Potential of a One-Man Shop

Is it realistic to think a small shop owner can make a decent living? December 9, 2004

I am yet another laid off MBA with a 13 year passion for woodworking. Several years of corporate sales and marketing life has left me with a fine shop, good tools, and a ton of business experience. I also owned a small but successful roofing company, back when I was too dumb to know I could fail. I also worked in a commercial refinishing shop during college.

I suspect I am in a dream world, wanting to build high-end work like so many others when they decided to take the plunge.

Realistically, what is the potential of a one-man shop? I want to be profitable, not big. I do not have a gun to my head from a financial standpoint. Should I work in a cabinet shop first, then decide? How do you get past being your own worst critic or is this part of challenging yourself to do the best work imaginable?

Forum Responses
From contributor C:
You've got a nice shop with good tools. Have you ever built cabinets? Do you have any contacts with builders or architects? Do you know any people in other trades? Do you have any leads for work? Finding work is the biggest headache. When I was in your shoes 3 1/2 years ago, I had good contacts in the trade, but a small shop with decent (at best) tools. I'm still at it, and things continue to improve. I couldn't do it if I had to work alone, though. Handling sheet goods all day with no help is too much. The quantity of work that two guys can do versus one guy is what enables me to make a living.

From contributor G:
I commend you for thinking rationally about this before taking the plunge. I just closed down my one man shop because of cash flow... I simply didn't start with enough. Finances are key, but you know that already. The most successful cabinet shop I worked for was a 2-3 man shop where the owner was a very smart business person. You can find contacts, and work. Market wisely, and try to get a showroom, or a least some demo pieces to show. But it's very tough as a one man show. Way too many hats. If you're determined to stay one person, you must find a niche knowing that you can produce, sell, and market this product all by yourself.

From contributor S:
If you really have a strong desire to be a woodworker, you will find it easy to absorb the knowledge necessary to start actually doing it. There's tons of books, etc. full of the information you need to be successful. The only way to find out if you can do it is to try it. You already have a shop, which gives you a leg up on a lot of starting woodworkers.

There is a learning curve with any trade. Expect and learn from the inevitable mistakes that will happen. Confidence and skill will come with your successes.

There are some advantages that come with being a one-man shop. I say this mostly because of all the laws that come into play when you hire an employee. Don't dismiss hiring if the type of work you end up doing will pay off with help.

The main thing is that you should not approach what you want to do as "dream world" stuff. You have already been successful in your past work. Why can't you be even more successful in something you have a passion for? Money isn't my only definition of success, either. Go for it!

From contributor B:
In my opinion, it would be best to get a job in another cabinet shop for maybe six months. This will allow you to see if you like it and how another shop is run. I also jumped out of the business world to do this and have not regretted my decision yet.

From contributor A:
Well, I'm only 18 months ahead of you. Bit of the same here - furniture maker for fun for 25 years, telecom went bust.

I contacted my best friend of 30 years who had done the same as I as far as the furniture making. We teamed up... two separate (but paid for shops) with good tools. Vertical panel saw at his shop, finishing booth at mine.

With my 25 years of marketing, I realized we needed to define:
1. What we wanted to do... it must be enjoyable.
2. What niches we could serve. We chose furniture, wine cellars (because of my 30 years of experience in wine), and custom built-ins (book cases, entertainment units, etc.).

We recognized that the area we are in would not support a pure furniture making shop. But what we've found in the first 18 months is that the middle-upper and upper income people we are targeting first choose us for, say, a built-in or a wine cellar, and then we are in their homes. From that has come some nice furniture commissions.

Now, at the end of our first 18 months, we actually have backlog and have taken on an apprentice (chuckle… nice to have youth to sling plywood).

While we would love to have a big common shop and show room, we like the fact that we have no debt and that we are working right out of our back doors.

One key to our success has been a website. Luckily, I've designed these for years. You need to make the website of a quality that reflects the quality of your work.

Jobs - Months 1-6:
70% from people we already knew
20% from referrals
10% from website

Months 6-12:
40% from contacts
30% from referrals
30% from website

Months 12-18:
15% from contacts
40% from referrals
45% from website

I wish you luck in your decision. I assure you that the gang here on the forum has a wealth of information and really doesn't mind sharing.

From contributor J:
Contributor A, I have a question for you. I built and submitted my web page last February, and I still can not find my product on a search. Do you have to pay to get listed?

From contributor A:
Don't bother with the "we'll get you placed higher on the search engines" schemes... 90% of them are rip-offs.

It can take up to 6 months for Google and 9 months for Yahoo to spider your site. I know that you can pay Yahoo to expedite this if you want to.

Even when that is done, you need to see about working with other similar sites to exchange links, since that is a strong part of how the search engines rank your site.

From the original questioner:
Thanks a bunch for the responses! So much to think about, but I do like the idea of a two-man operation. My shop is large enough to house two comfortably.

Vocationally, I have built pieces that took my pride to new heights; however, my desire to produce finer and more complicated work has, on occasion, left me with some confidence problems as perfection was not achieved. Maybe a seasoned technician while I work on creativity and business development would be a perfect compliment.

Finally, I promise not to bid low to preserve the pride and well being of professional cabinetmakers. Thanks again!

From contributor X:
My best advice is to visit with all the woodworking shops in your area. You can apply for a job at each site, thereby getting your foot in the door, so to speak. Doing this you will learn much. By keeping your eyes and ears open during these visits you will see and hear about all the different methods, types of work being done, etc. You will see the layout of various shops, jigs that are used and many other useful things, plus the most important thing - communication with the man in charge. Chances are you will get much valuable insight into what you really want to do. You may be offered a job. This doesn't mean you have to accept it, but you will have established a link with the others. And you will come away much wiser than before.

From contributor H:
I am not sure that visiting every shop with the intent to "get his foot in the door" is the best move. If he is just trying to rip off information, it won't cut for anything. Any good shop owner will be able to spot what is going on, and if someone was doing that to me, I would send along a "torpedo". On the other hand, if the questioner was up front and open with reciprocal help (he has other abilities I might not have), I would help him. Making friends of other shops is a good way to help both. Purchasing services that he can not do (machine time) is a good way to get his foot in the door without getting that "torpedo".

From contributor M:
Everybody has to start somewhere. One thing to keep in mind is what contributor B said, "I also jumped out of the business world to do this." I would ask, why is this not the business world? You'd be running a business, wouldn't you? It's my opinion that your decisions as a businessman will define how well your shop can do, one, two, three, four or however many people you decide to have.

From contributor R:
I suggest going to the Small Business Admin site and looking up 'business plans'. There is a lot of thought provoking stuff there. There is no substitute for doing a business plan and there is a link to a software program which is quite helpful in guiding you through it and providing links to many things. You can make it as a one-man shop if you have a good plan and the business skills.

From contributor N:
To answer your question "What is the potential for a one man shop?"…

The general rule of thumb is $100,000 gross per year. Some shops triple that and some only bring in one third that much. I just filed my taxes for my first full year, for my one-man shop, and grossed right at 100k and netted (salary) 50k.

I had no cabinet shop experience, but was a hobbyist with most of the basic tools, like yourself. I am now doing mostly high-end custom cabinets in $500,000+ homes. I expect to gross $150k this year and might have to hire some help, as I'm turning away lots of work.

My first 6 months in 2002 I probably only brought in 10-15k. Make sure you can get past the start-up learning curve.

From contributor S:

Perfection is something to strive for, but I've never seen it. Close to perfect is rare, too. I have installed high-quality cabinets made by major companies, and I remembered being surprised at the gaps here and there inside the body. They figured out that it didn't pay to make everything too tight. They could assemble it much quicker if there was a little looseness to it. Most people don't know the difference, or they won't pay for it. If your market will pay for it, then it makes sense to strive for perfection.

From contributor Y:
A woodworking friend of mine told me many years ago, "It's not how good a woodworker you are, but how well you hide your mistakes." Seems to be a lot of truth to that.

From contributor E:
I think the main difference when going from doing woodwork for one's own enjoyment to making money is speed and quantity. Suddenly you find yourself dealing with batches of components, cutting tenons dozens at a time, for instance.

Accuracy starts to become very important, as hand fitting and trimming each component is out of the question. Tolerances tend to open out a bit. One thing you don't need when gluing up a bunch of doors is to have to take extra time easing tight components.

One thing that's for sure, making money doing woodwork isn't as much fun as doing it for pleasure, but then nothing is, is it?