Is There Any Future in Woodworking?

      A young shop owner starts an informal survey of whether it's a field that's worth spending your life in. October 13, 2010

I am 27 years old and I have a small one man shop with a few nice machines. I am single and don’t have many bills so building cabinetry gives me a great amount of freedom and provides a decent living. However, sometimes I wonder if this is a career that will allow me to move beyond living a sweet single life. Today I ran into my old boss from 13 years ago. He is now about 90 years old and he’s been building cabinetry for his entire life. He was emphatic that cabinetry is not a good field to be getting myself cemented into. I have heard this same pessimistic tone from other old timers and it has me wondering. So I decided to post this and get a larger sample of what cabinet makers think about their field. Maybe some other young guy will benefit from this as well. Thanks for your responses.

• How long have you been in the cabinet business?
• Do you enjoy your job?
• Do you have any employees?
• Would you rather have a larger shop than you currently have or smaller?
• Do consider yourself to be “making money”?
• If you could go back in time would you choose the same career? If yes, would you do anything differently?
• How many hours per day do you work?
• Does your career give you enough time to spend with family?
• Do you feel that you make enough money?
• Do you feel that your job is more stressful than others?
• Is this a field that can make you wealthy?
• Would you encourage others to enter this field?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor A:
My neighbor of many years died recently. He was a machinist by trade and an investor by inclination. He started buying stocks in 1925 and never sold anything. He was an incredibly wealthy man. When he was a younger man he spent summers working in Alaskan canneries. His job was to keep the place running during season. In his off hours he would putter around the shop and build woodworking equipment. With what he could forage from the grounds he was able to build a bandsaw, a table saw and a drill press. These weren't particularly good looking machines but they were very sophisticated. He spent his last few years in an assisted living sort of place. The only thing he wanted from his previous life was some photography of those machines. At 90 years of age those were the memories that meant the most to him. There are not very people that get to spend their career doing what others would select for a hobby. We are very fortunate in that respect. If you look at this industry from a philosophical perspective I think there is a lot of opportunity yet to mine. Bankers have things like current ratios, ROI etc. Construction people have the dysfunction/opportunity ratio. Nowhere else will you see so many dollars floating around such chaos.

Look at the construction of any home. The most expensive purchase anybody makes is managed by people who, in large measure, haven't had 30 minutes of formal training in anything to do with management. Always remember, it's your competitor who sets your price tag for you. If he insists on running a sloppy organization you have some extra dollars available to you to work with.All you have to do is be willing to pick them up (be willing to get outside of your comfort zone and do the things that you prefer not to do).

From contributor J:
I am 29 years old and I have been in the cabinet business for most of my life. My grandfather built cabinets for years and my father is in the cabinet business also. I believe you have to do what makes you happy first. The cabinet business can be very tough, but the way I see it is, if the business was all that bad then the old cabinet makers would have been out of business years ago. My dad and I make a decent living and love doing so. I am not sure you can ever get rich, but there is more to life than money. If you love what you are doing and are making money at it then keep on. One question for all is "if all the old cabinet makers retire or quit, who will build custom cabinets?" If you like building cabinets then keep on making sawdust, work hard, have faith, be honest and your business will grow. I know mine has.

From contributor R:
• How long have you been in the cabinet business?:
I grew up in my father's shop and at 17, moved to a bigger city. There, I found employment with a large manufacturer and worked there for 3 1/2 years. I moved back to my original hometown and worked at my father's shop for two years. I served in the military for eight years. I came back and took over my father's shop and have been here for the past 26 years as owner.

• Do you enjoy your job?
It is "A Tale of Two Cities" on this question; it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

• Do you have any employees?
Over the past 26 years, mainly myself and my wife. I do have a sub-contracted installer.

• Would you rather have a larger shop than you currently have or smaller?
I am quite happy with a 5000 sf shop.

• Do consider yourself to be “making money”?
Yes, and would love to make more.

• If you could go back in time would you choose the same career? If yes, would you do anything differently?
Yes, I would either have stayed in the military or have gone into law enforcement, which is what I did in the military.

• How many hours per day do you work?
13 hours/5 days. Eight plus/minus hours actually in production.

• Does your career give you enough time to spend with family?
I am empty nested, it’s only my wife and myself.

• Do you feel that you make enough money?
Again, it's a decent living, love to make more. Who wouldn't?

• Do you feel that your job is more stressful than others?
I've had worse.

• Is this a field that can make you wealthy?
It depends on the person's drive and stamina. I'm happy where I'm at, for now anyway.

• Would you encourage others to enter this field?
That depends on the person's desire. If the love creating and building things, yes. If they are just wanting to find a business to simply become wealthy, no.

From contributor K:
Reading between the lines, what it really sounds like you are asking is - is it worth it? Whether that is as a career or in the money you can make. Only you can really define that for you, so a poll on how what others are doing really doesn't equate to you in real life.

Something to consider, your business is a tool to give you the life you want - whether that is satisfaction of being a woodworker, the freedom to do what you want, or get the income you desire. That does not mean that you cannot do other things to make your money work for you. One of the posters showed how he used his income to invest in stocks. There are a myriad of other investment opportunities out there, but you are in a great position in life to take advantage of time.

What a lot of guys do is work backwards. They only look at short-term and not long-term and want all the rewards without all the real work. Now, that will cause a knee-jerk reaction of "I work hard, real hard", and what I will tell you is that they are right, they are working hard, and that's it, and that is why most struggle. What you might want to consider doing is defining your end-game, and work backwards from there. I will give you a roadmap of what you must accomplish in a set period of time. If your income from woodworking will not provide this solely, you must make your money work for you, but that will require saving more than you spend, both in your personal life and your business life. Even as a single-man shop, it is not one amount to be saved. Your business and personal savings are separate - sounds hard, doesn't it? It is, but unless you put the effort forward, don't expect the return.

From contributor W:
This is a low-barrier-to-entry business, often an off-shoot of someone's hobby, so the financial rewards are going to be hard-fought. Only you can weigh your life's priorities and balance between job satisfaction/financial rewards/free time available/etc. If you want to make money, become an electrician.

If you want to do cabinets but want to make more money, take some business classes, get a business plan software package, talk to some business owners (who will often tell you plenty)/read a lot of books (I like the one about theory of constraints by Eli Goldratt). If you want to make money, you will have to think of your business as a business, but then doing so will take you farther away from the 'art' that drew you into this work in the first place. You have to find your balance.

From contributor T:
"This is a low-barrier-to-entry business, often an off-shoot of someone's hobby, so the financial rewards are going to be hard-fought." That was very well put sir. The next generation will have to compete with the global marketplace in the next twenty years in ways my father and grandfather didn't have to.

I've heard it said once that "employers pay their employees just enough so they won't quit and employees work only hard enough so that their employer won't fire them." It's a vicious cycle. Unfortunately us young guys get swallowed up in this cycle and end up like the old pessimistic shop owners and foreman that we admire for their expertise in the craft. What the young guys don't realize is that their expertise has often come at a price. Not just the price of hard work, but also the price of being swallowed up in the vicious cycle himself. As the saying goes "the young men know the rules, but the old men know the exceptions to the rules."

From contributor S:
I am happy doing what I am, as mentioned if you wish to make a real go of things you need to have a plan and set hours. I used to work all the time but that was in the beginning, now it is Mon-Fri with normal hours. I am also scheduling this year for one week a month off so that I can enjoy the fruits of my labor, and as always my four week fishing trip in September.

Regarding money it is whatever you think that you will need or would like. All business has good and bad, but you really need to find your market, and go after it. There is no easy money other than the lottery and I am sure that would have its issues. I am a one man shop which is 1800sq, I don't think that I need a larger one, but would like one. It might seem big to some, small to others. For me I love what I am doing and it pays me well. I just recorded a record day for me with over 100k in sales, so maybe I have some rose colored glasses on now, but things have been good even through these times. I am hoping and believe that my son will take the business over and would tell anyone if this is their passion then go for it.

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