How Did You Get Into Woodworking?

Woodworkers describe how they stumbled into this way of life. October 15, 2009

How did you get into wood working What obstacles did you face?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor A:
I grew up in a family where many generations considered the measure of manhood and human worth was the ability to use your hands and minds to build, repair, and make things. This was not only for self sufficency, but as a vocation and way of life. I thank them all.

I had my fill of standing in front of a Court, representing one side or the other, fighting over goods and children in divorce cases and in general cleaning up other peoples messes that they would not have gotten themselves into if they had an ounce of common sense, foresight or the intelligence to come to me in the first place. If you won you were divine, if you lost you were worthless, if you reached an equitable agreement and settlement you were lazy and if you wanted to be paid for the work you were something else. I like making things and seeing people smile when they see what I have created. Listening to someone play an instrument I have made, particularly in front of an audience, is pure joy.

The obstacles I faced were the cost, and my mother's desire that I continue practicing law. I maintain a license and am current on CLE to make her content, and occasionally I can do some good with it for friends.

From contributor B:
I wanted nicer things than I could afford. Building things myself was a way to get that. Over time, I became proficient at it enough to make a living doing it. Now I still make things for my own home because my standards are such that only commissioned custom pieces would be good enough, and I can make those. So I guess my original reason still stands. I'm currently remodeling my own home since I still want a quality level that I can't afford to pay someone else to do. And, of course, there are the bragging rights!

Interestingly, I've reached the point where I am pretty much at the top of the pay scale for an employee. I decided that I either needed to open my own shop, which I do not wish to do, or find some other way to use my skills and experience. Now I teach others what I have
learned, and so far, it is going reasonably well.

From contributor C:
I am a 4th generation woodworker and have been making things since I was 5. Even during times in my life when I had no tools of my own, I took classes so I could make things. I try to make something every day. The good news is, I can sell the things I make, and I like
getting money. So it all works out.

From contributor D:
Quite simply, I like working with my hands and creating. When I was younger I wanted to be an architect, then a mechanic, and now I'm here. It wasn't until I actually built something, with little knowledge and poor quality tools, that I realized this is my calling.
To go along with the good feeling you get when you impress somebody, I've instilled in myself that I'm never going to get anywhere being somebody else's donkey while they get wealthy. I've got to make it happen and I'm still working on that.

My obstacles are money, experience, and knowledge. I'll admit that maybe I moved too fast but I'm not turning back. I need money to pay off my loan for the business before I profit. I need experience to be faster and feel more confident dealing with customers' projects, and I need knowledge in finishing and all the laws and ethics of running a business. That is why I'm here so much, trying to learn from all of you.

From contributor E:
When I was 16 years old, my dad gave my brother and I the choice of either finishing high school and finding a job on our own or getting a GED and going to work for him doing commercial builds. We chose the second option. Commercial interiors turned into custom homes and after that I ventured into just about every aspect of residential and commercial construction over the next 22 years. I also did some volunteer work for a year in NY and Guatemala. Now I find myself building and installing custom cabinets of all types and a few secret doors. Woodworking has been a part of my life longer than anything else that I have been involved with and it will be until the day I die. woodworking has provided an outlet for my creativity, OCD and my desire to learn new things. It has been a bumpy road but I knew that
before I ever got started in the business because as a 15 year old, I remember hearing my dad say that construction is a nasty mistress. Even though that has proven itself true many times over in the last 22 years, I never regret that decision I made back in high school.

From contributor F:
About 35 years ago I quit college after only one year because I was destined to be a "rock star" and didn't need all of the junk they were teaching me. That is how I got into woodworking.

From contributor G:
I saw a wood magazine at a bookstore and was inspired to make a jewerly box for my wife. Since then, I switched careers from university recreation to custom home building, bought a lot of equipment, and completed a couple of jewerly boxes. I've recently thrown my hat into the professional ring where I can gather bigger and more impressive tools and continue to have no income. Given the current economic outlook, this decision will either be my biggest
mistake or biggest success. I'm optimistic it will be the latter.

From contributor H:
Twenty-five plus years ago, I lost interest in my main automotive hobby. I took two adult education classes in woodworking from a local pro. He taught that whatever you made, it had to feel good besides just looking good. I played around learning various woodworking skills on my own, and releasing frustrations from my career as a research geophysicist in the oil industry.

I was unhappy with a simple footstool handed down from my Dad. I thought there should be a better design. After a few tries that ended up as nice little tables, I hit upon a simple frame design that uses braided cotton cord to weave the seat. A handweaver friend of my wife
sat on the stool during a visit and asked if I could make one for her to sit at her loom. We worked out some ergonomic questions and she is happy to this day (15 years later). She talked about it and showed it to other weavers. Other weavers started asking for one and then a hand spinner asked for a chair. We solved those questions and the idea was in place to work out other seating possibilities.

Ten years ago, after a successful show (orders and sales) at a regional weaving conference, my wife and I agreed that I get out of the oil industry, find a job for her where we really wanted to live, and start making benches and chairs for weavers and spinners. Now there are about 20 design variations, all with woven seats and backs, custom fitted to the person and their tasks or just as seating in their home.

I have a one man shop, I do the woodwork and have two cord braiders to making the cotton cord to weave the seats in colors requested by customers. I do 5-7 shows a year, have a backlog of orders, customers who have multiple pieces in their homes and weavers who have a bench for each of their numerous looms. When I started I thought my customers would be fiber artists, which is 50-60% of my work, but rocking chairs, dining room chairs and other variations are a significant portion of my business.

Every once in awhile a friend will call about a geophysical question and I will work it out. The science is still of interest, but the hassles are not. I have not looked back. The joy is working out design variations, meeting and working with customers to help them be
comfortable while doing their craft, and most of all working with my hands in the shop and studio at my craft and new career. The fact that I make money at it is a side benefit. I don't have a state-of-the-art shop but that is not an absolute need to make fine furniture. A poor craftsman blames his tools for doing poor work. I have only had two pieces returned, one because the shipper broke it and the second as a trade-in for a taller bench. The trade-in sold at the next show.

From contributor I:
I have liked building things all of my life. I also liked designing them. From freshman year in high school, I wanted to be an architect. After getting a degree and working at it for 2 years I hated it. Mostly I couldn't sit at the desk without falling asleep. From the
time I graduated college, I wanted to be a hobby purist woodworker. My first books were by James Krenov, later Sam Maloof, Tag Frid and more. One day I got tired of trying to make cabinet work out of framing homes, jumped in with both feet and eyes wide shut and moved my garage shop to a 3000 sq.ft. industrial space. Then, 22 years later, I quickly got over the "purist" attitude in order to pay the bills. In hindsight, I would still learn the architecture because I love it but I would have also tried to get into an apprenticeship
somewhere or tried for the College of the Redwoods where Krenov taught, to learn his philosophy and some others, before building my own shop. I have found it very trying being self taught. I wish I had learned from well established and renowned woodworkers. Like most

here, it's not just building things but the satisfaction of doing it well and seeing the reaction from the customer at the end that gives me my reward and that feels great.

From contributor J:
I needed a job. I got hired by the local builder and started off digging ditches and moving stones, then painting sashes, then doing framing and then installing wide board flooring, all in a matter of weeks. I told him on each change "this wasn't what I was looking for". He could see I had ambition, so he finally asked if I wanted to work in the shop. I said I'd give it a try. After 3 years I learned everything I could from the head woodmaster in the shop and started to teach him new things. I was much more mechanically inclined than he was.

I bounced around from woodshop to woodshop and finally got sick of the ups and downs and the massive layoffs when the slow times hit. I hated unemployment compensation. The last straw dropped and the camel's back broke. I got my own contractors card, registered with the state and got my own shop about 30 miles away. It was what I could afford to pay in rent and gasoline, which was about $1/gallon. After 7 years I moved into my present shop which is 2 miles from my home.

From contributor K:
As a child, I realized I was happiest when I made things - Legos, model cars, slot cars, forts, whatever. I knew I needed to work with my hands to be happy and stay out of trouble. The prep school I attended didn't have a shop, and they wanted me to be a doctor or lawyer to help fund their alumni program. Their graduates did not work with their hands. I went to college and spent 2 years enrolled in Arts and Sciences, until they wanted me to learn a language. This was the 60's. I rebelled, quit school and audited the classes I wanted for a year and a half and learned more than ever. I had terrible odd jobs to pay the bills. I knew I wanted to work wood, but didn't know how to get into it. I saw wood (pun) as a forgiving,
natural material that everyone appreciated.

I traveled around the country and ended up working with an old retired teacher, restoring antiques and framing pictures. He knew antiques, architecture and proportions and history, and spent every day talking about why something was right or wrong. This augmented my
earlier exposure to architecture on family summer vacations over the years. When my wife was pregnant with our first child, I realized I needed a more career-oriented path and walked into the best shop I knew of, and asked for a job. They hired me, and put me with a 70 year old guy building louvers and shutters - traditional mortise and tenon joinery.

Then I saw my first issue of Fine Woodworking, and realized that there was more to it than slapping shutters together. The shop also built curved stairs, spiral stairs, doors, odd windows and mantels. All mortise and tenon, all solid wood, all old guys, bent and broken.
Since I was young, I could do anything, so I got to move around a lot and do all the things no one else could. One other young guy and I did all the neat stuff - a little initiative went all the way, mostly by default. The pay was terrible, and the owner had dementia, so the shop had a rocky future. I moved on to commercial cabinetry - reception desks, tenant build-outs, and disliked it, but learned
what I could. I then moved on to run a new, 3 man architectural residential shop, and it grew to 20 men in a couple of years. I lasted 5 years before the owner and I could not get along, so I quit one day and ended up in my backyard 1,000 square foot hobby shop. My wife said I would need more equipment if I was going to be hanging out in the back yard, self-unemployed, as she called it. The next day we went out and bought a few thousands dollars of machinery, and when I got back, there were a couple of calls, with people wanting stuff made.

That was in 1990, and I've been busy ever since. I knew from that first issue of Fine Woodworking that the highest quality came from a combination of skill, historical perspective, knowledge of techniques and design ability. I have pushed that as our foundation from day one, and continue to enjoy the best work on the best projects. Nobody
here is rich, but we all have a decent living with good benefits, and truly enjoy what we do. I believe it shows in our products, but I could be delusional.

From contributor L:
I discovered years ago that I am not a good employee, so my two choices were to be self-employed or unemployed. Then, I got tired of building a customer base and reputation,only to have all that hard work damaged or destroyed by poor quality products and poor quality customer service from the manufacturer. I got tired of being expected to perform warranty work without compensation from the manufacturer, and I would not tolerate a manufacturer trying s to directly compete with me.

The nature of custom cabinetry dictates a low job, high dollar volume and that is important to me. The finished work is front and center in a home and is eagerly shown-off to friends and family by the proud homeowner. Never underestimate the value of word-of-mouth advertising. Woodworking, and more particularly the design stage of a project, addresses the creative side of me. And I enjoy "augmenting" the creative side of the customer.

As for obstacles, the internet is not big enough to list all of the obstacles a start-up business will encounter. However hard you think it might be, multiply it by 1,000, then roll your sleeves up, and get started!

From contributor M:
When I was 12 years old I used to take my father's tools and make different things with wood. Now I'm quite expert in making things. Of course, I faced lots of problems and difficulties to start.

From contributor N:
As a little kid I used to sweep up the shavings from the planer in my uncle's shop and yell at him for making such a mess. Now, 50 years later, I'm still complaining about dust on the shop floor. I used to make things in the shop with my uncles and always found it satisfying and was proud of what I made and what I learned. I still have the white oak shoe shine kit I made 45 years ago. Oddly enough, my wife's father was in the millwork business and after she and I were married, I tried school and other things but the draw to woodworking was just
too strong and I've been in it now for 30 years.

From contributor O:
My dad's child slave labor policies. Five generations of it. I can't thank him enough for making me learn it from the ground up.

From contributor P:
I stumbled across looking for a woodworking course at my local college. I've been looking for employment but apparently at 47 years I'm overqualified and over aged to work despite having applied for hundreds of jobs. Having read how so many of got into wood working and the passion you have brought me close to tears. My own path has been similar to yours and now I'm determined to have a try at making a living doing something I enjoy so much.