Teaching Woodworking in a Real Shop

A woodworker is considering teaching shop class in his own shop, but the insurance and legal risks are discouraging. October 3, 2011

I donít like to sound paranoid but knowing that someone tripping through the front door of your shop and getting injured could likely kill you. Itís scary to think what a power tool injury or chisel to the hand, etc. could precipitate. Has anyone had any experience with any sorts of schools or training facilities that had to deal with these things? I have no basis for this but always thought by the time you adjusted your coverage for the increased exposure any money made giving classes may barely dent what it costs to protect yourself.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor T:
I talked at length with my attorney and my insurance agent, about a year ago, about doing exactly what you are wondering about. My insurance agent indicated that my premiums would go up substantially. A whole new policy would have to be put in place just for the liability coverage. Then a several million dollar umbrella policy would have to be put in place.

My attorney said that no matter how iron-clad the liability waiver he could put together was, it would easily be defeated in court by a jury of people intent on killing a business. Needless to say, I scratched the idea as not economically feasible as the tuition rates would have to be extremely high to cover liability. I would love to hear about your results from this endeavor if you elect to move forward.

From contributor S:
"My attorney said that no matter how iron-clad the liability waiver he could put together was, it would easily be defeated in court by a jury of people intent on killing a business." That is good advice.

Having been involved in litigation I can tell you that what Contributor T's lawyer told him is true. If someone is injured through no fault of your own and sues, they can demand a jury trial and they will get it, with unpredictable and perhaps calamitous results, no matter how strong your disclaimers. That's something you want to stay a million miles away from.

A jury is supposedly composed of your peers, but nothing could be further from the truth. Considering the relatively small profit potential, there is no good reason to expose yourself to that sort of random chance for potential ruin, which is possible no matter how much liability insurance coverage you buy. There's a reason that thousands of high schools, entities that by their very nature have very much deeper pockets than does any commercial woodworking operation have dropped wood-shop classes over the last 50 years.

From the original questioner:
Being in the construction and woodworking trade for most of my adult life I am very liability-conscious. I don't feel like a court or jury is necessarily out to get us but I do feel that our legal system has swayed towards the "victim" and even if you don't wind up with a judgment against you the mere cost of defending yourself would put me under in fees and lost time to make money.

I have put some feelers out with our local cultural commission and am going to start doing a little research. I hate to quit before I have started but I to have been advised at other times by our lawyer that there is no such thing as a solid contract or waiver when it comes to liability.

As others have mentioned itís really sad in that most schools now (our local schools) have no arts programs any more, and no wood/metal shops to speak of. Additionally in our area there isnít really anything for adult ed, unless you can drive over an hour. It's sad that things like this are so difficult. We never looked at this as a profit making move it was more for the community as we have had so many requests. A break even or even slight loss would have been acceptable.

From contributor A:
Yes, there are people doing it and doing it well. The better instructors are getting several thousand a week, and are booked for 20 weeks or more a year. Many have made it into the school business themselves in order to make it a year-round thing, and exchange instruction with other maker/schools.

From contributor T:
Another interesting tidbit that is in this realm is that I have been approached by a few parents asking me if I could establish an apprenticeship program to teach kids responsibility, work ethic and, oh by the way, learn some furniture/cabinet design/construction skills along the way. This was something I really wanted to do to give these kids more experience in their pocket when they graduated from high school.

It was a resounding no from both my lawyer and my insurance agent. Even though I wasn't going to be paying these kids (their compensation was the knowledge and experience they were gaining), I would still have to pay workmanís comp. insurance and unemployment insurance for these kids), as well as significantly boost my liability insurance. My lawyer told me a liability waiver would be next to worthless in case something happened because the kids would have been high school age (under 18). I was really discouraged because I know a few kids would have really done well and learned a lot.

Some of my most valuable learning experiences were working for several years on a dairy farm in MI for no compensation whatsoever. The education was priceless. We had no liability waivers then. It was all done on a handshake between my Dad and the guy that owned the dairy farm.

From contributor G:
I think there are two approaches to the term "woodshop class". One is where the instructor supervises a bunch of hands-on newbieís, whether kids or adults, and tries to hold their clumsy, tyro hands through some stages of a rudimentary project. Some of them will fail and it will be your fault. Some people can't use a knife and fork properly either and these people will want to use the bandsaw to make tiny animals. I have done this type of class, both for 5-12 year-olds, and for adults. I can fully see the need for some form of liability insurance in this first case.

For a while after that, part-time only, I did sessions where I offered a series of "Masterclasses". I stood up at the front, the students assembled around me, and I demonstrated the techniques and fielded questions from the audience. Like "Making a dovetailed drawer box" or "Turning a stair spindle". This is a much safer approach. If they want to stab themselves and others they can do it in the privacy of their own mancaves.

There are probably liability issues in this second approach too, many of which I tried to sidestep by mumbling "do not try this at home..." as a humorous aside 50 times per class. For a lot of people, myself included, there is pleasure in watching an expert at work. Some people understand the long hours of practice that go into developing such expertise. Some never will. But if you are a good, inspiring instructor you will attract students. Let them come to you to be inspired. Let them screw up on their own time. Talk to a lawyer anyway.

From contributor O:
I also get a lot of requests to do classes for kids but I couldnít see myself supervising a bunch of unruly kids in the shop. All it takes is for one kid to throw a switch or screw around with chisel or nail gun and a serious accident could occur. Just thinking about this would keep me up at night.

Iím not saying not to do it, but it would take a tremendous amount of control in the shop, and you would have to screen your potential students really well, be they teens or adults. I tried this with my own son of 14 years and he has aptitude but no patience for the shop (so far). It was a really trying experience.