector in which to run a business, but if your hourly pay required is not high and you can find a niche, then it is possible...
 

Cabinetman

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Wow, that is so insightful aKirk. If those 80% of start-ups that went bust each year had been forced to go through their plans with that in mind it would have saved a whole lot of heartache. But then it would have a frightened off some of the successful ones as well.
 

shed9

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Wow, that is so insightful aKirk. If those 80% of start-ups that went bust each year had been forced to go through their plans with that in mind it would have saved a whole lot of heartache. But then it would have a frightened off some of the successful ones as well.
I would argue most of the the successful ones were successful because they had that info in mind, but yes I agree it does scare a lot of people off and possibly people who could have achieved a viable business. A good business advisor or accountant will go through this process.
 

billw

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Wow, that is so insightful aKirk. If those 80% of start-ups that went bust each year had been forced to go through their plans with that in mind it would have saved a whole lot of heartache. But then it would have a frightened off some of the successful ones as well.
I worked with entrepreneurs who nearly always had their head in the clouds when it came to business plans. There's a danger of putting off some people who could go on to be successful but I suspect it's a very small number compared to the number who get a reality check and have to rethink.
 

thetyreman

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If you do charge per hour as well make sure it's not very low, it needs to be £35 per hour minimum, ideally more than that, the reason is when you crunch the numbers you should find anything less doesn't even come close to cutting it, there is a really good video about it by gosforth handyman on youtube, here's one I recommend watching:

 

akirk

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thank you for the kind words @Cabinetman
agree also that it can put off some Entrepreneurs, however, few businesses survive with no understanding of cash - equally, few businesses soar to the heights of their sector if they only focus on the numbers, and that is where entrepreneurs can drive much greater success through the intangibles they bring to a business... however, my experience would suggest that there are many who claim the need for free thinking, and that crunching the numbers will restrict the business - where it is simply an excuse for not running the business well - some of the best businesses have had beneficial tension in the leadership between those who manage the numbers and those who push for entrepreneurial freedom, it can allow the business to fly when appropriate, but have solidity in the downtimes...

however, I think that is mainly aimed at businesses aiming to be larger - the vast number of businesses owned and run for the benefit of the sole employee - aka lifestyle businesses - need to focus first on the numbers if they want to survive...
 

shed9

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I worked with entrepreneurs who nearly always had their head in the clouds when it came to business plans. There's a danger of putting off some people who could go on to be successful but I suspect it's a very small number compared to the number who get a reality check and have to rethink.
Yup, I get this all the time. Suspended reality. I once worked with a guy, a friend who wanted some advice and who had a relatively good business idea. Quite late in the discussions he said "I can't wait to work for myself and be able to spend more money on my hobbies and take more time off". I just stood up and walked off. We are still friends but we don't talk about his business idea anymore.
 

Cabinetman

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Tyreman, that video will be a wake up call to a lot on here, ( me included) thank God I’m retiring, I can’t see how I could charge £35 or more per hour making bespoke furniture and have any sales whatsoever.
 

topchippyles

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A good example of how prices vary,I am fitting a stairs in a self build a good mate is doing and i will not make him the stairs in oak because he always goes for the best but the cheapest.He has had prices from 18K down to 9k For a bespoke made stairs.He has found a supplier on the net who will supply it all for 4500K which just shows what local joiners are up against.He pays me a fantastic day rate and i have free access to a massive barn and folklift to do my milling and store my timber so it works both ways.
 

cookiemonster

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First off, may I thank each and every one of you for responding to my post. I am humbled by your generosity.

I think my referring to custom furniture building was a bit unhelpful. Yes, that is the ideal, but I (now more than ever) appreciate the difficulties in making that part of the trade pay in the short-term if ever. I don't mind starting somewhere else and staying there for several years; perhaps it can provide a platform for progressing into other areas further down the track?

As I said in my post, I know I don't have the skill to make it on my own from the word go. Add to that the lack of a suitable workshop (several of you asked about that), and employment/apprenticeship by, or partnership with, an established business looks like the best or only option for me.

So, I think my next move has to be conversations with local businesses. I wonder if there is anyone round here mad enough to take me on? It has to be local unfortunately.

Finally, perhaps I should have said in my first post that I am already self-employed as a consultant. I'm not in love with it by any means, but it does give me (i) experience of running a business and sales and (ii) perhaps more importantly, the flexibility to dip my toe/foot/leg in a career change without having to sacrifice my existing career and all my income.
 

PAC1

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In which case you should be talking to someone like Peter Sefton about his courses and whether there could be a part time option or just a series of short courses. Also talk to your accountant about whether the taxman will help out with the cost of retraining.
 

thetyreman

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Tyreman, that video will be a wake up call to a lot on here, ( me included) thank God I’m retiring, I can’t see how I could charge £35 or more per hour making bespoke furniture and have any sales whatsoever.
indeed, it is very sobering, all the best with your retirement plans.
 

akirk

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Interesting video - from the outset though he identifies the difference between a service business (where you basically sell your time) and a product business (where you buy in or make a product and sell on for a mark-up) - this industry is interesting in that you can argue for either approach - the 'craftsman' view of being a bespoke offering from a craftsman etc. is a service business - you are looking at your time as the major factor - and indeed many chippies will work on a day rate + materials, whether building cupboards or fitting kitchens etc. - when it comes to selling more upmarket or bespoke joinery - such as one-off items of furniture, then it is perhaps harder to sell on that basis, and it becomes more of a product business.

In a service business, it is simply about having an acceptable day rate, and then filling your time - with a product business, the product brings in the profit, and the same amount regardless of your time - so as has been mentioned above, a strong focus on speed (without sacrificing commercial quality) becomes the norm - if you can build a jig and bang out 20 table legs in the time it took you to make one set of 4, suddenly your product cost is dropping, the profit margin is increasing and you are more likely to survive commercially - it all becomes about process / speed / efficiency / etc. - in making a car, saving £1 on a component is a huge deal - because the scaled up business saves £1,000s

I suspect though that most people wanting to be in this business do so more as a service business, where running as a product business could be better... the approach I outlined above could see the product as more of a commodity and move you further along the line towards product business (with the potential to make more profit)...

the video also illustrates neatly the difference between your hourly rate and the business' hourly rate - people forget that though they might be paid xx where they work, they need to charge more to pay all the overhead costs...
 
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custard

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I bet I’m not alone among serious amateur woodworkers in wondering whether I could make it professionally.
This question, or something like it, crops up every few months. You'll get loads of replies, most of it fairly general advice about running a small business. It's all well intentioned, and some of it might even be true. But none of it really takes you any further forward.

I'm a full time maker, I took (very!) early retirement from a lucrative career, trained as a cabinet maker, built a workshop, and embarked on a new life as a designer/maker. This is what I wrote in answer to a similar question in 2016. Every word still holds true today,



"Here's the hard numbers for bespoke furniture making.

Assuming you're in a reasonably populous, reasonably affluent area then you'll likely earn £15,000-25,000 a year after raw materials and variable costs, but before any fixed overheads like renting a workshop, running a van, or paying back equipment loans. That's the reality for me and almost every other independent furniture maker that's willing to have an honest conversation. Furthermore, similar numbers seem to hold true in Canada, the USA, Germany, Italy, Denmark, and pretty much every western country where I've encountered furniture makers.

To earn more you have to move into fitted furniture, joinery packages, site work, woodwork teaching, yacht fit outs, etc. But all of these things have a tendency to crowd out the pure furniture making over time.

So if you have a supportive partner in a "proper" job, or mix furniture making with more lucrative part time work as say an IT contractor, or a decent early retirement pension from the military or police, or a wedge of money in the bank; plus you have a fair sized workshop on a mortgage free property in an area where there are plenty of well-off potential customers; then bespoke furniture making is a viable possibility. And under those circumstances a very lovely occupation it is too.

If you're the sole breadwinner, have a young family, have a recent mortgage (especially in the South East), have a rented workshop and need to borrow money to buy machinery, then the reality is that it's unlikely to work out."



That's the reality, based not just on my experience but also on the scores and scores of other furniture makers I know.

One thing I would add that's important for context. There was an odd but rather wonderful interlude in the bespoke furniture business, that ran from roughly the early 90's through to the crash of 2007. During this period the very, very top end of the custom furniture business started to resemble the art market. A lot of people say that, in the UK at least, this very welcome development became crystallised around one single piece of furniture, John Makepeace's "MIllenium Chair"


Pieces like this inspired a generation of makers that there might be a new way of doing business. The basic concept was crank your skills up to the very limits of your abilities,


Burnish your reputation with a clutch of Guild Marks,


Win client recognition at international events like the Cheltenham Festival,


Then, after all that, spend a year creating one jaw dropping piece of exquisite furniture and sell it for six figures.

And for a few years it looked like this business model might be an actual thing! Sadly, it all evaporated in the crash of 2007 and has never really returned.

Without that magical dimension Cookiemonster the answer to your question is that you can't make a decent living purely from bespoke furniture. You can earn some useful pin money, augment a pension, live a very pleasant life...but you'll never pay a south-east mortgage nor give a young family the things you'd like to give them.
 
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