Knowing what you know now and you had a chance to start fresh how would you pursue a woodworking career today?
I'm young and really just getting started. Going into my 4th year with my own business. Deciding how and when to grow is a tough part of ownership.
I've been wanting to ask this question for some time. My only rule is no sour remarks like "Get a bucket and wrenches and become a Plumber." Or "work for the government." I'm looking for answers from those who truly enjoy woodworking as a career.
I suppose it's a bit like wishing to have been more promiscuous before getting married, but I wish I would have worked at more shops before going solo. Perhaps, it's a bit late for you as well. Other things? I would impose a rigid schedule from the start: never work nights or weekends, never not work days, and dilineate office and shop hours, i.e. sawdust in the shop, cell phone in the office. Id go in knowing whether i wanted to be a woodworker or a business person, and I'd make growth decisions accordingly. Businesses grow, woodworkers become more efficient... and persnickety. I'd make upgrades, decisions, character judgements only once: everything made to last, right or wrong, and move on. And I'd keep a reasonable exit plan always within reach. That, and I'd settle in a wealthy town from the start.
Find a niche you like/love and work it hard. Guitars, historic reproduction canteens, magician's cabinetmaker, aircraft interiors, and many more are areas that have plenty of room for young people with skills.
Do not try to make kitchens cheaper than Home Depot unless you have 10 million to invest.
My mistake, after 20 years or working for others and going into business in 1990, was to try to be all things to all people. You get beat up on every job, and it gets old. I pick and choose what I want, and what I know I can make money on.
I have never regretted purchasing quality machinery or hiring quality employees.
Machinery never calls in sick.
I wish I had not stalled so long on most of my purchases especially making the move to CNC.
I agree with what the others have already said, except for mark's one comment about not working any nights or weekends. I didn't work any nights because I'm an early morning person, but I still put in a half day on Saturday because I still enjoy it, like getting the extra work out the door, giving my guys the opportunity to earn some extra money, and not having to answer the phone quite as much.
But I do understand where mark is coming from. You have to enjoy life and have one.
Where I really agree with Randy and the others is buying the best machines you can. I'm now 60 and in my 38th year of woodworking and I upgraded machinery every chance I got to something better that let me improve my quality and make me more efficient.
It really is all about the machinery.
The other thing mark said was to settle in a wealthy town. You have to have a client base that can afford fine woodwork.
Dave is also spot on when he said you can't be all things to all people. You will learn a lot, but will not make good money because you will end up competing with those who have spent much more time honing their skills at that craft. An example would to not compete with David on doors. you could learn a lot, but without his machinery and his understanding of the door making process it would kill you.
Find a niche and get good at it. I suspect a lot the successful 10 man cabinet shops producing kitchens and making decent money all started out as one man operations. Not too many people have the available money to bankroll an operation like that.
It took me a long time to find mine, but I love it.
I'm a second career woodworker. I left my previous professional career at 51 and turned to custom fitted chairmaking. I'm 66 now and still a one man shop. My only wish might be to have started a little earlier, but ...
I love what I do. I love the contact with the clients. Foremost, keep in touch with your clients as you are working towards their project, during the project work, and afterwards to be sure they are happy. The best marketing is your clients telling others they really like what you did for them.
As for machines, that depends on your craft. Machines help but I use handtools about 60-70% of the time. Contract out those tasks you cannot do safely in your shop.
Well if I was going to be honest my first two responses would not help;>)
I think you've gotten some good advice here and there's not a lot I can add. One thing I've noticed being a member here for some years now, is some of the successful guys like David sometimes look back at the building phases of their careers as if they went about things a bit wrong? Or maybe it's more accurate to say they could've done it a better way? Let me elaborate on that just a bit, I've read here several times guys who either built a business up to a larger operation only to scale back towards the later parts of their careers. Or guys who felt they tried to cater to too many different types of work. In both instances implying that they should've done things differently from the start. However my belief is they wouldn't be here today without having gone through that phase of their careers. I take on a fairly diverse scope of work, nothing crazy mind you, but certainly more than just a single product. It's b/c I take many things on I stay busy and am not sitting around waiting for the phone to ring. There's plenty of jobs I look back on and almost wish I hadn't touched them in the first place. However they paid the bills and gave me valuable experience along the way. I have more ability to turn down work today than I did 10 years ago, but I wouldn't be able to turn down anything without having spent time in the trenches building my reputation! And I believe the same would be true for many others.
So I guess the point is to learn as much as you can from guys like David who have not only the experience, but the willingness to share it. But also realize you have to go and make your own mistakes and learn some things the hard way. Building a reputation takes time and growing a business, at least for me, has been the hardest part. Hopefully someday I'll be in position to look back and consider myself to have had a successful career;>)
I think Jeff D has covered me. I did a lot of things at the start but it led to changing out builders stairs and finally to a furniture job every now and then, This may represent a progression in the business or our skills but I still need to use the early skills for the stuff I do for family and friends. I'm long retired (82) but still try to work with wood 5 days a week.
11/20 #10: If you were to do it all over again ...
I would have put more time into building a network of fellow woodworkers, thinkers and learners, industry insiders and advisers and, lets not forget clients. My experience has taught me that there are an infinite number of ways to get things done and making your mistakes vicariously through the experience of others is enjoyable not to mention profitable. It is easy to introvert working in a small shop but, the easiest way to benefit from a community is to reach out. Stay connected and feed your curiosity.
11/20 #11: If you were to do it all over again ...
Just a few comments. I've witnessed several woodworking business's fall on really hard times mainly because they overextended themselves credit wise.
Also witnessed a few downsizing but being burdened by all their assets. Also after nearly15 yrs I have had to admit to myself that I may never build a saleable business like I had hoped. I most likely will earn a middle class wage and then will self off my assets when I retire. Deciding whether to be a businessman in the woodworking business or a woodworker is important. Oh and I agree; learning on the fly is costly and lengthy. Learning from another shop has been invaluable for me. But, its how most of us do it. Great question!
11/25 #12: If you were to do it all over again ...
Thank you all for your honest responses. I'm grateful to have this Website and such good members to glean from.
Hindsight is always 20/20 so I know its hard to say what other outcomes 'might' have been. I'm trying to learn from others mistakes rather than "learn the hard way" ,which I've done plenty over the course of my working life. Enough so that the pain has taught me to avoid the calamity.
Some things that were brought up that I see trending in my work life are as follows:
1)Being all things to all people
2)Separating work time from personal(work lots of weekends and nights)
3)Deciding to be a Woodworker or a Business man.
3)Didn't work in other shops
I can see changing the first two over time as the business grows and I take on good workers but I don't see myself working in other shops unless I stop running my business. Also not sure about having to decide between a Woodworker or a Business man. Honestly I can't imagine surviving without both but I understand the conflicting dynamics.
One struggle for me has been investment capital since I've avoided loans. That means for slow growth and I often end up doing work I don't want to pay bills and make money to invest. So far its working but then the business starts to grow in the wrong direction as I take on tasks that aren't related to my end goal.
Equipment is a tough hurdle in this business due to the high costs. My current strategy for growth has been to invest in better equipment to lower my build times thus allowing more time for the business end(or even personal time). I know some will disagree with this strategy but I'm finding its the easiest method since my prices remain equal but my hourly billables increase.
Not sure if this is a mistake or not but I've tried to offer a diverse product line. I'm trying to portray the image of a Craftsman Woodworker. One who will build/install Cabinets, furniture, and interior millwork. Its been good for me since like others mentioned I'm not 'waiting for the phone to ring.'
One problem I'm encountering is the price of the competition. There are guys in my area who do good work but far undercharge to the point I can't compete. They work for so little and obviously aren't accounting for everything a business needs. One thing they lack is a detailed eye and sense for design. I'm hoping this will push me in the right direction.
Perhaps I'm over eager to reach the target but at times it feels as if I'm inches away.
11/25 #13: If you were to do it all over again ...
Jalvis - One thing you said caught my eye. You mention the low prices of your competition, and how you cannot compete.
Then...don't. Find a way to make your work stand out, so it is not apples to apples for comparison - your work will include more, that's why it costs more. Even if you are bidding cabinets, include a "List of Specifications" with all sorts of things spelled out. Invite comparison on your specifications. The low bidder may not have even thought about how the cases will be joined, or how thick the backs are. If you customer is committed to low bid, you probably won't get the work, but they will call the next time - call the professional - hoping this time they can afford you.
11/25 #14: If you were to do it all over again ...
David beat me to it! If your prices were competitive with theirs you would have a much bigger problem. I know there are guys cheaper than me, but their works shows it. I believe I sell off reputation first and price second. Don't lower your prices to compete, sell your quality and as long as you keep busy your doing something right.
As far as buying and upgrading equipment I've done much the same in my shop. I don't buy new equipment anymore as I found it to be a poor investment. Instead I buy used industrial equipment in working condition, (or close to), and I've been able to accrue a better quality of machinery in my shop.
Lastly, you don't have to decide between being a business man or a craftsperson at this moment. You do want to monitor and self evaluate to see if it works for you over time. It may be that your great at making stuff, but not so great at the business end. In which case you could eventually hire someone for that task. Or it could be the opposite? The key is to be able to step back and evaluate what works for you and where your lacking and be able to delegate if/when necessary.
11/26 #15: If you were to do it all over again ...
Lots of good responses. I didn't take the time to read everyone, and I'm sure that this was probably mentioned, but don't be afraid to charge for your work. If you price your work like you're afraid you will lose the job, you're in trouble. You also need to be realistic with how long a project is going to take, or you will be working lots of nights and weekends.
11/29 #17: If you were to do it all over again ...
Thats true about offering something different. I spend a lot of time selling my services and showing value. I don't even consider my competition when pricing as I know from experience that there will always be someone who will work for less.
I work nights and weekends to keep up with the demand. A lot of my work this year has been commercial which requires night hours and a short window for installation.
My hope for the future is to have a well designed shop that will allow for greater production. That way I don't have to work long hours to keep up. Sometimes just an equipment change will increase productivity. Perhaps a CNC is a good idea. I really don't know what the future will bring but I'm open to ideas and learning as much as possible.
I truly love my woodworking career and to the point where it's not always been healthy from either a business or personal perspective. It's been a passion for me as well as an art form and I believe I've played "the artist" more than the "business man". That's not exactly a good thing for someone who claims to be in business. I've also learned that some aspects of the job can be very addictive and I've been an addict all my life (I am a woodaholic).
It's true,.. I've made some money along the way but plenty of mistakes as well. Truth is, money never mattered much and clients are just an excuse to play in the shop. In fact, clients are mostly a source of frustration since they always seem to want things their way (how dare they).
The fact is, family and friends have been both blessed and cursed as a result of my lop-sided love-affair with the work. I suppose if I could do it all over again, I would hope to do things a bit differently and build some balance into my life (I should think so wouldn't you?)
So much for hindsight though... I yam what I yam and that's all what I yam.
If I were to do it again I'd go to school for furniture making (my chosen path) and maximize my technical skills right from the start. Somewhere like College of the Redwoods or North Bennett Street.
Either of those schools will teach you more technique in two years than you can learn on your own in 10 or maybe 20 years but they both do so at an agonizingly slow pace and you leave able to work at that slow pace. So once you've got the technique down you need to learn how to work faster, much faster, maybe even much, much faster.
Then get a business degree, the business degree will help you actually run a profitable business doing whatever you choose.
12/10 #20: If you were to do it all over again ...
I went to college for an economics degree and soon found out that all you end up with is a piece of paper and debt. I would have been better served working in my preferred field. Not that you can't gain from college but for the accrued cost in todays market i would seriously consider the advantages of not having the debt and wasted time consumption.
Now if I had a fully paid college opportunity thats another story.
12/10 #21: If you were to do it all over again ...
School is just another tool. It only produces good results if you use it well, and ...er, make sure it's the right one. No sense beating a nail with a screwdriver.
And yet, I have to admit that for most woodworkers, self-important as we all are, building the odd kitchen and fancy bits here and there 'aint rocket science. If I were to do it all over again, would I strive to be in the top 1/10th of a percent of our trade? No. So, furniture academia is out. Would I be inspired enough by the allure of building and managing an international manufacturing company? No. So business school's still not in the cards. I'm not saying that either of these skill sets, or the rigour de rigueur of acquiring life's lessons in one's youth, theoretically, and in concentration as a means of channeling all that biological energy into something other than procreation is not valuable... Surely there's value there. It's just that, if all you're gonna do with it is cut up some boards, then like Jalvis said, it's not valuable enough.
The way to do it in the US, is to take an entry-level job, learn what you can, and move on. Always give 100%, and never accept less in return. Call it an apprenticeship program if you like.
A very interesting thread to a very important question. Something I have been pondering since I first posted.
Since my chairmaking is a second career that had the beginnings in a passion for wood as a non-profit driven side of my life. The first career (research geophysics) taught me much of the 'business' lessons but also it taught me the absolute necessity of communication with the client (an important concept to be discussed) what goes into the project flow from idea to finished 'product'.
I avoided working for a 'boss' and worked with a supervisor that was also a co-worker. The best positions I had and cherish were those where everyone knew who the leader was but knew that due to timing or experience anyone of us would gladly work with roles switched around. I hated 'managing' employees and when was being asked to, I left the industry (and a 6 figure pay check).
All of the successful craftsmen/artisans I know and 'network' with, no matter what they produce (fabric, pottery, jewelry, turnings, furniture, ...) all refer to those who purchase their work as 'clients'. This is a foundational thought process that leads to a two-way conversation about the products. It leads to each person contributing and growing.
The result is less compartments in our lives and greatly less stress trying to determine which compartment we are in and a given time. Life is too short to continually be changing 'hats', i.e. family, work, craft, business, friends, church, ...
The result is my chair designs flow from conversations with friends, time with family, building an order with a client, walking in the woods, driving down the freeway, setting up a booth at a conference/show, meditating, ...
Early on in the hobby portion of my woodworking, a pro cabinet maker (who turned to restoration work) said, "As you get older make lighter things."
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