Making a career out of woodworking

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MikeW

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Dewy":grom0j26 said:
...Dont do it.

A year ago in The Woodworker magazine was the Diary of a Woodworker who changed employment to make a living out of making furniture.

At the end of the series he was forced back into his previous employment because he just couldn't make a living out of it.

Hi Dewy, please note that the diatribe that follows is not directly aimed at you--you just put the common sentiment more concisely than the others.
************************************************************

Ok, fair enough. But maybe a few years down his road, this or that person, who are being told by well meaning people not to do "it," will be glad they at least tried something they evidently desired enough to take a risk on.

Pick an industry. Automotive? Insurance? Medical practice? Store clerk? All honorable professions (well, I'm not sure about insurance <g>). Every industry has people come into it and out again. Sometimes it is because something just didn't click for them. Sometimes it is not as fun/glamorous/whatever as they thought.

Often times it is because they cannot make a living at it. Better said, perhaps they cannot live the standard of living they want to live doing what they wanted to do for a living.

But sometimes it may just be better to ...have love and lost than to have never...you know the rest.

But dreams and desires are a funny thing. Sometimes the worst thing that can happen to one is to lose the experience of trying to make a dream reality.

Which is one reason I don't mind it when people who desire to spend some of *their* hard earned money on taking a course or two prior to setting out on the Grand Adventure of following a dream.

I have seen more people who upon taking a year or two at a trade school--regardless of whether it is woodworking--decide that while the schooling was meaningful to them, reality as *they* perceive it following schooling might mean leaving whatever hobby/desire as just that.

I sometimes wish I were omniscient and had the ability to advise people what is best for them concerning following their dreams.

But I don't think I would.
 

wizer

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I was thinking about this last night. Not so long ago there was a lot of press about the lack of manual tradesman coming out of school. Stories of IT Consultants swapping job to become plumbers. Surely, in light of this, there is a demand for 'chippies'? Whilst I realise this means more like carpentry in the building trade. I think it must mean a reduction in tradesman who work on specialist jobs like kitchen instalation, bespoke furniture like built in wardrobes, shelving, etc. I understand this might not be 'Living the dream' in terms of making bespoke 'future antiques' and much of the work will be with man made alternatives such as mdf and ply. However it must indicate the there is work out there. Working 'on-site' is prolly the least attractive prospect. I guess it is a choice as to wether or not you want to be a carpenter or furniture maker.
 

johnelliott

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MikeW":qnf4bic3 said:
I sometimes wish I were omniscient and had the ability to advise people what is best for them concerning following their dreams.

But I don't think I would.

I view the advice process rather differently.

First of all, omniscience is unneccesary, all you need is to know something about the subject on which the advice is requested

Secondly, the advisee is free to take or ignore all the advice they receive

Think back to Pooka's original post--
"The college providing the course say that employment prospects are good, but I'd be curious to hear from people that have direct experience in the big bad world of having to earn a living day to day. "

I think it would be most remiss of anyone who has knowledge that contradicts the above to remain silent.

Pooka also said--
"Any advice/suggestions/warnings are very welcome. "

In view of that request, it you feel you should not offer advice that's fine, but fortunately I, and a few others, will offer advice and Pooka will decide for himself whether or not to take it.

John Elliott --- (who does make a living from woodwork, just, but not the type described in Pooka's original post "In an ideal world, I would like to set up my own small workshop, so I wouldn't be aiming for the mass market. I believe this probably puts me well and truly in the Arts & Crafts area.")
 

MikeW

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johnelliott":2dzdp0d2 said:
MikeW":2dzdp0d2 said:
I sometimes wish I were omniscient and had the ability to advise people what is best for them concerning following their dreams. But I don't think I would.

I view the advice process rather differently.

First of all, omniscience is unnecessary, all you need is to know something about the subject on which the advice is requested
****
I think it would be most remiss of anyone who has knowledge that contradicts the above to remain silent.
****
...

Hello John,

Yes we do of course view advice differently. One of the main differences is that because I do not know all, I cannot say whether this or that person will succeed where others have failed--or fail when others succeed.

You have some good to say, John. I respect your efforts to perhaps spare someone from a bad experience.

johnelliott":2dzdp0d2 said:
[In view of that request, it you feel you should not offer advice that's fine, but fortunately I, and a few others, will offer advice and Pooka will decide for himself whether or not to take it..

The thing is, some have made statements that basically say it is impossible to make a living--whatever that is--in a woodworking field (do read the whole of Pooka's original post). A few emphatic do not do its were thrown Pooka's way as well. How does one make that all-knowing absolute kind of statement?

My feeble attempt at a response to the negativity concerning the pursuit of a career in woodworking--whether for another or in one's own shop--was in itself advice. It just wasn't aimed directly at Pooka.

I will answer Pooka's questions directly. I just don't know if it will be worth the few minutes for Pooka to read it.

About the only thing I do know with any certainty is that you, Pooka, are the only person who can ultimately make this decision you face. I trust you will find peace and joy in the working out that decision.

Stay tuned for part two...
 

MikeW

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This isn't part two...but I thought I would warn y'all it's bound to be a long post. I can either place it here or link to my website...

Which would the forum prefer?
 

Noel

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Mike, long posts are not a problem, just keep contributing.

Rgds

Noel
 

MikeW

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Will do then.

I have been working on a web site--yes, we're joining the 21st century finally--since I asked the question.

It's now 2:40 am here and I think I'm going to take a nap.

After I have sufficient amounts of coffee in a few hours I'll post.

Thank y'all,
 

pooka

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I look forward to your post MikeW and I appreciate you trying to balance out some of the advice that warns me against a career change.

To everyone on here, firstly many thanks for taking the time to respond to my request for views and opinions. I realise that I have raised a topic that was always likely to result in strong views on each side of the do it/don't do it divide, but it wasn't my intention to fuel any kind of argument on the topic. I welcome both the encouragement to follow my dream and the warnings not to take the risk. Hearing of peoples' bad experiences is never fun, and it does make me take a more serious look at the risks involved in a career change, but it leaves me better informed which can only be a good thing. Basically, I am happy to hear of the experiences of anyone that chooses to post - those experiences won't determine my decision, but they are certainly useful things to factor into my decision making process.

I have already learned a lot from this discussion, and I continue to learn with each post, so please keep them coming.
 

MikeW

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Well, here it is lunch time for me and I have finally jotted the following down. Much to wordy. I just typed and choose not to edit. :)

Pooka:
I am currently considering trying to switch from an existing career, to a career in woodworking, and I would be very grateful for any advice or suggestions that people could offer based on their own experiences.

I would be interested to know whether full time wood workers found it difficult to get started.

The market that I am aiming at is the Irish one (directly relevant to a minority of posters here, I think) which might be quite different from the UK market, but I am presuming that many of the hurdles will be the same.


And my experience will be perhaps even further afield. I'm in the US, Oregon state. I'm located about 35 miles from the largest city, Portland. Population there is, well a lot.

Some of the more specific things I am wondering about are:

Here goes...

- Did you first get any kind of qualification, and if so did it help?

Nope.

- Did you start your own business or start as an employee of an existing business?

Yes I started my own business.

- Is age a factor (I am in my mid-30's - do employers in the woodworking industry have a reluctance to employ the less-spotty non-teenager)?

Haven't the foggiest where you live. In my experience, most trades have less an age discrimination issue than do the "professional occupations." I'm getting a tad older and get the occasional offer for employment from my contemporaries (even a competitor or two).

That said, reluctance on the part of a potential employer can sometimes be tied to a perceived income requirement. In other words, some employers will look at the age of an applicant as an indicator of needing to pay a larger salary.

But after those statements of my own "qualifications" I should say that my own life experiences have shaped my view of this issue. Some of the earliest memories of my dad is that he instilled in me beliefs that I can do anything I set out to do...and that it is OK to fail or need to change directions as I see fit. Seemingly contradictory beliefs, but I really don't think they are.

One of the things about failure (or just perceived failure) is it can make one bitter, angry, resentful. Especially if the failure seems to come from external sources. But it is OK to fail--i.e., not accomplish what one sets out to accomplish. Just be aware that to one degree or another you too will go through a grief process if a goal/dream "fails." But you will go on.

Back to my seemingly contradictory beliefs and as applied to working with wood, this desire to do so has taken various forms over the years. I won't bore y'all here--but I will in a separate post :lol: . For now, let it suffice to say that since a pre-teen I have always found ways to express myself with wood--that has remained a life-long desire.

More generally, and purely out of curiosity, I would be interested to hear whether people have been happy with their choice of a woodworking profession (e.g. have you found that having a woodworking day job has ruined an enjoyable hobby for you).

I have been mostly happy with my choices. But do understand, being happy concerning the living out the decision to do wood work full time is one of those things that comes and goes for me. However, when the pressures of the business side get to me, do you know what I do to relieve the stress?

Yup. Some sort of woodworking just for the fun of it. Of late it is turning after all is quite, my wife is asleep, the cats are napping. Something about being alone at the lathe, no distraction crowding in eases my mind. Sometimes it is practicing dovetails, carving or making something for the shop. This activity, this just doing, simply reminds me that I love working with wood. This brings contentment aside from whether it makes me happy or not.

In an ideal world, I would like to set up my own small workshop, so I wouldn't be aiming for the mass market. I believe this probably puts me well and truly in the Arts & Crafts area.

Ah, and I in an ideal world...
My suggestion is to sit down over the next month or so and truly evaluate what you would like to accomplish in the next year, two years, five, ten. Begin jotting down thoughts for near and far term goals and ways to accomplish each idea within the context of the time line--reject those or set aside those that you cannot reconcile with the list. This brings to mind the adage to plan your work and work your plan.

If you have a significant other in your life, you both need to look hard and long concerning what trying to achieve those goals will mean. You both need to set the goals. Then it is a matter of making a plan to achieve those goals--a plan that is not rigid but rather able to adapt as time passes.

But Pooka, you are relatively young. Should you pursue this or any other career path and at some point you need or have to, just step off and embark on a different journey. If your desire to work wood continues you will find a way to fulfill that desire within the context of any direction your life leads.

What matters here is, Pooka, what do *you* want to do? Whatever that is then decide how to best accomplish that *thing*. Just remember, there is always risk in action. Decide what to do, yes. Decide how best to do it, yes. So too, decide what you are willing to risk.

Should your initial plan look like it cannot be accomplished, modify it. But look for ways to do those things you love within the confines of this thing we call living. In doing this you will find contentment in your decisions whatever they are.

I currently have no woodworking qualifications whatsoever, and limited skills, but I may do (if I earn a place) a 2-year furniture design and manufacturing course starting in September.

If my best friend made that statement to me, especially in the context of knowing a stated desire to pursue woodworking as a career, I would tell him to go for it. At least go further down that road with both eyes open. Be willing to set it aside for a while should it be just outside your grasp.

As I think I mentioned in the earlier post, a year or two at a trade school or even doing the messy jobs in a woodworking shop for a year or two (a very limited view of the wood working world but you would get paid for it rather than just pay a school) seems to be a reasonable step--after defining what you want and have some idea of how to get there, at least if once planed it is one of the ways to accomplish your desire.

Even if you went to the school and decided to leave woodworking as a hobby craft, you would have a better understanding of the processes. I don't mean to be cheeky here, but it is only money. There is more to the enjoyment of life than that.

But like any major purchase, you need to weigh the financial costs against your road map--the goals you by now have outlined <g>.

The college providing the course say that employment prospects are good, but I'd be curious to hear from people that have direct experience in the big bad world of having to earn a living day to day.

As John said, what would one really expect them to say? I do note though, that what you write they said was an issue of employment. One can nearly always find employment in a given field. It just might not be what one wants to do or it may not support one given their requirements. Call some woodworking shops. Better, go visit some towards the end of the work day. They may not require schooling at all.

Only you know what your standard of living is, what your monetary requirements are. Realize and accept the fact you will take a cut in income. How big a cut depends on how great an income you currently can live on. For myself, I went from making just over to well into a six-figure income to making darn little for a few months. But things slowly changed. Commissions did start to come in. Recommendations from previous clients began to pick up.

When a commission was not forthcoming, I would make something on speculation. Most of those items I either sold through used furniture consignment shops and a few at galleries. The consignment shops I figured had a higher volume of traffic for about the same fee. What did I care if the piece was considered used instead of new? My ego is still intact.

And to save those the trouble who would assume we lived off savings, we didn't. By the end of a 1 1/2 year challenge with cancer after I was laid off and had no insurance there just wasn't any money to live off of.

How would I proceed in your shoes? I view it very much like making a piece on speculation . I usually make notes of what I intend to make. Draw out some of the details that I think could become a sticky point in the process--and then just begin.

It may go together quite well. Chances are I will need to make some adjustment, something arises I did not foresee or my hand is having trouble accomplishing that which I see so clearly in my mind, a type of joint is changed--or during the process of creation I change what I'm making or how I am making it simply because my desire changes. But I still make something.

So too in what you choose to do. Be mindful of what you are trying to accomplish. Jot down the details of that desire. Then set out to make it so. If you need to change direction later, do so. You will still find a way to work wood if you desire it.

Just begin with viewing your situation as honestly as you can. Move forward with integrity what ever you decide. Respond to the challenges you'll face with an open mind. Be willing to adapt the plan. Guard against self-destructive feelings that can linger should things not work out in that thing you decide to do. But most of all don't let time kill what you decide to do.
 

Shady

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Hmmm: I dunno. That's a very interesting, honest and personal description of Mike's philosophy on life. My reading is that it's based in part on the upbringing he had, and in part on the effects of the slings and arrows of the 'university of life'.

These factors have combined to give Mike a particular and admirable world view: but that sort of philosophical reaction to potental pitfalls is not for everyone: I have seen people plunge into career changes, full of determination, positive outlook, and all the optimism you can imagine. The first Christmas when they can't buy any presents, and there's little food on the table, can change their attitude considerably.

Don't get me wrong: I admire and respect that attitude, but I do think that all the evidence is that 'cabinet making' as your sole source of income in the UK market is a very big gamble... If you are a young, single person, that gamble may be more attractive than for someone with a mortgage and kids in education.

That said, if we take 'woodworking' to include site carpentry, then, yes, there's a definite living to be made. Massive trade shortage out there.
 

Neil

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Shady":3fonukqf said:
...in the UK market
Pooka, I'm not in a position to give you much in the way of advice, but one thing I will say is that in my opinion, you have a greater chance to succeed because you are based in Ireland.

In my experience of living both here and in the UK, and of having family and friends in the UK, I think that a) in the UK the Ikea culture is so ingrained now that most people are not willing to pay more for better stuff and b) there is a lot more respect for the 'Arts' over here. The mega-rich in the UK are able and willing to pay £10,000 for a table from someone like David Savage, but most people on more average incomes would never even consider bespoke furniture. I think that average income faimilies over here have a completely different outlook. Looking at Edward's website (oh and please come back, Edward - I love your furniture), I couldn't believe how little everything cost - Pooka, if you were able to produce work of this standard and offer it at prices like that, I think you would be inundated with commissions over here.

I’ve just sold my house, and the buyers were very anxious to buy all the furniture. Now I’ve made a lot of it, and although I tried to price everything very fairly, I have still got what I consider to be very good prices for bodged-together pine furniture made before I knew any better. When I gave the prices to the buyers, they replied saying that the furniture was ‘very well priced’, which as you will know, means that in their opinion I seriously under-priced everything :evil:

One thing I would just add is that as space in the home is at a bit of a premium in Dublin, I wouldn’t be focussing on making massive dressers and the like, but I think items like the bed design on Edward’s website would go down a storm. I’m not saying that it would be easy, but I do think that if this is something that you really want to do, you must give it a try.

Just my opinion...

Neil
 

elsa

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I've watched this topic with interest and can't help but chip in with a few of my own comments.

1)I guess cabinet making is usually more a 'way of life' than a serious way of making money. However, there are thousands of people that make a good living out of it - some more successful than others. Some are so successful that they employ a team of cabinet makers that work for them. Others either don't want the hassle of employing people or haven't built up sales.

2)Apparently 80% of all startup businesses fail in the first 5 years. So starting any business is high-risk no matter whether you're making bespoke furniture (small market) or making computers (big market!). Some people are good at starting businesses and could sell snow to Eskimos. Others are not so good and couldn't sell a bone to a dog (that has pocket money:)

3)There's a lot more to running a successful cabinet making business than building high-quality furniture. If you're downsizing from, say, a computer programmer then you come from a company where there are sales department, marketing departments, purchasing departments, finance departments, etc.... When you're a one-man shop you have to do all of the sales, marketing, finance, purchasing etc yourself. You need skills in all these areas (and more). This is where I think it could be tough for someone fresh out of school/college. Perhaps better to work for someone else first to build experience of all these functions (and save money!). On the other hand, if you're a natural entrepreneur then fresh out of school when you're expenses are low may be ok.

4)There are people out there that will buy bespoke furniture and these will not be the same people that shop at Ikea. Just like some people buy a £500 used car and some will spend £60,000 on the latest Mercedes. People will commission furniture perhaps because they have a special requirement, they enjoy the commissioning process, they want something unique or simply because they want to talk at dinner parties about how they have all their furniture made by a little man down the road.

Seeking advice is easy. Deciding what is good advice is difficult. If you're thinking of running a marathon and you talk to someone who couldn't finish their first marathon even after a year's training then they may advise against it. But there are millions of people that successfully finish marathons. It's the same with starting any business but perhaps cabinet making is tougher than others. Some fail and others are very successful.

Only you (pooka or anyone) can decide whether to go for it. You need to feel confident YOU can do it.
 

pooka

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Mike - Thank you for that very considered post. I agree very much with your world view - I am, at heart, an optimist, and although this mindset has caused me some difficulties in the past, I find it to be a much more healthy approach to life than the alternative. I also admire your self-discipline in applying yourself to your chosen lifestyle.

You are right, of course, about the importance of sitting down and working out a plan for the future. To date, I (and my wife) have done this fairly casually only. Mainly we did this to see whether we could afford for me to do the furniture-making course - we could, just about, but there is nothing like looking at reasonably accurate projected incoming and outgoing figures on paper to make you stop and think about the realities of living on a very much restricted budget for a while (especially when the projected incomings, for me, are practically nil for most of the two years :shock: ). While I don't see money as important, in itself, I am finding it more of a struggle than I expected to adjust from a mentality of saving it away to actually spending/investing it on a potentially risky future! (To be honest, one of my reasons for considering a change of career right now, is to avoid the risk of me adopting a mindset of money being the be all an end all - it is a mindset that I encounter all too often within my current working environment and my current line of work and sometimes it feels like it'll eventually just wear you down).

At the moment, I am exploring further, some alternative approaches to my ultimate goal, one of which is to rent larger workshop space while also looking to change jobs to one within the same line (i.e. IT) but which allows me more free time to develop my skills in the workshop. This would be a small, but significant, step towards my dream. Having said that, my circumstances might well change over the next few months (not least because my wife is herself pursuing a career change at the moment - never a dull moment in the pooka household these days :D ), which might lead me to changing my plans significantly, but as you say, facing any challenges with an open mind is the way to tackle issues as they arise.

As for your warning not to let time kill what I decide to do, those are very wise words indeed. Many thanks.

Shady - Like you say, there are definite risks to taking an "all out" approach to woodworking as a career. As I mention above, one of the options I am considering at the moment is to balance my existing career with dipping a toe in the water of a woodworking career. It is a slower process, but one which keeps the safety blanket of my existing career much closer to hand, while still leaving the option open to ditch the office job at relatively short notice if prospects are looking good on the woodworking side. (One thing that I have to keep reminding myself of is that a history of 14 years in my current career should be sufficient to get me another job if I take the woodworking plunge but find that things don't work out - that's not always as reassuring to my ears as I'm sure it should be though!).

Neil - Thanks for that (and congratulations on your sale!). It is good to hear that some peope, at least, value handmade furniture in this country. While exploring various stores around Dublin I have seen very few pieces of furniture which were anything other than mass-produced and relatively poorly constructed for the prices being charged (admittedly though, most high-rent Dublin stores are not necessarily the best place to find furniture which is not mass-produced). And thanks for the tip regarding furniture geared for the Dublin market - you have a good point about large items and lack of space for them in the average small Dublin house.

elsa - Thanks for the advice. In my current job, I work for a small company, and I have had exposure to various areas within the company, including sales and purchasing. However, the financial side of it is certainly one that I have avoided when I could so I know it would be one of the less enjoyable (though highly important) aspects, for me, of running my own business - as a result, I probably tend not to put as much thought into that aspect of a future career as I should, so thank you for reminding me. As for my potential market, the whole area of marketing too is one that I need to give more thought to, so again that is a very valid and useful point.
 
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