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Just looking for experience and wisdom?6/11
I was wondering, if you were a 1 or 2 man operation, with all the equipment, what would you build?
Retired now, but always built what came in. I worked for designers and builders, never restricted products.
Well, Im soon to be 47. Not sure how much wisdom I can share, but here's my experience.. I Spent my early life working first for my father's business and then the past 23 for myself.
We always were a general woodworking shop, doing an even mix of cabinetry, furniture and mill work.
Currently I have a 6000 sq foot shop, decently outfitted with what we need to do what we do (three man custom shop, residential jobs predominantly working directly with the customer)
To answer your question -- I love this job. I love it because I do what I enjoy doing. A great mix of residential furniture, custom kitchens and other cabinetry, plus stairs and railing jobs, base and other trim, etc. Every week is different. Keeps things super exciting and always interesting. But, it isnt as profitable as stream lining to one basic system/setup - makes it impossible to hire someone that can actually start working without months (and years) of training. We do modern stuff, we do traditional and everything in between.
If I were looking at my business as a purely financial entity - like every other shop around, I would have three pieces of equipment, produce melamine boxes and buy in everything else and just focus on Euro style "custom" kitchens. And be easier to hire employees, because they only need to know how to do one or two things VS literally thousands of individual skills.
But, I love making doors, and drawers, and trim, and doing our own turnings, etc etc etc. I dont want to be like every other shop. Id rather make less $$ and keep the next 20 years of my career as interesting as the last 30.
Id rather have a shop full of machinery and the skills to use it, than just a CNC/edgebander and make more $$ but not love to go to work every day.
Everyone is different. You need to figure what's more important to you.
You have some great advice from Rich and Andrew. Good question as well.
I have had a cabinet shop since 1986, I am 67 years old. I have a 12,000 sq ft shop with another 1,500 for showroom and 1,500 for office and inventory/hardware. I have so much equipment, it would take two pages to list it all. Some rarely gets used. I rarely sell any equipment. I wish I had a 5 x 10' hot press for veneer work and making doors. I now have a crew of four full time and one part time working in my shop with a draftsman, a designer and a salesman working in the office. I split my time between making shop drawings and working in the shop, usually running the CNC router. I did have as many as nine full time in the shop.
Let me share a couple of experiences I have had: In 1987, I had the opportunity to go to a presentation by Sam Maloof. If you do not know who he was, he is dead now, look him up. It was a slide show and he talked about what he did and how he did it. Like most woodworkers, he was self taught.
Sam had been a Draftsman, but he did not like that career and started to do woodworking because he loved doing it.
During his presentation, he showed how he used a router, a Porter Cable router which was very popular in those days. He said he did things with his router that no other woodworkers could do. He said it had become an extension of his arm and he held it with one hand and carved arm rests etc.
In 1989, I went to a trade show in Long Beach, Calif and heard a presentation by a group of industry experts, one of these was Glen Horvath. Glen was the technical adviser for Blum when they wrote their manual for using European hinges, drawers and hardware. Glen had a shop in New Jersey.
Glen said that if he were to give someone just starting out in the business some advice, he would advise them to get a computer. This was 1989 and computers were not what they are today and CNC equipment was not even available to woodworkers.
I later went to see Glen and his shop and it was well equipped for panel processing. I did buy a computer and a design program and that worked out well for us.
I do not believe either of the above shops would be successful today. If I were to give someone advice, just starting out, get a CNC router, learn AutoCAD and try to keep up with the new technology that will be coming along. Robots will be coming soon, even for small shops.
Like Rich, I do not usually turn work away. Like Andrew, I like to do the different and unusual. The benefit of having all the equipment is that you can do a lot more. The problem is you have to have space to set it up and run it and then there are the property taxes that comes with that space and the insurance and the light bill etc, etc.
I have a friend that said having a business like mine is like flying a plane, except you can never land, another called it feeding the beast. It is always hungry and you have to always have something coming in and something going out.
But, I like what I do and I have no intention of retiring. I hope I can live to be 93, working up until I die, like Sam Maloof. Andrew probably said it best, you have to find out what you like to do.
Some say to make what you like, and then sell what you make. Others say to make what sells. Nice, taught phrasing, but not a lot of help.
Specializing is good in my book, because you can be the 'man' much easier in a specialty rather than in all things. You have to live a long time before you are called The Man for doing everything.
I do doors as a specialty, and everyone knows that. I have little competition locally, but doors only make up 40-50% of the work we do. I make sure everyone that wants to talk about doors becomes aware of our furniture, our stair parts, our specialties, veneer work, turning, etc. This often leads to other work.
Andrew and rich both have good advice, though I would disagree with the remark that 'both shops' - meaning the Maloof shop and the early adopter computer panel shop - would not make it today.
Maloof's shop was an extension of his life, just as the router was an extension of his arm. He found his own path, and stayed 100% true to that path. Eventually (it took a while....), people came to him and hated what he made. His pieces now are some of the more valuable wood furniture items sought after. He is also widely copied - a fine form of flattery.
There is always a place for Fine Craft and Art, but it is rarely achieved by someone with a box making background.
But, it takes balls to stay the course. I started early to draw lines - no P lam. Then no particle board, then no Euro hinges, no 1-3/8" interior doors, etc. This means that I now get the odd, and difficult things. But, these also have no price attached to them, so I am free to price where I want to be, not what the market dictates.
Too much of the answer depends completely on your location, local demand, and shop capacity.
For instance, our shop is in a very rural area. Much of the work you see here on WW doesent even EXIST in our world. We have multi-million dollar homes being build by trades and contractors who are all at the Lowes or Home Depot "contractor desk" every morning filling up their travel mugs. Its nauseating.
Yet I have friends who own small shops in more "developed" areas who could shut down their entire shops production and just make doors or drawers feeding other local shops. If you struck out on that specialized business model here, you had better have ZERO debt because your going to be dead broke in a flash. Beyond dealing with a limited market, you will more than likely be out-sourced from out-of-state national suppliers that can feed cheaper and faster than you. Your saving grace will be fast turn arounds on cusomter/contractor/designer f**kups which will make you look good but cost you dearly in re-setup times.
Finding your niche is a bear unless your in a boom, or bare, market. One you have enough work to keep a lot of small feeders busy. And the other your left trying to compete on all levels from a full kitchen, house of trim.... down to a single vanity or a 10' piece of reproduction molding.
Thanks for all the great replies, I enjoyed everyone of them.
The reason I asked this question was it seems that as I get older, I hope I am also getting wiser, but it appears to me that the wood working business requires so much equipment, so much overhead when you think about power to run the stuff, heating a shop and even more heat when you are finishing your stuff, insurance, extra equipment like forklifts to unload material, etc.
If you do everything then you require a lot more equipment, thus the idea maybe specializing in something is a smarter way to go. I am fairly close to a population of 1.3 million people so I think there might be demand for some specialized products. I know MDF doors are very popular with the home builders, but I am not a huge fan of working in MDF dust all day long.
I guess I see the trades on site and the electrician has a tool belt and the plumber has a tool box and the flooring guys have a miter saw and a table saw and they all have a few specialized pieces of equipment, but nothing like a cabinet shop.
Like others have said, I love to build cabinets and whatever needs to be build, but I often wonder, could one or two machines and the right product be a wiser more profitable choice?
Look at it the other way: If you could spend your days doing exactly what up you want, what would that be? Dream big, now is the moment you have to determine, to live the life you only dreamed of. Someone has to do it, why not you?
Start by planning where you want to be in a month, a year, a decade. You can't do it overnight unless you have sold yourself short. The time it takes will give you time to learn the craft that will take you there.
I recently read where a millwork educational program spent time "educating so you can talk with your clients as a peer, not a hired hand". I know many of my repeats by their name, not Dr this, or Your Honor that. They are just people, and I am more than a hired hand. It is a nice casual relationship where I can be myself, and they can be themselves.
What would you make if you could make anything? Don't worry about cabinet numbers reported in the mass media, or housing starts. That will destroy you soul faster than anything.
"I guess I see the trades on site and the electrician has a tool belt and the plumber has a tool box and the flooring guys have a miter saw and a table saw and they all have a few specialized pieces of equipment, but nothing like a cabinet shop."
This is a common observation that makes us all angry or frustrated. Why are the carpenters making more money than the highly skilled craftsman from the shop?
The reality is the shop is a manufacturing business. The trades operate as a service business.
If you want to make money in the construction industry do not own a manufacturing business.
We are successful because we can take on upper end architectural woodworking & finish carpentry work. The cabinetry is all beaded inset face frame. We can make or easily outsource the moldings & trim. We bill between a decent sized and a finish carpentry crew. 2/3rds contract 1/3 T&M depending on the year. We bill the same if we are nailing up trim or building cabinetry.
We are essentially the modern version of old school carpenter/craftsmen. The upper end builders and designers like our work and respect our position in the team it takes to build an upper end residential house.
We are in the New England. High end is very high so I like to say upper end. High end in our neck of the world is when guys like David Sochar are doing all of the woodworking. That is not us. We do not have that level of craftsmanship. We are one or two steps down on the ladder.
"That will destroy you soul faster than anything."
Does that apply if you don't have a soul to begin with?
I built and sold my first piece of custom furniture 45 years ago, working in my parents basement, while still in high school. It's all I ever really wanted to do. I started a small shop, working by myself after graduating, but over the next ten years moved more into custom homebuilding. I still had my shop but built mostly product for our custom homes. Over the years I took on bigger and bigger building projects, with more and more employees until I was nothing more than a manager of all these projects and people. I wasn't sleeping at night worrying about "feeding the beast" and then in 2007 things went bad quickly with work slowdowns and health issues. When the dust cleared I sat down with my wife and decided to go back to what I loved in the first place, working with wood. I now have no employees, do about 80% high end kitchens and some custom furniture. I bought my own sawmill, own my own timber lot, and enjoy getting up and walking the 300' to my shop hidden in the woods. I'm booked out 6 months to a year and have had to learn to say no to jobs. I may never be rich but I'm actually making more money now then ever before. I'm fortunate to live in an area that there is a good demand for what I produce though. Don't overlook small products though if you are concerned about a market. Custom jewelry boxes can be shipped anywhere in the world. I have a machine shop friend who makes custom motorcycle parts for restoring Indian motorcycles, ships to almost every country on earth.
I think it reasonable to class woodshops into two groups. Those like John B's current shop and my current shop would be lone artisan, even though they are often neither. But they have at the heart a knowledgeable person that knows what to do and how to do it, and chiefly does it because they enjoy the work.
Often, they are so successful at the the Lone Artisan that they morph into the Corporate Man the other class of shops. Some enjoy this, some do not. There is no given formula to make such a transition. While many Lone Artisans long to become Corporate Man, what they often want is security. Of course, being Corporate Man is no security, but it looks like it from that shop in the woods.
Neither shop is better than the other, but it may serve us well to think about our place along this continuum. I know now that the Corporate Man is not my life. My soul would die quickly, forever splitting the next Lean hair and staring at a screen all day, notating the minutes, indeed seconds lost by too long bathroom breaks. My Lone Artisan Shop did grow into a Corporate Man shop (albeit with lots of trappings of the Lone Artisan), but it went over the cliff with everyone else in 2009. This Lone Artisan climbed out of the hole and lives on, with a new improved, been there done that, attitude.
The purpose of a Corporate Man shop is to own a business, grow it and make it profitable, ostensibly to sell it one day at a good profit. Nothing at all wrong with that.
The purpose of the Lone Artisan shop is often to give the Lone Artisan something to do that passes for work. This Lone Artisan would be a plague inflicted on co-workers in any other type of situation I can imagine. Most Lone Artisans need the physical work, the cycle of building to make sense of their lives.
I think the lost souls among us never found their particular Lone Artisan position, whatever it may be, hence their souls wander in search of a place to sink their energy. But that is another story.
If one has no soul, or does not know what is meant by soul, they should definitely work to be a top- functioning Corporate Man shop. While success is never guaranteed, at least they will be working within the right context.
Gees, I didn't know you had to fit into a category.
My interest in economics is just that. Maybe piqued by the great recession. As in curious as to why it happened.
Semi Pro tip, it has little to do with politics.
This is turning into quite a posting. In someway, it's good to hear that others have also hit their thumb with a hammer once in a while. I got into woodworking during the real estate crash of the late 1980's and it was a good way to work, building something of value and I stayed with it.
I think, whatever you do, just try to do it well and realize that all the plans don't really mean much, you just have to work to make any plan successful.
I mentioned Sam Maloof above. At the end of his presentation, he opened it up for questions. A member in the audience, and most their were hobbyists, asked Sam how he got his motivation. The hobbyists went on to say that he would start a project, work on it for a while, usually when he came home from work for a few hours but after a while, he found himself leaving the project and sometimes for weeks before he would go back to it. How did Sam motivate himself.
Sam turned, looked at a slide he had on the screen, showing himself holding an arm rest for one of his chairs. He said, you see that arm rest? He said he had probably done over a thousand chairs. That meant he did over a thousand left arm rests and over a thousand right arm rests. He said, at some point, it becomes work and you just have to do it.
Be happy you can work and that there are people that appreciate what you do.
"He said, at some point, it becomes work and you just have to do it."
There ya go, either you do the work or you don't.