Learning the Ropes as a New Woodworker

A man making a career change in his forties gets advice on how to learn woodworking. January 20, 2010

I'm most interested in cabinet making or architectural finishing work. Eventually I would like to have my own business, but I have a lot to learn first. I reckon it would be best to find an entry level position in a shop or working with a contractor, even working for free here and there if I had to while I kept my current desk job, or taking wood tech classes at my local community college. I'm very mechanically inclined, have worked with my hands all my life, but I do not have experience in cabinets or fine woodcraft. Any advice about what is the best way into this line of work? I imagine that right now with the economy trying to get into this line of work is especially hard. Thanks for your time and advice.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor B:
Community college is a good idea, it'll flesh out your resume but it won't put you over the top. I'd keep the wanting to start your own company thing under your hat for now though, no one wants to train their eventual competitors. Best of luck to you!

From contributor P:
What contributor B said, but with further refinements:

1. Make a list of all of the shops within a distance you are willing to commute.
2. Try to find out what each of these shops specialize in.
3. Approach each shop that you might want to work for with a phone call or email, saying that you realize that they probably aren't hiring, but can you please send a resume. Here's where you include Beau's suggested language.
4. Make sure your resume is outstanding - neat, spelled correctly, etc. Judging by your writing so far, you shouldn't have any problem with this.

5. Follow up by asking whether you can come see the shop - just to learn something. If you are invited, show up on time. Try to ask intelligent questions about what you see.
6. Afterwards send a thank you. Now you know something about which shops to focus on.
7. Keep after the owners of the shops you want to work at. I find polite persistence to be a very compelling way of standing out from the crowd.
8. If hired, be ready to do whatever asked with a smile on your face.
9. It takes years to make a good craftsman. Be ready for a long haul. Also be ready for failure - desire isn't the only part of the equation. Talent matters.

From contributor M:
I grew up in the construction business so I was able to learn cabinetry sort of as I went. That also means that I made a lot of mistakes and little money in the beginning. The absolute number one thing to understand and accept is that you will be a business owner. Not like Norm on the Yankee Workshop, but like a retail tire store or a printshop. Because we work with wood and make beautiful things using our hands we tend to think of ourselves as craftsmen first and businessmen second. The craftsman mentality damn near broke me. I am still making quality cabinetry (the best I have ever made by the measures that matter to customers) but now I am running a business that makes money. If you want to be a craftsman making things that please you (dovetails, traditional joinery and the things that only woodworkers care about) do it as a side line in your garage. If you want a very rewarding career in the cabinetmaking industry then get schooled.

I am not so sure that working for a shop will get you off on the right foot. The truth is that very few shops are modernized and efficiently run. Even shops with CNC machines are often still selling and conducting business the same way they did 30 years ago. Many shops hold on to old ideas and prejudices that do not make sense in the current market.
Start with the AWFS. Attend every seminar and talk to the dealers about you goals.

Technology does not have to be expensive. Look at the current production systems that use older technology. With my panel saw edgebander and three boring machines I can build circles around the CNC based shops in my area. Develop a budget and figure out what your shop will look like. Read Cabinet Maker and the other trade journals. Most important for me was attending the shows (IWF and AWFS). That is where I learned to make money.

From contributor C:
Bravo. We too run circle around nested base shops. Whether its euro casework, face frames, doors, whatever, we have systems and tooling set up to damn near knock anything out at a staggering pace. We have been approached by many "outsourcing" vendors for our business and I tell each one of them, "Half the job is done, and done well, before you can get a quote back to us." Everyone thinks CNC is the answer, it isn't, well run systems and organization are. I agree on the comments of becoming a business owner. I was darn near broke several times because I tried and tried to work as a craftsman and not think as a businessman.

Top things to start with:
1. Contract/estimate signed by husband and wife short and sweet, scope of work, payment terms, delivery, attached drawings and attached approval design color sheets and intended appliances, etc for direct interpretation of completed project parameters.
2. Automated machinery of some sort for repeatable basic processing. Tigerstop fences, hinging machine, widebelt sander, etc.
3. Good solid software package- Kitchen Builder, e-cabs, etc
4. Quickbooks or Quicken- print your checks and record properly, print out expense reports etc.
5. A goal each and every quarter.
6. Shop mantra to be prompt, finish every job to satisfaction and stay on top of every change- add, and build a solid understanding of truly knowing what you can and cannot do in a time frame.

Pleasing customers is easy as long as explain up front what your intentions are. I would most definitely work in shops before you start. There is a lot to be learned, and I will say that I learned the most by getting in the trenches and spraying and spraying and spraying and spraying, and building hundreds if not thousands of boxes. Remember this - if you are going to get set up building with dados, get a saw or Hersaf panel router that does this one thing and put it into your operation. A well tuned shop with some basic automated dedicated items will save hundreds of hours over one year.

From contributor L:
I have some other thoughts for you. Get some training at the community college level, if you can. I would look at acquiring the basics - router, sanders, workbench, tablesaw, bandsaw, planer, jointer etc. I would stay away from the junk. You can pick up some good tools from used equipment dealers at reasonable prices because everyone thinks CNC is the almighty answer.

Start making things, don't get too caught up in the fine hand tools and such, just get some basics and get it done. I will tell you that I have made solid walnut church pulpits with pinned mortise and tenon joints one week and p-lam bank cabinets the next. Then I jumped to kitchen cabinets on the next project. I started small in my basement part time and dug through the trash to make a router table and bench. I still have those today.

The best advice I can give you is this - nothing will get you further than to learn one technique, refine it and then learn another. I have had many, many conversations with people that tell me they love woodworking, want to make things and yet they won't or don't because they get too caught up in the minutia of joinery and that crap, and they have Lie-Neilsen planes and such that just sit. I commend Norm Abrahams because of his tenacity to tackle projects and think like a trim carpenter and just get it done.

I am a cabinetmaker through and through. I have no patience for junk, bad work or people that take advantage of others. I can appreciate fine museum pieces and at the same time find great pleasure seeing a commercial jobs superintendent's microwave/refrigerator/fax machine cabinet made from concrete form plywood scraps, because it is functional and does its job.

My entire house is full of furniture, handrail, cabinets, and things I have made. I visit houses I worked in ten years ago and see a kitchen I built and it still looks good because I used quality materials, good precat lacquers and followed basic design technique.

Please take opportunity at hand to pick our brains on technique, and explore your options, but, whatever you do, build. Patience is the key to quality. Your speed and understanding of the tasks at hand will pick up with repetition.

I would venture to say if you are looking for a career in this, when you get a job in a shop don't ask too many questions. Good shops will place you on an easy task and allow you to build on it. Our top guy at the shop once told me when he started, that he wished I would let him do more solid surface- he does at least a kitchen a week, along with p-lam, melamine cases and many other products. I did not let him do anything for a couple of weeks but sand and assemble. Now he fabricates entire jobs from drawings, and even goes out to the field and checks for variables. He's been with us two years. When I taught him to spray lacquer, I repeatedly told him, this way only. The shop foreman always contradicted me, and the quality thing hit me in the face in the form of thirty bookcases that all needed a fourth coat. He is now the foreman. He's only done this for two years, and he makes excellent money.

Your options are wide open and if you truly enjoy woodworking you will not regret a change- I left the film and television industry twenty years ago to be home every night and be a part of my childrens' lives. They snack and do their homework on the island I built, place their clothes in the dressers I made, and are getting ready to eat at the new dining room set I am making.