Business, Craftsmanship, and Satisfaction

How do you keep love of woodworking alive and also run a successful woodworking business? No one said it would be easy... February 17, 2006

At what point does a contractor or woodworker stop caring about the love of the work? I started woodworking at 14 and am now 26. Last year, I started my own shop. Boy, howdy, it's a rough road. But my love for the work keeps me going. I am now 100% referral based. The problem is that I'm building things that I hate to build. You know - simple cabinetry, frameless kitchens, etc. This is cake work. It's also tough business because of all the other big companies. So when do you stop caring about the work and start caring about the money? Is there a way to do the work we started these businesses for?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor C:
Maybe the first thing is to realize that this is first and foremost a business and income producing enterprise. The art comes after that. People who are truly passionate about the work should probably simply be the hands-on guys who work for someone else, in order to maintain their sense of what they do and why. Leave the business owner the responsibility of appreciating all you can do for the enterprise in terms of woodworking talents, etc. It may go a lot further with him than with his customer. If he doesn't appreciate it, someone else will. I know I would.

I did woodworking in my garage shop for about 20 years while my money came from being a sales rep for the regional materials distributor. I called on all the shops in 1/2 of 2 states for 12 years. Along the way, I learned plenty of craft and helped others a bit with what I learned. When I started my shop 9 years ago, I started a frameless cabinet line to sell to other shops. It is not woodworking, by any stretch. I even buy all my finished parts strictly pre-finished. I have grown to 9000sf and 11 people doing about 3 million.

About 5 years ago, I was just too busy to really do any woodworking at home. Some of my tools had been moved to the shop and my garage had turned into a giant walk-in closet. I tried to rekindle that interest about 2 years ago. It was gone. All I could think about was ways I could run the project through the shop as a modified frameless cabinet and let the crew do it, in a timely manner. My focus was on getting it done! In addition, the dust and fatigue bothered me more that it ever did in the past.

I have taken up cooking instead. I just put in my own kitchen for the first time. Cooking is easier on the body, it's cooler, it's cleaner, and I get just as many compliments on my craft. Maybe I'll start a restaurant one day!? I doubt it.

The point is, my expectations for my business were maybe more in line with the real world, having had the benefit of knowing a lot of other woodworkers and shops and their stories. Almost every good woodworker I ever knew that started his own eventually stopped having time to do what he started out doing, because the business has to come first. In response to your actual question of when this takes place… probably when you hire your first employee. Now you've become responsible for someone else's livelihood and all that comes with it. If you have 1, you may as well have 20 or 200. You go through all the same motions. Your focus becomes cash management instead of the work, and poof…

My advice is build a business, whatever it is, let it pay your way to enjoy the things in your life that are important to you, whatever they are. Don't try to mix the two. If you want to do fine woodworking, keep a little shop at home. Don't loan any tools to the business, etc. Make some money off of the time others spend working in your business so you can do what you want to do with your time. Don't feel guilty about the time you spend playing while your people are working. You have to be responsible, but your first responsibility is to yourself and family.

From contributor D:

I am in the same boat as you. I am 33 and am in the process of starting my own business while working a 40 hour a week job. I have built things I really wish I could afford to turn down. I think the caring stops when you do indeed open your own shop and have to start being the boss, the employee, the designer, the estimator, the cash manager, the grounds keeper, the accountant and the bill collector and still go home and cut the grass, fix the car, patch the roof, order supplies, play with the kids, be a husband and realize that it all depends on the success of your newly started business. Boy, what pressure!

From contributor T:
I'm 27 also, but I started my shop when I was 19. It is tough, tough, tough. I still build some plain, boring things, but for the most part, it is one-off items. You've only been in business for a year, right? If you are referral based (a great thing in my eyes), most of the items people are seeing are the same boring, plain things that you just built for someone else. If someone gives you a creative window, run through it, go crazy and have fun. People generally run in packs. If someone wants something creative, their friends will probably want to one up them.

From contributor H:
There is a reason starving artists are called starving artists. They are not businessmen. Reality is business first, art second. I started in this business at 17. At 27, I started my own shop. That was 25 years ago. From 17 - 27, I was creative as all heck... On my days off. But the last 25 years have forced me to be a businessman as well. I still get creative ideas, probably always will. But I've got to eat. To keep my love of wood alive, I build things for myself, strictly for pleasure of building. Then I sell them, or even give them away to friends or family, or good clients. I'll do this in between the bread and butter jobs and at the end of the day when the guys leave. It works for me. At 26, you're in the prime of your life with a long way to go. There are always going to be a lot of cake jobs before you get the icing. Your frustration will pass.

From contributor S:
As an employer that hires additional competent, passionate, creative people, I see a great shortage of eligible candidates. One reason is that the competent builders all think they have to start their own shops to be able to do the nicer work. As if there is some huge, underserved art furniture market out there with people clamoring for $65,000 TV cabinets. And like all these people are really capable of building said TV boxes. I don't blame them for being bored with boxes and such. But what do they do? Quit their real job, open a shop and wish for arts and crafts seeking multi-gazillionaires to hire them for a 5 year handcrafted project at $85.00/hr. When it doesn't happen (it never does), they end up making boxes for less money than the place they quit, and starving - even though they aren't even practicing their art. No plan, no sales outlet, no income, no joy. Good ideas? Maybe - if those years of informal studying, sketching, looking, building pay off. Good execution? Perhaps - if there is equipment, years of experience, a solid reputation and a bunch of other attributes all lined up. And we haven't even mentioned developing business skills yet.

Everyone's unhappy - the new shop owner, the former employer (who has lost a decent employee), and the one in 10,000 person who wants something different and can't find anyone to make it, despite the fact that they wouldn't be able to pay the going rate anyway.

My advice is if you don't want to build boxes, then don't. Everyone from Sam Maloof to Wendell Castle to Nakashima has said, in essence "Don't compromise your work - find your style, and make it every day for the rest of your life." I just read that Thomas Moser said he would rather burn his furniture than discount it! That is confidence. That is focus. And dedication, like most of us will rarely ever see.

Or, stay with your current job. Feed your family. But develop your skills like a man possessed. Do everything. Look around. Be willing to relocate. Go visit the top shops you can find. Plan to go to work for them. When you join the crew, build beautiful things every day. Feel the respect of your peers, your employer, your family. Your self respect will grow, your self confidence, too. Then decide if you really want to add business skills and huge risk to your finely developed repertoire and well balanced sense of accomplishment. Then see if you want to go play starving artist - you may then realize you have become the artist you wanted to be - and more.

From contributor F:
Most everyone starts out like you do. Then ends up selling out and building frameless cabinets to make enough money to live on and maybe someday retire. All the while claiming to do high end cabinetry (yeah right!). If you find the right market, you can build really nice furniture and make a decent living, but maybe not where you're living right now. Or build and compete with the upper end cabinet manufacturers building high end framed cabinets. There is a market for it out there, but it takes time and marketing to find it. Anyone can build boxes - there are over 100 garage shops in my area doing just that, and a tiny few doing very high end furniture, and making a decent living. One guy is booked out for 2 years.

From contributor E:
I make a product that is easily and quickly put together so I can get in and out and make a decent profit. In my case, it's outdoor cedar log furniture. Bringing money in, paying the bills and feeding your family are your responsibilities and if you can do that on 3 or 4 major artistic pieces a year, so be it, but very few of us have the market to do so. I figure if I can build production pieces, make money and have time to build what I want and sit on it until the right customer comes around, I have satisfied one part of my equation for success. The second part is time management. As owner, I have the ability to schedule jobs around what I love to do. If I wake up and the day looks good for fishing, guess where I am? It is all a matter of what you deem important that defines success. Sometimes it's washing sawdust off of your hands, sometimes it's washing off fish stink. I definitely work a lot more hours and harder, but it is my own - that in itself is satisfying to me. Also, if you are the owner, you don't get in trouble for messing with the boss's wife - in fact, it's encouraged! There are advantages and disadvantages to both. It's your job to figure out what is important and how you are going to get it.

From contributor M:
To paraphrase my pal Bob Buckley's book: The purpose of a business is to make money now and in the future - or something close to that. Clearly, what you are describing is something more akin to a hobby, at least to the vast majority of us. Surely, there is plenty of room to excel in what one does while earning to live a good - heck, even an excellent - living.

From contributor B:
You've spun a great thread here. I started my dream millwork shop back in the eighties, and wound up ruining a perfectly good hobby. Being a businessman and boss is better left to guys that don't care a bit for woodworking (except you multi-talented few).

Now, 25 years in sawdust, I install other peoples stuff and work strictly alone. Much of the shop stuff had gotten stale to me anyway, and the pay sucked. The one shining pleasure and challenge I found in the shop and now in the field is to discover and develop ways to do each task a little quicker each time. Bit by bit, pare away unnecessary steps in every part of a job. Some of my best work came from a lack of material or equipment, and being forced to finish the work anyway. It's like when you move to a new home, and live just fine for a week with most of your stuff still packed, then wonder how important that crap really is.

It helps the days go by and the jobs get done quicker. I have evolved from an anal perfectionist to a commercially appropriate quality installer. The extra time even allows me to do some of the extras that should have been done by others. These things don't go unnoticed by the customers.

This fascination with minimizing is especially effective in the shop where repeated operations can be tweaked constantly. One must never sacrifice safety or quality in this pursuit, but there is always some fat to be cut. Keep the mind open far beyond the box and be ready to try things backwards once in a while. The objective should be "faster than the last time" every time.

From contributor S:
The above post regarding the paring away of a step here and there, and the learning to do without, is excellent. He states a very important lesson for all us perfectionists. While he says he went from an anal perfectionist builder to a competent, quality installer, I would suggest he evolved or moved his anal tendencies to his production processes. This took his natural bent (perfectionism) and moved it from a commercially unimportant area - perfect product, and relocated it to a commercially desirable area. He is probably very good at what he does, and since he can do the little extras, he gets noticed, appreciated and paid for his anal tendencies. He has found a way to turn that liability into an asset. I may be reading too much into this, but I have seen the same thing. I once was the anal -slightly starving - builder, and now have relocated my perfectionist urge to running the business, and fine tuning every step, and developing each employee, and improving each process... ad infinitum. I'm no longer hungry, and personal satisfaction is off the chart.

From contributor T:
I agree that as a cabinetmaker, it is too competitive, but as a fine furniture maker, there is more room, but a small market. These fine craftsmen and women whose names we all recognize aren't going to be here forever. Someone has got to take their place. What about raising your prices? If you are referral based, it is a lot simpler to get the money you want for a job. Several of the high end guys I have talked to in my area said the more that they raised their prices, the simpler it got. I mean they make more money, do less work, and have more free time to spend with family or build something special.