Starting A Woodworking Business From Scratch - Would You Do It?


From original questioner:

Hey folks,

I have a question for those who would care to answer. I am a flat broke homeschool dad that used to run a small tree service. Due to a pretty good fall out of a tree I am no longer pursuing that line of work, although I do miss it very much.

About a year ago the Lord sent me an opportunity to refinish 165 chairs from a local restaurant. It has thus far been a fairly difficult (due to some ignorance) yet rewarding experience. My chairs have turned out very nicely, and my confidence level is growing. I am considering soliciting other restaurants, as there are many with wooden chairs, with refinish and repair being what I would offer at this time. In other words, I am just jumping into this with what experience I have with the restaurant I am currently servicing at this time (my first). I work alone, my shop is very small, my overhead are my utilities and supplies. This is not, while I do enjoy what I am doing , a heart felt endeavor. I just want to make a living for my family. My perspective is solely business, and I am starting from scratch. So here is the long routed question. Would you do it? Would you start from nothing? Why or why not? I am much to my own wounding not afraid to try. I have a tendency to jump into things. Thank you in advance for any advice or answer.

From contributor Le

You're broke and you have an opportunity to bring in some money to your family. I don't really think the question is "if" you should do it. Sounds like you need to do it. Any one of us with our own businesses has jumped into it for various reasons. Mine was I kept getting laid off randomly and brought back in on several different woodworking jobs. Going from a workable wage to unemployment benefits kills any opportunity to build a bank account.

So I jumped into my own business. I was actually pushed there by my employer who was getting out of employees and into independent contractors. So I got my licensing and insurances and already had some tools and a vehicle. And I started from there. Been licensed since '97, been woodworking since '85.

As of late with the economy it's been tough again. Just glad the wife has a good job.

From contributor ca

Do it. Remember to charge enough to run a business properly. With low overhead you can turn a tidy profit. Don't forget to hit your deadlines. Charge a pick and delivery fee in the cost of the process.

I would charge full speed ahead. Don't make it complicated. Just get it done and stay focused..

My old boss was a drunk and never paid me. I have 12 employees now and we hit payroll every 2 weeks.

From contributor ka

Thanks Leo and Cab. maker

I intend to jump in and give it my best. There is just so much I don't know it makes it difficult to quote prices and so forth. I will learn, hopefully not so much by the hard way.
Thanks for the encouragement!

From contributor ca

Are you truly stripping the chairs and furniture and refinishing or just power washing the grime and furniture medic-ing the pieces ?

From contributor ka

stripping down to bare wood, repairing anything needed repaired, and re-staining, sealing, and laquering

From contributor Le

Doing all of that you are likely at the price point of new chairs. Just saying.....

From contributor Ga

If you've already done 165 chairs I'm sure you have some of it figured out by now and apparently are not sick of the work.

Look into flow over or dunk tank systems if you want to speed up the process.

I know in my corner of the world there is room for a good refinisher but it can be tough to charge enough. If the piece has sentimental value the client is willing to pay more.

From contributor ma

So, it sounds like you spent a year refinishing 165 chairs. You might have even given the client a ridiculous deal because you're church pals. Did you make any money? If not, hang it.
I don't like refinishing work, so I'd hang it right there. I get the food for the kids thing, but that excuse has been used for lots of terrible crap. Really, the chemicals are just miserable, and doubly so with a bunch of home-schooled kids around the shop. Hang it: every opportunity to turn a buck isn't divine.

From contributor Mi

It sounds like you already jumped, I am guessing you are mostly wondering if you should continue. I say continue and try to use caution and good judgment. Life is a good teacher, but often hard as you already know.
If you are making money and find the work reasonable, continue until that changes or either a much better opportunity presents itself. I have often done some crappy jobs over the years to make a buck, but most work when done well, is huge door opener for better things, plus meeting good people that can help you along the way. Good luck to you.

From contributor ka

Thanks again to all of you, for the encouragement. . Yes, to be honest, I'm more looking at the "should I keep going" thing. I don't really know much about all the ins and outs. I did ok on them, but nothing stellar money wise. I think I am more wondering if refinishing is lucrative enough to pursue.

From contributor ri

How many refinishing places around you? I live in a city of 125,000. There is one place. There used to be three. One just quit, the other guy died of cancer, and that leaves the one. It's my opinion we are in a throw away society, steady work will be really tough. As mentioned, the chemicals are horrible and not good for your health. I sure hope you are taking precautions with high quality personal safety equipment for yourself and the kids that are inhaling the fumes. Self employment is a tough way to make a living. Compare your hourly wage on those 165 chairs versus working at Home Depot early in the morning or at night. It would not be my first choice for making money considering the health hazard.

From contributor ka

Thanks Rich,
Sound advice.

From contributor Da

The only future in refinishing furniture is the very high end. As mentioned, almost all crap produced today (by other than Woodweb devotees....) is disposable and will not survive refinishing or be worth it to repair. The chemicals try to kill you, and once that $15 bargain chair is refinished and costs $115, just try to get the owner back to pick it up and pay for it.

Move to the top of the field, study your craft, and learn how to get work there. It is no fun down in the trenches with the mud, blood and cheap beer.

From contributor Ji

I've been refinishing furniture for 22 years and am tapering out of it. Trying to, anyway. I have lots of work despite punishing prices - and not just high end. Fewer competitors around than years ago and most have crappy service and communications that don't win the nod from the upper-middle class we target. Enough people with money want a custom finish on something they've lived with or inherited it seems. Our refinishing runs at about 45% gross margin.

Anyway, full-bore refinishing done at a scale that spins off livable money takes space, gear (especially spray equipment large and small) and help. And gobs of problem-solving as you encounter the history (deterioration, abuse, oils) of the pieces. Color match a Baker finish and you're in for a treat. Monetary success at refinishing is not an accident.

Would I do it again? No. Hands down. Only recently have I made any real money from it and I've found a less tortuous path to money from the same market.

Could you become a crew leader for a larger tree company? Where you wouldn't have to climb?

From contributor Ji

Jim C
What is the "less tortuous path". Wisdom is golden.....

From contributor Ji

Hi Jim,

We started offering upholstery work as an extension to refinishing. It was 35% of our gross. It is now 55%. And have recently added window treatments. Same marketing demographics, greater margins, fewer complications and less dust. As soon as they gross up, the refinishing will be an adjunct to upholstery (on frames and such). Can't wait.

From contributor Ha

Most ,I would dare say 98% of us here started from nothing.

From contributor Mi

Harry's comment is one that probably runs true, and gives room for another thought that Kaleo might consider. I would guess a high percentage of us here are not following our original business plan. My point is, that while most people have some idea of how our work and business plan will unfold, many factors, decisions and opportunities can deliver you to entirely different circumstances than what you first dreamed or imagined. Personally I found many changes to mine, some terribly undesirable, but most are better than I thought they would ever be. But if I had never taken the first step with my first plan, I certainly would not be where I am now. Sometimes I take out that old plan and read through, and usually I get a pretty good laugh.

From contributor ka

Thanks again Mitch and Harry. I must confess, wood working, other than cutting trees down was not on the radar. I am leaning toward returning to tree work, but am still open to this. Other than refinishing do you all have any good ideas? I have considered building bed room furniture to sell, but marketing something like that is difficult at best. It would also be difficult to compete with the Asian manufacturing market. Is it possible that building inexpensive pine furniture could be profitable ?

From contributor ca

I just built a dresser for my 13 year old daughter. Her friends saw it. Some took pictures. Several of the parents have ordered them - in different species. Hers is made of oak, I have 190.00 in materials max, and 10 hours in it. Grain filled and sprayed.

I am selling them anywhere from 790. to 1300 depending on species. I have a request for 6 dressers from once family.

The comments are- "you can't even buy this quality from Ethan Al....... "

Face it, the store bought stuff is junk. Period. There are people out there willing to pay for items you can make in your garage and not risk your life and limb.

Yes, house furniture is doable. It's all doable. Just get going and learn from your mistakes and remember it's about making a profit along with your paycheck

From contributor ri

Do you have furniture making experience? If it's cheap 2x4 kind of bedroom furniture, a lot of people can do that themselves. If they want cheap, Furniture Row and Viet Nam made bedroom furniture has that covered really well. Profitable? Do you have to buy all the machinery? Maybe you can make furniture like all the DIY shows. Glued and air nailed MDF with no joinery at all. Now there is junk that can make you money, until it falls apart in a couple of months and someone gets hurt and sues you. I don't know if a million dollar liability policy is in your business plan working at home with the kids.

From contributor ca

Used to "run a small tree service" do you still have the tools ?

From contributor ka

Thanks Rich,

Tools would be an investment for sure. I also have no intentions of building furniture row quality rubbish. Obviously I would have to start very small, I guess I still have the old American idea that a good work ethic can take you somewhere. Again, I do not have a lot of furniture building experience. It would defiantly be a learn as I go process. I have built one bed for my wife and I. I learned a lot from it, and there are several things I would do differently. I do have a table saw, miter saw, and some sanders. I also have access to a planer router table, and joiner. I no little about making joints, where to get and how to select lumber, etc. It is just that I have come to a point at 42 yrs. old, where I find myself having to start from scratch...again. I am fiercely independent, and have worked for myself for so many years, it seems that I am useless to society, so to speak. If I find a nitch in a local company, where it looks like I could grow there, I would hop on with earnest. But at the moment, I have to try something. Yes I still have my climbers, ropes, and saws. I could get back into shape and get back to work, but there are other things, very expensive things, that I will have to invest in. $30,000 does not seem like a lot, but under my current circumstances, it may as well be $30,000,000. I'm gonna get up and try, by GODs grace, just not sure where to throw my energy. Thank you all for your input and advice.