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woodbrains

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Hello,

I have been getting more and more dissatisfied with my job in school over the last few years; the new Design Technology curriculum, which is total bunkum, being a part and the disenfranchised kids being another. This last term has been particularly soul destroying and I have to do something else for my sanity.

The only option open to me is to become a self employed maker again. I am too old to retrain and frankly I haven't the funds to quit work for however long the training would take. But I have been a maker and designer of furniture before, so know full well the likelyhood of failure is high and the potential (financial) rewards low. I certainly never made any money when I tried it last time and was younger and more energetic.

So, does anyone have any ideas how I might have a better chance at success and avoid the same pitfalls as last time. Bearing in mind that I am pretty much penniless as school technician is a fairly poorly paid job so savings are something I don't have. I do have loads of tools and machines, so want for nothing there, but little space to use them in. My shed is 5 by 6 metres, which may sound big to a hobbyist, but get a Planer, thicknesser, tablesaw, bandsaw and bench in there and the space to store timber and actually construct furniture is vanishingly small. Besides, it is not a commercial set up and could not be used for any long term business venture. I have rented workshops before, but if I was to do so again, I would need to make money fairly quickly, otherwise bankruptcy will be swift.

Without blowing my own trumpet, I do have the skills, perhaps rusted a bit since I was a full time maker, but will polish up quickly and I can design too. I was thinking kitchens, free standing as a bit of niche as there are many fitted kitchen suppliers about. But I do live in a fairly low rent area, so advertising will be key. And I will be solo, at least initially, so huge projects might defeat me.

Ideas please, I need to do something else rather desperately.

Mike.
 

Jacob

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I wouldn't worry too much about working from home/shed as long as neighbours don't complain about noise etc. Millions of people work from home quite legally without paying business rates or getting planning permission.
Other than that - make small stuff in multiples. Sell on the net. Learn to do your own website with html.
We've been here before Mike - best of luck!
 

custard

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I can't make the numbers work from custom furniture alone. I set myself a financial target of £1,000 a week gross contribution (i.e. net revenue after deducting all variable costs, which is overwhelmingly hardwood). If I hit that it would deliver £50k a year with which to cover overheads (rent, machinery depreciation, running a vehicle, insurance, etc) and leave enough for a living salary. That's a viable small business.

In five years I've hit that target for a few months here and there, sometimes four or five months in succession, but then it falls off a cliff. I've come to the conclusion I'll never hit that target purely from free standing furniture. Looking around at other makers, and asking a few careful questions, leads me to the conclusion that precious few, if anyone at all, is hitting that target either!

I've drifted towards doing what many, many other furniture makers do, combining furniture with something else. Over the past year I've spent nearly half my time working as a sub contractor for a sub contractor, making laminated timber components for a big yacht fit out job. The first few jobs were quite interesting, but then it became fairly repetitive. Furthermore, when you're that far down the sub contractor chain you never get to see the complete finished job nor get any input into the design decisions. You basically just make to a plan and burn the midnight oil to hit the delivery dates. On the other hand it pays well and, because I live in a big yachting area, there's a fair bit of work around. None the less, I'm pulling back from it, I'm lucky enough that I don't need that type of work to put food on the table, so I'm trying to rebalance the schedule.

You mention kitchen work. I know a few makers who have gone that route, but it does seem to be very space hungry. Basically you need to store all the cabs for at least one job while still having enough room to crack on with another job. That seems to demand well over 100 square metres. But that's my observation from the outside looking in, maybe people actually involved in kitchen work think differently.

There's a guy on this forum who does smaller fitted jobs (alcoves etc) and works from a small workshop, but he's located in super affluent South West London, and fairly centrally too. Consequently he can take advantage of all the £1m+ Victorian terraced houses where a few grand for a fitted alcove is little more than small change in the scheme of things.

I suspect finding a formula that works is very much a local, individual thing. It depends on your individual location, resources, contacts etc. I don't believe there's a silver bullet solution that will work for everyone everywhere. But in any event that formula is so elusive, and takes so long to refine into a profitable and reliable business model, that I'd say no matter how much you dislike the day job you should hang on to a regular income for as long as humanly possible while experimenting with self employed woodworking.

Good luck!
 

MikeG.

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Well best of luck with this possible change. You could phase out one career and phase in the new one with a period of overlap, where you make some stuff in your spare time, but still have some income coming in from your existing job. These days having a good website and maybe a Facebook presence is a key part of any marketing strategy, and, as I am sure you know.....the easy bit is making the stuff. The difficult part is selling it.

As for space......you could maybe get rid of the saw table. They consume acres of space, and lots of really good makers manage perfectly well without. And if you have separate planer and thicknesser, then swap two machines for a combined one. There are some pretty decent ones around these days it seems. You might also consider one or two judiciously placed hatches in your external walls through which to feed longer lengths of timber. This can allow you to put machines rather closer to a wall than you might otherwise.

My final bit of advice is that you aren't going to win if you try to compete with east Asian imports. You'll have to do something they don't, and make stuff which people either can't get elsewhere, or aspire to own because the design and quality is better than elsewhere. Trying to beat Oak Furnitureland at it's game is a fool's errand.
 

Mr T

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Hi Mike

Sorry to hear the job is getting you down. Not sure I can add much beyond what Jacob and Custard have said on the making front. Have you considered tuition (not children :) ). I have more than enough interest and may be able to refer to you, there's not many people teaching in the north.
 

Beau

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Yep it's all been said really. Kitchens, windows etc are were I would go if chasing a living. Sadly they all take up space unless you can face fitting kitchens not made by you. Helping a friend out at the moment who to be frank is pretty novice at woodwork but he is still getting between 150-200 a day which is strong money for a woodworker in this neck of the woods. I never made that doing furniture. As said in the thread about precision learn the phrase "that'll do"

Only other way I can see is to come up with a design for a small niche product that you can sell to the rich. Cant help on the last one as I would be doing it myself if I had :D

Good luck with it all
Beau
 

RobinBHM

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Around our neck of the woods there is always a demand for fitted furniture, bedrooms, living rooms, media walls, home offices.

I know they are generally large items but would you consider buying in the carcase parts from Cutwrights or similar already drilled and edge lipped ready fro assemble. You could then make the face frames and doors. With a few jigs and some router tables you could make set up time every small so that door making would not take you very long.

I run a joinery works, mostly doing windows and doors, but we know a local carpenter that mostly does fitted cabinets, sometimes we let him use some bench space to do his cabinets, he seems to do ok, charging around £200/day plus profit

As Custard points out, the free standing high end cabinetmaking is a very difficult market sector to make a decent return. Hence why my suggestion of fitted furniture. Its not hard to beat the price and quality of Sharps and the like, whilst still making money.
 

woodbrains

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Mr T":7z1g1fy5 said:
Hi Mike

Sorry to hear the job is getting you down. Not sure I can add much beyond what Jacob and Custard have said on the making front. Have you considered tuition (not children :) ). I have more than enough interest and may be able to refer to you, there's not many people teaching in the north.

Hello Chris,

I did consider tuition, years ago in fact. When we first met, when you visited me in the workshop in Wallasey, I had just moved from a workshop I tried to get going in North Wales. The idea was that it would be an enticing place for learners to come for woodwork tuition; it would have been great for a holiday in the countryside etc. But I just couldn't get the place off the ground. I sank a fair bit of capital into getting the barn into a state where I could work, but the funds evaporated and I had nothing left to promote myself. I'm not sure how many woodworkers would want to visit a workshop in industrial Birkenhead. I should look for a workshop out of town, really, and perhaps think along these lines again.

As for Custard suggesting other avenues, well yes, I agree with him, I'm just not sure which avenue. It is not likely to be a yachting one around here, despite being on the Mersey! I did do a lot of alcove shelving units, in fact they took over almost completely towards the end, but they have to be cheap as chips here. Access to the affluent areas of Cheshire is where it is at, I just don't know how to do it effectively with a small budget. Chris, you did one of the Liverpool Design Shows with me, I got loads of enquiries, some virtual promises, from the Cheshire set that attended those events. Nothing came of any of them, despite following up on every lead.

Batch production always seems like a good idea; it also has its dangers. Sitting on loads of stock that will not shift is heartbreaking; the amount of stuff I've given away to friends to move stuff on is criminal. I don't know if ETSY is worth a try, but to be honest, the few people I know who sell on it aren't shifting a lot of stuff. I always think that seeing items in the flesh is vital for people ti judge the quality. I have just opened an ETSY account and hope to put some things on it soon.

Thanks for the replies so far.

Mike.
 

cowfoot

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I’ve found this book to be very useful in starting a new business -
https://www.amazon.co.uk/Financial-Esse ... 0273757989
You might not need any startup capital (be nice though, eh?!) but it’s a worthwhile exercise to consider what you’re attempting from the point of view of an investor.
If you can afford it, pay for a professional photographer and web designer. Makes all the difference.
Best of luck!
 

Jacob

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You can't "design" a business. To start one you make some stuff and see if you can flog it.
If it sells that tells you which way to go and the business takes care of itself.
I wouldn't worry about finance, banks, pineapples in suits, etc.
 

cowfoot

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Jacob":1bl9hqsn said:
You can't "design" a business. To start one you make some stuff and see if you can flog it.
If it sells that tells you which way to go and the business takes care of itself.
I wouldn't worry about finance, banks, pineapples in suits, etc.

You can’t “design” furniture, you just nail some wood together and call it a chair...
Seriously though, you stand a much better chance of making money if you do a bit of homework and possibly talk to the odd pineapple in a suit.
 

woodbrains

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Jacob":1wmp91z6 said:
You can't "design" a business. To start one you make some stuff and see if you can flog it.
If it sells that tells you which way to go and the business takes care of itself.
I wouldn't worry about finance, banks, pineapples in suits, etc.

Hello,

I have to say that if you 'did' try to design a creative business, you would frighten the living daylights out of yourself. I remember one of these business start up types calculating how much hourly take a one man band would need to gain to get X salary a year, a couple of weeks holidays, overheads, materials, advertising, etc. I can't remember the exact specifics, but the hourly figure was 58 quid. No problem he thought! Best part of £600 per day, three days to make a coffee table that someone would want to pay 200 for! As much as I'd like to predictably work out a business model, I don't think would have the stomach! I'll look out for the book, though!

Mike.
 

dzj

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Do you have a portfolio (drawings, photos..) that can be used to put together a web site?
That's a good starting point for any new business.
Your free standing kitchens idea sounds OK, but how big is your potential market and how fast will you saturate it?
Will shipping infringe on your profit margin? Do you have a plan B, C..?
How wealthy is your client base? If folks in your area are having trouble making ends meet, fitted jobs probably
won't bring much money...Who is your competition? Are they any good?
All questions worth addressing before quitting your day job.
HTH, good luck.
 

custard

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woodbrains":ivbjkody said:
Access to the affluent areas of Cheshire is where it is at, I just don't know how to do it effectively with a small budget.

I've got pieces in local "interior design" shops that generate a small but regular flow of commissions. I negotiated these myself and it really wasn't that difficult. I'm sure there are similar shops in Alderney Edge, Wilmslow, Didsbury, etc. Incidentally, that would be a sensible "toe in the water" exercise to conduct while you're still in regular employment; make something, find a store willing to take it on a commission basis, but don't quit the day job until that's actually done and you see evidence that you're gaining traction.

Unfortunately the main part of those shop commissions are slab topped tables and desks, I say unfortunately because no matter how much I experiment with the legs and under frames it does eventually get a bit old cranking them out. None the less, it's a good example of an item of furniture that's in demand, but where the high street retailers can't follow due to the inherent variability of the slabs.

Picking up that theme of trying to differentiate yourself from the mainstream and giving your products a reason to sell, for furniture it does seem to keep coming back to a pretty short list of factors.

1. Design. Tricky, no matter how much we rate our own good taste, the fact is that Ikea can employ infinitely more talented and original designers than any of us. I see a lot of successful, money making, commissions that are basically rooted in established "safe" genres such as Shaker or Arts & Crafts.
2. Craftsman made. Yes, but customers are unlikely to recognise it for themselves. It only really works when you walk a client through the finer points of cabinet making, sometimes they're captivated, most times their eyes glaze over. I think people like the idea of "craftsman made" without wanting to get too bogged down in details. But it helps to have a couple of features, like needle point dovetails or book matched boards, that you can point to as implicit justification for the premium.
3. Unique or unusual timbers. I've definitely seen the advantages of this, but it's required sinking a lot of time into sourcing wood.
4. Fitted or made to measure. At a stroke you separate yourself from High Street competition. The majority of my commissions are tailored in size to one extent or another, it's also one of the key reasons I'm sceptical about batch production.
5. Unusual finishes. There's absolutely a style component to finishes and often the High Street either lags the magazines, or finds some finishes (i.e. scorched and ebonised Oak) difficult to mass produce.The down side is that by its very nature finishing trends are temporary, and if it does last then the big players will always find a way of replicating it.
 

woodbrains

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Hello,

Custard, I had stuff in interior design shops last time. In fact I have a few small items in a gallery in Knutsford at the moment, and West Kirby. How does it work exactly? The gallery mark up makes an already dear thing into a ridiculously unsalable thing IME. I looked at a place in Chester once, and the owner, who thought I was a buyer rather than a potential exhibitor, almost angrily moaned that the price of the furniture I was looking at was a high because the maker wouldn't come down on his end enough. Needless to say, I didn't suggest my stuff. Once a customer rang me direct to remake a piece of mine they had seen in an interior design shop as they were shrewd enough to realise the mark up was more than double the 'actual' price. That interior shop has now gone, though it was one of the better ones at the time. Another interior shop I tried, in Heswall, lots of money there, was owned by a wife of a banker and just playing at it; you get that a lot. She sold a few lamps if mine, I suspect she actually bought them herself, in reality. She made (a customer made?) a silly offer on a cheval mirror I made, which was too cheap for what it was. I said I would design one for the price she had in mind, but she couldn't see why I wouldn't sell the original. She had it in her shop window for months, despite me saying and her promising not to. I had a bloody hard job getting it back; I think she liked the shop dressed with my stuff for her image. The exposed maple parts have now a rather unsightly yellow suntan, basically ruined, so my wife has it, she doesn't mind. The number of items moved from shop to shop remaining unsold and then needing refinishing or just donating to a grateful friend in a slightly ratty state, makes me wonder if interior design type shops are worth the trouble.

Mike.
 

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sadly, its not all to do with how good the stuff you make is, its alot to do with how you market it and how you come across to clients. Theres loads of woodworkers out there IMO churning out great products but who have crappy websites, naff marketing ideas and don't like networking and interacting with other people so they are destined for 60 hr weeks working for a low amount per hour. On the other hand theres people that tick all the right boxes and "know how to charge" and for them it will be easier. Unfortunately if often seems those that are artisans lack business nous and those that do have that, produce rubbish quality then you have the few that are lucky to have both (and no I aint one of those lol)

PS use a free Wordpress theme and customise (or not) it for a website......

EDIT
someone alot wiser than me told me a good few years ago "never go back". How right he was :roll:
 

woodbrains

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[email protected]":3fm3tpko said:
sadly, its not all to do with how good the stuff you make is, its alot to do with how you market it and how you come across to clients. Theres loads of woodworkers out there IMO churning out great products but who have crappy websites, naff marketing ideas and don't like networking and interacting with other people so they are destined for 60 hr weeks working for a low amount per hour. On the other hand theres people that tick all the right boxes and "know how to charge" and for them it will be easier. Unfortunately if often seems those that are artisans lack business nous and those that do have that, produce rubbish quality then you have the few that are lucky to have both (and no I aint one of those lol)

PS use a free Wordpress theme and customise (or not) it for a website......

EDIT
someone alot wiser than me told me a good few years ago "never go back". How right he was :roll:

Hello,

It's not a lot to do with how you market it, it is almost entirely to do with it! But I've not met anyone, Custard re-enforcing this, who has the silver bullet solution of how to. Anyone have any clues?

And about never going back, I have been bitten once and should have more sense to try again. But I make things, I always have and my job at the moment is actually preventing me from making stuff. The kids don't want to; it is like pulling teeth trying to get them to. Craft in school is dead. It is getting worse. I have to do something more creative than I am now. If I wait just a few more years it will be too late, I'm not young anymore. The only positive is, my job pays so poorly, I should be able to turn over enough to remain poor! :lol:

Mike.
 

No skills

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As Matt has mentioned above its the BS that sells products not how there made - I'd guess at 95% of people generally don't give a dung how something is made as long as it looks and functions how they want it to.
Increasing productivity by using faster production methods will help claw a bit more profit from what you make but at the cost of some pride in your product.
 

[email protected]

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when I was at school (70s) woodwork attracted mostly skivers. There were a few who were keen but not many. I assume things havnt got better then!
 

[email protected]

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woodbrains":3gmon9kv said:
[email protected]":3gmon9kv said:
sadly, its not all to do with how good the stuff you make is, its alot to do with how you market it and how you come across to clients. Theres loads of woodworkers out there IMO churning out great products but who have crappy websites, naff marketing ideas and don't like networking and interacting with other people so they are destined for 60 hr weeks working for a low amount per hour. On the other hand theres people that tick all the right boxes and "know how to charge" and for them it will be easier. Unfortunately if often seems those that are artisans lack business nous and those that do have that, produce rubbish quality then you have the few that are lucky to have both (and no I aint one of those lol)

PS use a free Wordpress theme and customise (or not) it for a website......

EDIT
someone alot wiser than me told me a good few years ago "never go back". How right he was :roll:

Hello,

It's not a lot to do with how you market it, it is almost entirely to do with it! But I've not met anyone, Custard re-enforcing this, who has the silver bullet solution of how to. Anyone have any clues?

And about never going back, I have been bitten once and should have more sense to try again. But I make things, I always have and my job at the moment is actually preventing me from making stuff. The kids don't want to; it is like pulling teeth trying to get them to. Craft in school is dead. It is getting worse. I have to do something more creative than I am now. If I wait just a few more years it will be too late, I'm not young anymore. The only positive is, my job pays so poorly, I should be able to turn over enough to remain poor! :lol:

Mike.

well I dont have a silver bullet but I can say for sure that todays public embrace businesses that are open and transparent. Gone are the days of hiding behind websites, newspaper ads and your products etc and being relatively anon. People buy from people. Today you (not you necessarily!) need to be interacting on FB etc, engaging with people , you tube vids and putting your self out there and the reason this works is so few people feel comfortable doing it so don't :)
 

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