Too Old to Start Out in Woodworking?

Is 39 too old for someone to take up the woodworking trade (or business)? The consensus here is, heck no. January 20, 2010

To keep a long story short, would it be ridiculous for me to consider moving into a woodworking career (I would be starting as a newbie) at 39? I'm currently working in the arts, but finding that it is not where I want to be. I've worked with my hands all my life and have good mechanical ability, but have not dealt with woodworking in any kind of serious, concentrated way. My main concern is the age. Too old? Thoughts?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor L:
Starting your own business at 39 to do woodworking would be the best way, but unfortunately you lack the experience in the hands on. Best be would be to try to get a job with a local woodworker or shop. With all the modern machinery a lot of skill is no longer required to do basic cabinets and simpler projects. This is doubtfully where you want to be put though. If you can find a place to work that is willing to train you, and you are dedicated and reliable you should be able to get in. It would usually take you about three years to get the basic skills down pat and to learn some of the machinery in woodworking. Setup and jig making skills will get you a long way if you can learn them and know how to implement them. I do not think that 39 is too old. You will probably have to put up with the crap work at the beginning, like any newbie would.

From contributor W:
Go for it! Since I am knocking on the door of 55, I may be prejudiced here, but IMHO, you are nowhere near too old to start. The fact that you bring some maturity to the table, (I assume) you will be attractive to any shop looking for someone they can train and expect to hold on to afterward. Your other talents should have been proven by now, and if you have a record of "sticking to it" in other fields, that will make you all the more attractive.

I suspect that the biggest obstacle will be whether you are willing to work for what would ostensibly be entry-level wages. If you prepare your case beforehand for overcoming that objection, then all the better. However, if your expectation is that you would be offered above entry-level wages because of prior experience outside the field, then good luck and a fair wind, because you will need it.

From contributor G:
You donít give a lot of information in your post, so most of what I say here is an assumption. I am 40. I have also just started full time at my own business last year and I can say that woodworking can be frustrating but if you love it and have good basic skills than go for it!

If you have been reading the posts lately youíll know that business is down and so are the wages. Unless you have something solid you would be better to preserve woodworking as a hobby and wait till things pick up and you have more experience. I can say that so far I havenít had much of a salary but I have not expected much either so itís not been a disappointment.

From contributor Y:
I started at 52 when I got laid off. The difference was I had studied furniture design in college, had been buying tools for 15 years and I have worked with wood in one capacity or another almost all of my life. But taking the step to go full time seemed like the right thing to do then, and now, almost 8 years later, I am glad I did it.

From contributor Z:
At 39 I presume you've already put 20 some years into the arts and have some financial security from it. If so, go for it. You've got the possibility of 30 plus years left to do it. If you don't at least try you will always regret it. Be for warned you will not sock away a lot of cash. You can make a living, and that is relative to your needs. There's more to work than money but itís a whole lot better when you have some. At 53 I am coming up on 30 years at this and looking at never retiring till I'm cold. The last 27 have been on my own. I would do it all again - a little differently but not much.

From contributor C:
You're not too old and a lack of experience isn't necessarily a stumbling block. I started my business at 35 (25 years ago) with no cabinetry or building experience. The first two years I farmed out (sub-contracted) a good deal of my work to other shops because I either didn't know how to build the project or I didn't have the equipment needed. As I watched and learned over the first few years I farmed out less and less until I didn't need to anymore. I'd say it's not a matter of age, but a matter of being able to sell yourself (to find work), persistence, knowing how to manage the financial end of your business and the creativeness to figure out the best way (for you) to complete a project (even if it is having someone else build it for you). Many times over the years I have bid on projects with no clear idea of how I would go about building them. If I got the job I either figured it out myself or I would consult with a "friendly competitor". I believe that if you want it bad enough, you will find the ways to get to where you want to be.

From contributor B:
I went from a remodeler to cabinetmaker six or so years ago and I'm 63 now. What's too old? Go for it!

From contributor H:
Sam Maloof enjoyed woodworking daily until his death at the age of 93. That would give you 54 years in the business. Go for it!

From contributor L:
Define a woodworking career. 39 too old - no, but set goals carefully!

From the original questioner:
I just want to take a moment to give a really big thanks to everyone for responding. Your thoughts and feedback are really insightful and helpful for me - I really appreciate it (and I hope the comments are helpful for others, as well). I'm definitely considering this out of passion and appreciation for fine craft more than I am for money, and I know I have picked a terribly time to consider the move due to the economy. Thanks again for taking time out to share your experience and advice!

From contributor R:
Youíre never too old to learn and it sounds like you really have a passion for it. Quality and hard work always pays off. Best of luck.

From contributor C:
At 39, do you feel old? At 50, I now realize how young 39 really is and still hope I have my best years ahead of me. I started my full-time woodworking business at 45 and haven't looked back. I assume you're considering working for someone else in a cabinet shop or furniture building setting. I'd suggest you not quit your day job and see if you can find a part-time position somewhere to give this a try. It's not a good time to burn bridges in this economy. As others commented, you'll find that wages are low for entry level jobs and not great for more experienced hands. If you like the work and the money works for you, enjoy a great new career! Good luck and let us know how you make out.

From contributor M:
Accelerate your learning by becoming an employee in as high-end a shop as you can find. Yes start at the bottom, sweeping if you must! Be aggressive in your quest for understanding, knowledge, and skill. Remember true speed comes from first understanding and second practice. Come early and stay late on your own time! Let them know that "show me how and I'll help you" means you will be helped! Knowledge and skill is invaluable! Oh yes, it is portable. If you have the thirst (enjoyment) you will be self motivated. Read everything, think, talk, question, and then out work (silently) everyone. Develop scars on your tongue as you keep a cork on your attitude and pride. Actions rather than words. If you are surrounded by skilled craftsmen you have the opportunity to grow faster than you ever will on your own!

From contributor J:
39 is not too old. I'm 58 and in good shape, many forget that woodworking is a physical activity - unloading plywood and lumber, deliveries, working at the saw all day long, sanding. If you take care of yourself you will be physically stronger in 20 or 30 years vs. sitting behind a desk on a computer all day long. Getting help with deliveries and other more difficult tasks would be a good idea. Most of the people I meet think I'm only 50. The secret is working for a living and staying in shape. All of this physical work does help keep my diabetes in check (watch the donuts).

From contributor D:
I will echo all the positive responses here, but add a caveat. Woodworking is a huge generic term - you should spend some time thinking about what is attracting you to the field and visualizing your life as a modelmaker, boatbuilder, timber framer, museum collection conservator, turner, instrument maker, or any of a thousand other niches. I once met a guy that made Conestoga wagon replicas - very cool work, and he had a comfortable backlog of orders. Niche work is the most stable, and at the other end of the spectrum from board pushing. But do realize the art furniture maker is the toughest field to survive in, with low/no entry threshold and a constant influx of inexperienced and ill-prepared people competing for the same customer.

From contributor H:
If you can cooperate with other people, you're 90% of the way there. The woodworking skills are easy to learn. Getting along with other people is one of the most important skills needed for running a business. If you can listen to other people, treat them with respect, be honest, and meet their needs, they will be more apt to hire you. Also, others will give you some technical help if you act this way with other woodworkers. I have met excellent craftspeople that are impossible to deal with. I try to hire decent people first, and the work comes out better.

From contributor A:
To add my opinion to a few points here. You are not too old. Age is a relative number. People always said that I was too young when I first started, but the folks who want to judge based on age will soon forget that when you prove what you can or cannot do. Remember that "I don't know" is an acceptable answer in a shop (or at least my shop). Follow that with "but I want to learn" and you have the winning combination. Better for you to not know and ask than to waste time, material, or get yourself hurt.

If you have been working in "the arts" then you probably are pretty used to low wages and somewhat inconsistent pay - donít let that deter you. It may upset your wife/significant other and may be a hardship on your kids, so that is something to consider. Times aren't real great for anyone right now, so that could be good or bad for you in several respects.

I learned what not to do from the worst of them. I learned a great deal about the "right" way to do things by sitting back, watching, and asking questions over the years and then taking the opportunity to get "free" shop time with my own materials whenever I could before I had my own tools and a shop. That is a great way to hone your skills.

Remember that idealism is slightly overrated in this business. I have built some really ugly stuff over the years that I would not have lived with in my own house. The customers always love the end product and that's what matters the most. I have thought to myself "well, if you want a library full of brown painted cabinets with canary yellow interiors, then more power to you". They wanted them and wrote the check - that's what mattered.

Most studies that I have read and most people that I have observed over the years tend to confirm that it takes five years of full-time work or 10,000 hours to become truly skilled and well-versed in techniques and practices. Don't get frustrated. I will quit learning when they plant me in the dirt - every day there is something new. Just don't lose you drive to learn.

We only get one trip around on this great big spinning ball. Assuming that I live to be 85, then I will have been doing something that I loved for over 70 years, thanks to my dad's back yard hobby shop. Making a living doing something you love and are passionate about certainly makes life a little more worth living.

From contributor R:
You are never too old to start something as long as you can finish it! I have a few questions for you so that we can give you some sound advice.

1. What experience do you have in the woodworking field?
2. What business experience do you have?
3. What equipment do you have?
4. What market are you aiming for? i.e. residential cabinets, custom furniture, commercial casework, architectural millwork?
5. How are you going to finance yourself until you start making a profit?

In my humble opinion, question number two is the one that will determine whether or not you will make it. There are plenty of good craftsmen out there and very few businessmen. Unfortunately, we have to be both.

From contributor P:
I started at 47, with a Sears redial arm saw, a drill, hand sander, and a few more tools, but with a great drive to learn. Now, 28 years later (Iím 75,) I still love the work and I've been able to pay my bills, enjoy music and friends.