The Most Important Skills to Learn

An apprentice woodworker asks what he should concentrate on for a career in the trade, and gets a full helping of good advice. October 2, 2005

I began a two year long furniture design and building apprentice program 6 months ago. I work under a Master furniture craftsman two days each week in his one man shop. He told me before I started he would teach me everything I needed to know to compete with him. I believe he will attempt to teach me all aspects of this business to the best of his ability. I also read books, check out web sites and watch TV shows about woodworking. Iím totally committed to do all I can to be successful when I strike out on my own. However, Iím wonderingÖ what do you think are the most important areas of this craft that I should learn well before I start my own custom furniture business?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
Learn how to sharpen your tools (without the aid of adjustable training wheels, if possible) to the point that it becomes easy and automatic.

I started out using "story poles" and full scale drawings when designing and developing designs for furniture. I have since learned Autocad drafting and now I draw my projects in full scale and 3D if necessary. It's a really great skill in this business.

Document all your processes - you will be surprised what you won't remember about a procedure when you need to do it again a few months or years later. This is a big time saver!

Learn to quickly make jigs and fixtures that are accurate. Build in adjustability, zero clearance refreshability, dust relief champhering, and left and right hand function in one jig.

My most valuable skill is communication - one on one, face to face. Shake their hand and slap them on the back, and laugh all the way to the bank.

Sharpening, joinery, and finishing. Without those skills, all the design and business skills one has are for naught. Unless, of course, you include hiring and personnel management in your skill set.

I will go along with the finishing skill. It is very, very important in fine furniture and a difficult skill to learn on your own or watching TV shows. The other thing I'll add is to learn to do 90% of your work by making templates/layouts of your work before beginning or cutting the good stuff.

As a finisher, I appreciate the votes and must say that a skilled furniture maker is who I have respect for, also. I think the most important skill is at the heart of all of our trades and some are better than others at picking it up... observation!

I'm going to throw in a suggestion that might cause some ire here. Learn the law of diminishing returns. Unless you strive to be a craftsman of the caliber of Sam Maloof or Jere Osborne (both of whom I've studied with), you will find that the real world is not prepared to pay you $15,000 for a chair.

I currently have a young man working with me in much the same way as you. While I do show him the intricacies of hand cut dovetails and hand chiseled mortise and tenons, I also show him the speed of biscuits, pocket holes, and loose tenons.

I've found that the biggest issue is getting the piece done. And often, beginners try to get it 100% perfect, when, in reality, 90% will put you 50% ahead of a lot of people throwing things together out there. That itty bitty sliver of a misaligned joint that you worry over for hours would, in fact, never be noticed by the client. I'm not saying that you should accept mediocrity... I'm simply saying there has never been a commission that I delivered when I could not see the mistakes I made. They would jump right out at me. However, the client never noticed them. You are building something for a regular person, not another furniture maker.

The two skills I think are the most important (after learning to use tools) are... Developing an eye for proportion and design. Osborne taught me to keep a small sketch pad with me at all times. Whenever I see a pleasing shape, I sketch it... be it a piece of furniture or something in nature. And finishing. I can't tell you the number of pieces I've seen, when asked to jury some shows where the design, wood selection and execution are perfect, but the finish sucks. A good finishing job will cover a ton of ills.

Save all your money while you work for a boss and later buy the best machines, which will be a pleasure to work with and give you the best accuracy. Your first few years may not have the same returns as your last with a boss, so save while you can! On your weekends, start now with chainsaw milling your timbers wherever you can find logs at good prices or freebies. Drying now will get them perfect for starting on your own. Look at furniture everywhere and work out the style you prefer and start that sketchbook. Let nature and the timber you collect get the imagination going. Maybe, at the end of your training, go work in London or get some experience and insights on how others do it.

The skill not yet mentioned is record-keeping. Look in on the Cabinetmaking Forum for discussions about pricing - a common issue is what it takes you to produce the product. You have a real opportunity to get two year's worth of data on your productivity before you have to work on your own.

How much time was spent with a client in marketing and design, to produce drawings and lists, to order and receive material? How many contacts did not result in a contract and how much time did they take? How long did it take to break out and process sheet goods, to surface and mill stock, to cut to final size, etc? What did your boss and you do other than production work each day - where are your hidden labor costs? For example, cleaning, maintenance, accounting/government reporting, rework, making jigs. What did it take to correct a real mistake and what caused it? Where are you weak? What tools are you using most - what do you actually need as a first equipment set? What shop supplies do you consume and how much? Spend 1/2 hour after work each day creating and organizing your personal data so that, when you open on your own, you have a chance of surviving the first year.

It's all about the processes after you have designed your project. Learn wood movement characteristics in the different species of woods. How to check the moisture contents of woods and how they affect gluing, staining and finishing. What tools to use for the end result you are trying to accomplish. Shop safety is very important, so learn what a machine can do to you as far as injuries go, i.e. blade bind, kickbacks, sawdust in your lungs, etc. And finally, finishing your piece of art. Unless you will be farming that end of your work out, you can spend almost as much time learning the finishing trade as you do your woodworking trade. After all, finishing is the icing on the cake. A beautiful piece of handmade furniture with a crappy finish is a crappy piece of furniture.

The mechanics of the trade aside, learn all you can about marketing, sales, promotion, record keeping and taking good photographs of your work. And above all, learn from your mistakes, in whatever aspect of the business.

From the original questioner:
Thank you all for your replies! You have given me a lot to think about and work on. I'll start the sketchbook and I've added quite a few new goals for '05. I'm required to do four projects in my apprentice program, so I'll keep records of time and materials for each one and the regular shop work. And finishing; I thought there was more to it than sand, seal and shoot lacquer! Iím good with the CAD work, have been doing it off and on since í86. I do it 32 hours per week now to pay the bills.

The skills required to be a good craftsman and the skills required to run a successful business are different. Good thing that you know CAD - it's vital to running a business. I would add typing to the list, which is so basic that many people don't think about it. The ability to type 90+ wpm will make you a heck of a lot more efficient on the computer and free up a lot of time for other things. A little HTML and Photoshop doesn't hurt, either. Best of luck to you, and if you find that you don't want to run a business, send me a resume.

Quality is the main thing. If you maintain high quality, everything else will fall in place. If you find shortcuts in making your furniture which compromise the quality, you have lost the love of doing it and it is now a job. You will gain wealth as you gain your experience. It does not have to come on your first job. My practices go against everybody else's, but I am never without work. It has paid for my home and I am happy.

My business is furniture and cabinetmaking and while I would not want to do anything else for a living, you must remember that you have to make a living. Materials are fairly easy to figure - it is the labor that is so tricky to get a handle on. I keep a notebook and I write down every day what I do and how long it took. I do this for every project, no matter how small. We all do the same types of repetitive tasks - building cases, mortises and tenons, cope and stick, sand, etc. After a while, you can figure out a system for how long these procedures take for a specific type of project.

A wise businessman in an unrelated field of work shared something with me about 10 years ago that applies to any successful business - "work on your business, not at your business." For me, it has been a long, uphill struggle. At the end of the day, the very best woodworker can be left with nothing if time is not spent on developing clients and seeking out new sources of revenue. In other words, woodman and businessman involve two completely different sets of tools and skills. Best of luck in your new endeavor.

Learn how to live cheaply - it's a skill that you're going to need. Also, remember it's just a job, not your life. This is the most important and difficult to master - it's more important to be a good talker than a good tradesman. Talent can always be hired, but without the sales, you're dead in the water.

I think you already possess the number two skill on my list - the ability to ask questions and the burning desire to commit yourself to being the best.

Sales, promotion, communication = listening, understanding what the customer wants, understanding when to buy new/used or to lease, how to price your product so you make more profit than anyone else. It is the business end of things that is important if you want to be the owner of a business.