Furnituremaking: Education Versus Experience

Thoughts about skill-building for a young craftsman. December 11, 2007

I have been in the industry for about two years. I have a two year college diploma in woodworking. I am debating going back to school and taking an advanced course in custom furniture making in the hopes that I will become better qualified, skilled and able to earn a higher wage. On the other hand, I have been wondering whether it would be better off gaining experience through work. Any insight? With the growing popularity of CNC machines, is there really any future for custom furniture makers?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor P:
If you can find a shop that is doing the kind of work you want to do, and is hiring, work there. Much better to be paid to learn than to pay. Regarding CNC: learn it if you can. The future will be populated with custom furniture shops using CNC to survive.

From contributor J:
I think contributor's P response is right on.

From contributor G:
I agree with contributor P. I have an associate's in wood technology, a bachelor's degree in wood engineering, and 8 years experience in custom woodworking. I've got more practical experience, the kind employer's want, from work experience than school. Woodworking is hands on, period. If you can find someone good to work under, you'll learn a ton in a short time. I've been fortunate to work for some really good people. Try the help wanted forum on the Furniture Society's website. If you're lucky, you'll find a workshop like contributor P's, where they value teamwork and the craft. (I met him once at a show.)

All that said, the real money in this business isn't made by the people pursuing the craft with their own hands, but the people managing the projects, and the production. See where your interests lie. Are you someone that has to work with their hands to make a living, or would it suit you to make finely crafted items at your leisure, challenging your skills when you want to? There are plenty of good positions in this industry without being the one putting the hand plane to the wood. By choosing to be in the office, you can stay abreast of the latest technology, program the CNC's, learn software, etc., which will make you more valuable.

From contributor L:
I hate to think we're lessening the chance of the smaller folks making it in this business with very high quality work, i.e. natural skill, that may be starting out on a tight budget. I doubt Sam Maloof or Thomas Moser could have afforded a CNC machine right off the bat. I just hope the customer base might still find value in these younger craftsmen so that our furniture industry as a whole doesn't become dependent on computer-aided construction. Design and execution are one thing, design through execution surpasses even the costliest of machinery. I'd still love to have some of those machines, though.

From contributor G:
Great point. I have Sam Maloof's book, and somewhere he states if he had it to do all over again, he'd take the 30,000 he'd spent on a top-notch education, and spend it on equipment and bootstrap it all over again. There's just too much that you have to learn within yourself, other than from someone else, I believe was his point. Trusting your eye, hands, your design feel, etc. For a long time I wanted to be a studio furniture guy, and I still may be at some point. But that's just the tip of this industry, most of which starve. I'm not money hungry, just wanting to provide for my family and have a little in my pocket at the end of the day. I think there are many high-end product companies out there who need skilled people and are willing to pay for them. Many of these companies are run as they should be, a business, and need to look at efficiency. This is where an education pays out. Looking at the global, not the local, of the outfit. Business owners appreciate someone who is interested in the bottom line. Good luck in finding what you want to do.

From contributor P:
It's getting tougher to bootstrap your way to success in custom furniture because the bar is being raised in so many areas besides craftsmanship. When I started out 20 years ago, a table saw and a dream was enough. You did all of your selling face-to-face, to local clients. Your competition was the local guys, with a couple of national players like Moser. Customers were willing to tolerate quirky business habits and also willing to wait up to a year for their project. You could present a sketch on a napkin and get a job.

Unfortunately, the world has changed. Wannabe custom furniture makers are a dime a dozen, so you need to present yourself professionally, display superior design skills, have a compelling website, and be able to deliver in 6 months or less. If you can't get all of that operating quite soon after starting, I'd say your chances of long term success are not good. As an established maker, I am always looking for good talent, and in return I offer a job which can be a career. My people are married, have kids, own cars and houses, have a retirement plan, etc. The work is interesting, the shop is beautiful, the equipment is superb, the boss is not an ogre, and yet I still end up firing 3 out of 4 people I hire. It seems that the desire to be a custom furniture maker is much more widespread than the actual ability to perform at the highest levels - just like sports. After years of struggling with this, we have put a lot of effort into integrating CNC into our operations. It's been interesting, and so far has been very successful. I'm still on the lookout for smart, energetic craftsmen who are willing to work hard, learn a lot, and commit themselves to continual improvement.

From contributor R:
I've been making furniture for about 35 years, not for a living, but because I like to. If I were young, and had the money, I believe I'd enroll in North Bennet St. School in Boston. From what I've seen, their students work is hands down better than any other school's. They teach mostly period styles, I think, but with these skills you could branch off into any style you like. Other than that, a guy once told me that the most important thing to have when going into business is customers.