Changing Careers -- to Woodworking

Here's a half-dozen stories of people who've made the mid-life switch to a woodworking career. March 18, 2006

I have built custom furniture and built-ins for as long as I can remember. My father was a cabinetmaker and I learned the trade from him. I never chose it as a career. I have been in the financial industry for 20 years, so I do woodworking on the side. Has anyone out there given up a successful career to start a woodworking business, just because they wanted to? Do you still love it now that you do it full time?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor B:
I used to be a commercial photographer, working for clients and models in the studio and on location. Never got dirty. Got bored. Gave it up to work in residential remodeling, because I really liked building sets. Learned everything. Had my own business and worked for the man. Did it all. Got bored.

But I really liked cabinetmaking. Kind of an offshoot of the remodeling/woodworking. Now I have a 2000 sf shop with tens of thousands in equipment. And I'm doing furniture, too. Just delivered a cherry desk with inlayed leather. Client went nuts! I keep reinventing myself, successfully.

Maybe I'd be rich by now if I'd stayed a photographer. Maybe I'd be rich if I started out as a cabinetmaker. Who knows. I'm almost 60 and it's all in the challenge, pushing one's limits, learning something new. I'll probably never get rich at this. Mildly successful would be okay. You can't buy the personal satisfaction I take home every day. After all, money isn't everything.

From contributor G:
I have a similar story. Iím just a tad younger than contributor B and Iím starting my 8th or 9th career (I lost count). Iíve been a salesman, a sign writer, a graphic artist, a pro photographer (I still have a couple thousand dollars in cameras stashed), a pulp mill operator, a lab tech, a finisher, etc. In each case, I got as good as I could get at it, or to the top level, and then grew bored.

One thing about starting a business Ė you are never bored. Lots of other adjectives may apply, but ďboredĒ isnít one of them. 20 years is a big comfort zone to climb out of. Do your homework: business plan, market survey, etc. Envision the future, make plans. Then decide.

From contributor P:
Here's something to consider. I have a friend who was an engineer with a very successful and profitable resume. He has lived on 3 continents and vacationed in world class resorts. His wife also had a successful career in the aircraft industry.

About 2 years ago, he built a new home and did most of the work himself. He has always "tinkered around," as he says, with various DIY projects and felt he was at the point to do more. He became fascinated with the work and decided to leave the engineering world to become a... handyman. Although his wife could provide an adequate income until he got up on his feet, they had to drastically change their lifestyle.

Well, last year she was unexpectedly laid off in a corporate realignment. My friend had been having so much fun playing handyman that he had failed to make any serious money at it. He basically just piddled. He does good work, but he seriously underbids jobs, constantly falls for the "while you're here, could you..." question, and has no real business plan. Now, he is in a real pickle.

I helped him a couple weeks ago on the largest job he has landed to date (excluding his house). He is absolutely in over his head. Rather than bidding on the job, the GC asked him if he would do it for x amount, and he said yes. He told me what the job paid and, although the full contract amount sounds substantial, it is less than half of what I would have charged. He was going to try renegotiating last week, but I don't know what happened.

Since you're in the financial industry, I'm sure you know how important it is to have a business plan, and a backup plan. But just knowing this isn't enough. You have to actually follow it. Only you know if this is right for you. Many people have done the same thing. Many have failed, some have succeeded, some may not make much money, but are extremely content with what they are doing.

From contributor D:
I am in the same position as you as, I have been in the financial industry for 7 + years now and do this on the side. My suggestion would be to continue to do this on the side and don't take the crap jobs like "can you replace three cabinet doors for me?" or " can you refinish my cabinets for $200.00 so they will look like a new set of cabinets?". Work a good steady job and bid on the larger jobs or the custom jobs that will be well worth the money. This way, you are not wasting your time and losing money and valuable time with the family. I have been taking on a lot of small jobs to gain experience and get my name out there, but in reality I am growing tired of the crap of the smaller jobs. They say that they will refer you, but they never do and they always want you to throw something else in or make small changes. I think I need a break. If you are in the same position that I am in, it will be several years before you replace your current salary. The financial industry pays well and has great benefits, so it is definitely something to think about.

From contributor O:
I'm 52, married, kids are grown and gone. I also spent about 20 years in the financial biz. The company I worked for about 15 years went through a merger and basically, I didn't care for the new company. My wife works at a local university and has very good benefits (read: health insurance).

We looked at our monthly living expenses. Fortunately, neither she nor I want to live high on the hog, so the expenses are reasonable. With all this in the mix, I decided to run a one man furniture repair and refinishing shop. This was something I did professionally about 25 years ago, so picking it back up was pretty easy. Also, I kept my security licenses and went independent. I work out of my house with no pretensions of competing with the big brokers. This way, every so often I get a nice commission check, but day to day expenses are covered by my woodworking. There's no way I could do this if we had to pay for our own health insurance. And I have a regular paycheck coming in! I have no thoughts of a large shop with many employees and so on. It's working out great so far.

From contributor E:
I left the high-tech field in 2002 and started Boston Accent Furniture, a one-man custom furniture and cabinetry business. It's one of my greatest accomplishments to date! I'm very proud to say my business was a great success right from the start because I put a high priority on planning for success in advance. Most of that planning had to do with learning how to promote my business so it would easily outshine the competition and produce high profit jobs. It worked.

I've had a really amazing couple of years, with each one better than the year before, and 2006 is already shaping up to match, if not exceed, my numbers for 2005. I really love what I do. What could be better than having people happily pay you a premium price for your woodworking crafts, and then thanking you for giving them what they have always wanted? Pretty cool!

If you're serious about crossing over to professional status, then take the time up front to accurately plan how you'll start, run, manage and promote your business. Get it down on paper so you'll have a clear and decisive direction to go in. This will help you work out a lot of the "starting a business" bugs most people don't think about until it's too late.

You may want to look over this business article regarding some of the mistakes folks make when they try to turn their hobby into a business:

Related article: 7 Mistakes

From contributor K:
While each of your experiences are different, I find that I can relate to all of them. Years ago, I worked at an engineering facility as a lab technician, specializing in noise and vibration. It was very interesting and challenging work, good pay, excellent benefits. Probably the most significant drawback to that job was the corporate environment. Seems to be a breeding ground for a lot of B.S. that I would choose not to have to deal with all day, every day. Life's too short.

Enter wife, kids, and all the associated responsibilities. Health insurance seems a little more important now, as does a steady, healthy paycheck. You do what you have to do. Even so, the tragedy of seeing people basically hate their lives for the sake of the dollar is something that will mystify me for the rest of my own life. I know this may not be the questioner's circumstances. Hopefully he is quite happy at his current job.

People frequently asked me why I didn't do woodworking/cabinetmaking for a living. It's something I did for our own houses that we remodeled, for gifts for family, and an occasional outside job that was never sold for what it was really worth. If I were to do things this way on a consistent basis, trying to make a profitable business out of itÖ forget about it.

Finally, through much encouragement from my awesome wife, friends, family, I decided that I would rather try to make a living at woodworking and fail than wonder for the rest of my life if I could have done it, and never tried. The following 10 years I spent building a custom woodworking business from the ground up, in a new community where we didn't know anybody. I started with the promise of one job. I was to build a hutch for the real estate agent that sold us our house. The hutch sold for $2100 as I remember, and when I was done with it, I had to go beating the bush for my next job. It was a steep uphill climb for about 2-1/2 years. Ten years later, I was running a smooth, profitable, comfortable business, still doing what I enjoyed every day. What a blessing.

I had reached the end of the road in terms of how far one person could take this business, unless I hired on employees, changed my business strategy significantly, or invested heavily in more technical equipment and shop space. There was still room for improvement in areas, but there seems to be a point where the return on investment is not as exciting.

Recently, an opportunity came up to move into a design/drafting job at a company that builds extremely luxurious yachts. Good pay, okay benefits. Good by today's standards, but nothing compared to what they were 10 or 11 years ago when I stepped out of the corporate environment.

Regret is an understatement. As they say, the grass always looks greener on the other side. Now, after closing my business, moving to a new location (renting only, thank goodness), I find myself looking for an opportunity to get back into my own business, or at least partner with the right person to get back to doing what I love and making a decent living at it. The good part about it this time is that I no longer have this looming question in my head about whether or not I can do it. I have done it and I'm fully convinced I could do it again. That's a great thing to have.

So, while there are many different factors and variables to consider in making a career change, I think it all comes down to a few basic things: priorities, goals, a love for what you do, and some luck along the way.

From contributor M:
After 30 years of starting and running a number of successful businesses in high-tech, I sold one of those companies into a roll-up which went public in 1996, and I ran the public company until 2002. At that point, I was burned out, tired of the industry, tired of the people in it - and so far from what I enjoyed about business that leaving was the only choice.

After taking 6 months off to recharge, I decided that while I still wanted to run my own business, I wasn't inspired to start one from scratch. I spent the next 18 months looking for a business to acquire, and happened upon a 20 person architectural millwork business for sale in the area where I live. The company had a legacy of high quality and service, but hadn't had any "adult supervision" for the last 3-4 years. After only 3 weeks of due diligence and negotiation, I closed the deal and took over. (I've been a woodworker for a number of years - but never had considered turning my avocation into my vocation). At this point, I'm one year into this adventure, and these are my observations:

1. All businesses are the same in certain respects: a) cash is King, b) customer service will make or break you and c) there is a delicate balance between cost and quality.

2. People are people. Employees respond the same in this business as they did in high-tech. If you pay attention, give them some stokes, and make them accountable, they respond. Customers want you to pay attention to their needs - deliver quality on time - and stand behind your product.

3. People in this business pay worse than any industry I've ever encountered. I don't know how the "pay when paid" concept ever started, but it is clearly out of hand.

4. I now have access to one of the best equipped woodshops in the country, but I haven't had the time to work on any of my own projects. But that time will come, so I'm willing to be patient. First things first.

In my opinion, one of the best assets I brought to this endeavor was the fact that I'm not a woodworker by trade. This is a business - and it needs to be run like one. Bottom line - I'd do it all over again. I'm manufacturing and selling awesome one-off pieces to a client base ready and willing to pay for high quality. I've got a great crew, we're making money, and the backlog is full. Sometimes, the grass really is greener!