Learning Opportunities for a Disabled Veteran in Furniture-Making

There are programs available that can help a veteran make use of his educational and disability benefits. March 20, 2007

I am a disabled vet. Upon retirement, I began pursuing my lifelong dream of designing and building fine furniture. I work in a custom cabinet and furniture shop but am at a stand still. I need to learn more advanced skills in order to go out on my own. There aren't any other shops, furniture builders or schools in my area to find a mentor. I am in negotiations with the VA at this time to get the formal education to move on, but it doesn't look good. I'd like to know if there are any vets or disabled woodworkers out there that would share their experience in this profession, or methods and equipment used to overcome any obstacles they have had. I would like to be able to use any success stories as case histories when I go toe to toe with the VA.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor G:
Don't know if this will help or not...

Blind Woodworker's Story

From contributor R:
Being a veteran, I suspect you have a GI bill that would help pay for your education. Being disabled, I would think after serving your country honorably, that they would go above and beyond to try and help you out.

Being a veteran myself, I did use my GI bill to help me get my journeyman certificate in cabinetmaking. It was a four year program working 8-10 hours a day and school 2 times a week for 3 hours a night. They paid me the difference between what the journey got paid and what I got paid. It helped me a great deal. I know the GI bill has changed over the years but it's something you might look into. Good luck to a fellow vet.

From contributor J:

I assume you've discussed the VA Vocational Rehabilitation and Employment Program with your counselor at the VA. If not, you should; it's a better deal than the GI Bill or a full scholarship to anywhere. I think 30% disability is the magic number. Obviously there are qualifiers and rules that dictate what you can and can't do. I haven't researched this enough to know where woodworking comes in. The bottom line is that this program exists to transition you from a military skill to something you can make a living at as a civilian.

This is very expensive for the VA and consequently they don't go above and beyond to advertise it. If you don't get the right answers, call your congressman's office and ask for their veterans affairs liaison. You may want to back your call up with a letter. That usually helps unclog the system. The VA is a pain; most third world countries are easier to negotiate with. Keep after them. Sometimes they give you money to stop calling ;-)

From contributor M:
I too am a disabled vet. If the VA gives you a runaround, check with Disabled American Veterans (DAV). They helped me in more ways than I can list. As posted earlier, the VOCREHAB program is very good; I used it for college.

From the original questioner:
Here is the rest of the story. I am enrolled in Voc-rehab. I am rated at 50%. I was approved last year (it only took two years for that). I finished one semester and an OJT program, then came the reality that I cannot learns the skills needed locally. So I put in to change my plan. The only thing I want to change is the school. The big picture is, if I attend this new school which is out of state, it will save the VA money. The school is twelve weeks, and they had me going to a university for 2 1/2 years. I had to start over in the process and now the VA is raising the question if I am physically able to build fine furniture. This is why I'm looking for case histories. My disability comes from a bad back, knees, and impingement in both shoulders. GI bill is not an option due to young and dumb 27 years ago.

From contributor A:
I admire your drive and I don't want to rain on the parade, but you should think about this method of getting training. We have tried quite a few school trained people, vo-tech, etc. Our experience is that what these guys learned was of some value, but not much. They all had one thing in common - slow, slow, slow. While if given weeks, they could produce a product, they couldn't make anyone any money.

My advice, as a long time shop owner doing everything from furniture with 40 employees, to furniture in a small custom shop, is to learn by paying your dues. Find a shop that does what you want to do and sweep floors if you have to till you get the chance to learn skills you think you need. You will learn not only the skill, but how to do it quick enough to make a living. Shortcuts don't work on the path to learning craftsmanship.

Disabled being a reason to question your choice of occupations? Maybe. We have tried several guys with physical handicaps that thought they could handle the job. Usually handling 4 x 8 sheets of panel stock will tell, or handling the boxes during assembly. Keep in mind that while a select few manage to climb into the top of the food chain, it came after years of bad pay and hard work. Being talented isn't enough to make it; experience and business skills are just as important.

Your comment about there not being any shops or schools in your area is something you need to think about as well. Why not? Most furniture is produced in China nowadays. Is this a way to earn a living or are you asking the VA to finance a hobby? Yes, on the east and west coast there is money spent on custom furniture. Do you have the time and the talent to compete in that market?

Forgive if I come across harsh, but if you need this to support you, look long and hard.

From the original questioner:
I live in an area that is the third largest population center in my state. It has a total of 2 furniture stores and not even an antique furniture store. The shop I work at is the only shop in the area that does custom furniture. It does okay but is not as high end as is sought after. There is a very affluent customer base here. Just the jobs my employer loses each year due to his less than preferable business habits I could very easily make due in combination with my retirement. I'm not after a large custom shop, just a single man custom shop, which, where I'm at, is a sought after niche. As far as school, the only woodworking that's offered, my employer is the instructor for, and my goals are beyond his skills. I went into this job not for the money, but to learn a skill, and I'm at a hurdle I must now pass. Thanks for the input.

From contributor A:
Well, your head is screwed on straight. You know, most of us former furniture guys were self taught. Why not open a small shop on weekends in an industrial park? Around here you can get 1300 feet for under $400 per month. Take any and all work regardless of price until you get on your feet. Stretch for the stuff you think is above your skill levels; you will either do a good job or fail. Just refund the money and apologize. I would bet that most customers would take what you did with some modifications anyway.

I've done it all over the years, literally thousands of press back chairs per year, over a thousand ball and claw foot tables per year, a couple thousand curved glass china cabs, restoration of $100,000 + antiques, down to cheap stuff for craft shows and one of a kind furniture. Don't turn your nose up at some of the inexpensive stuff. If it is done right, you can make some money and hone your skills.

Taking months to make a perfect piece can be done, but it isn't really a test of skill as much as a talent for finding suckers who will pay that much for a piece of furniture. The real test of skill level is doing really good work on a budget.

We do some of the highest priced kitchens in the state, but we will also do a three thousand dollar entertainment center. Open a shop, starve a while as you work your butt off, climb the food chain and have fun. I'll tell you one thing, with the price of overhead in most shops, you aren't going to learn much even if you find the kind of shop you want to work in. If my loaded shop cost is $30 per hour, it costs me $60 per hour to train an employee.

From contributor T:
I appreciate your service and I hope the VA can help you out. I had some general thoughts about what you talked about. I know the costs of these possibilities may be more than you could handle but I would recommend looking at short summer programs in fine woodworking such as Penland School of Crafts, Anderson Ranch, Haystack Mountain school, etc. Many of these have ads in the woodworking magazines. One of the first formal classes I took was a 5 week summer program at the School for American Crafts at RIT in New York State. It would be great if the VA could help defray the cost of some of these, but I am sure you would find them helpful.

One of the benefits of a course like this is basic networking with other woodworkers, and I wondered if there was a way for you to do that where you live. Many small shops keep a low profile and don't advertise too much, and if they are good they may not need to. Check out WOODWEB's shop listings for businesses in your area that may not have a listing in the phonebook and perhaps you can meet some people doing the higher end stuff. As far as your disability hindering your work, that may be a bigger factor in heavy duty production work and something you could work around with special jigs and fixtures and teamwork in a more specialized higher end workshop.