Starting Out as a Furnituremaker

Making custom furniture is a very tough business, and most craftsmen who try it fail. August 29, 2006

I'm 27 years old and have been making furniture for 10 years. I am stuck in a constant battle to find a shop that seems to fit me. I want to build custom home furnishings, but the only shops around me are cabinet and laminate shops and quite frankly, I'm sick of building cabinetry. I know the industry is tough and taking this more production oriented approach to furniture is profitable.

Over the years, I have accumulated a large amount of machinery in the hopes that some day I would go out on my own. How do I take that first step? I think I'm ready, but how do I know? I have three young children and am a little scared about not having a paycheck coming in.

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor E:
I would go slowly. I hear what you are saying, and I think there is a chance to make it work, but if supporting your family is your first priority, I would be cautious. Doing what you want to do is very difficult in this market. Maybe you could find a shop that would hire you 3/4 time in exchange for letting you use their machinery in off hours for your own work.

Other than that, I would suggest some careful marketing to designers in your area. But have someone proofread your material first.

From contributor R:
My suggestion is to keep working for other companies, and try to find side jobs that you can work on in the evenings and weekends. There are people out there willing to pay for custom, quality built furniture, but they're few and far between, and hard to find. I can't tell you how many times I've heard, "But I can go down to the local furniture store and buy some bookshelves for $200." Too many people are driven by price, not quality. Sometimes, it seems like the people with the most money are the stingiest when it comes to spending it. One bit of advice I was given a few years ago: "If at least half of your customers don't complain about the price, you're not charging enough."

From contributor H:

I know many, many cabinetmakers. Some that do kitchens and some that do commercial and some that just make boxes and some that just make doors and some that just make drawers and some that just do finish. I know all of these people and I only know one guy who builds custom furniture. It is very, very difficult to get jobs that you can make a profit at. I would love to build fancy one-off pieces. We try to sell these whenever possible. It's very hard to get these jobs.

Walk into your local high-end furniture store. I am not talking about the cheap place, I am talking about the Ethan Allen or Drexel Heritage. Look at the furniture in there. Ask yourself if you can build that quality for that price? I cannot. I am not saying that it can't be done. There is one guy I know of that does it. However, there is only one. Do some side work and see how it goes.

From contributor W:
No offense to your craft, but when you have a family to support, you do what you need to do, not what you want to do. Building cabinets may not be glamorous, but the money is pretty good. Ethan Allen, Drexel, and Maitlan Smith... Very nice stuff is all made in China now. It is *very* hard to compete with. The Chinese will not be able to supply custom kitchen cabinets, though. The turnaround is too long. They have made some inroads into stock cabinets, but still just a drop in the bucket because of logistics.

From contributor M:
You should heed the advice of the others up on this forum. I teach at a woodworking school where we have both fine furniture and cabinetmaking classes. We get a lot of people coming in that want to change careers and start making high quality furniture. None of them have made it. I wandered down this road once and talked to some of the biggest names in the high-end custom furniture trade - guys like Garrett Hack, Phil Lowe, and Mario Rodriguez - and all of them tried to talk me out of it. I tried anyway and quickly realized I could make great furniture, but not at a pace or price that could support my family.

You don't have to give up the dream of building great furniture, but you do need to consider doing it on the side and not making it your sole income. Building it is one thing - designing it, finishing it, marketing it... there's a lot to think about.

From contributor T:
There are a lot of really good, knowledgeable people on this forum. Many who have learned the lessons they are passing on to you, via the hard way. I try to build furniture as a sideline to building cabinets. And I have found that building entertainment centers has appeased my lust for building furniture. With all the new big screen, plasma, etc. style televisions coming on the market (Americans just love to have new electronic toys), it has opened up a nice niche. Try building a couple and take plenty of photos, and market yourself.

From contributor I:
If you have a good mother-in-law for babysitting, and your wife can get a job with health insurance, do it! I started part time and had at least 6 months backlog when I hung out the shingle. You will only need to work half days (that's 12 hours) at least 6 days a week most of the time. Then you will need to go to the customer's house after dinner to visit with them about the furniture they want. Those will be 15 hour days. Expect to make about 3 visits with them before the down payment. If they don't like giving down payments in your area, get some good credit cards while still employed. You will need them to buy groceries while you are working the job till the payoff at the end. I lasted 8 years full time till I went to work for Woodworker's Journal Magazine. I was putting in 70 to 80 hour weeks at my shop. One Sunday evening while I was putting on some finish, I wondered if all this was worth it. I wouldn't have missed the experience, but it will take a toll on mind and body.

From contributor A:
I started out on my own a little over two years ago with dreams of people lining up at my door wanting custom furniture. Didn't happen. However, I learned to adapt to what is demanded in my area and evolved my business into more of a finish carpentry/light remodeling. Early on I had to take on some not fun stuff like replacing rotten flooring, repairing backyard fences, etc. I even got hungry enough once that I hired out to help a neighbor haul hay for a week. However, as my reputation grows and people see more and more of my work, I am getting more finish jobs and even a little custom furniture. I also started making crafts and selling them at craft shows, which helps during the holiday season when remodels slow down. Point being, don't be too proud to take on a job just because it isn't fine furniture. Both my remodel work and crafts open the door for me to build a relationship with a customer that often leads to bigger and better jobs. Also, my wife did get a full time job with insurance. If you're married, make sure you have a strong relationship with your wife, as starting a business will really put it to the test.

From contributor D:
I am a cabinetmaker/contractor. I have to agree with the above suggestions with one exception. If you are good and even if you're not, there is a market for custom furniture. It is difficult to find, but once you can get into that arena and you have the right clientele, you can do it. Very few people I know (in fact, none of the people I know) that build just furniture do it for a living; it is their hobby, although sometimes they sell. I have read about a lot of guys in various trade publications that do nothing but custom furniture and seem to be doing very well. Can you find the niche? Try doing it for a hobby at night. Sometimes the cab shops you are working for might slide some customers your way because they do not want to mess with that kind of work because it is not profitable for their shop. I hate to say it, because a lot of guys have the dream of being their own boss and only crafting high dollar and high quality furniture, but I think it is a romantic work fantasy that most of the time ends up being a cabinet shop. Most people think cabinet maker/furniture maker. In the old days, all of the old finish carpenters had to actually make the cabs onsite while setting the doors and installing the base. End advice from me, find your market first but keep your day job until you know you'll have repeat clientele. Or hey, you could always open a cabinet shop and do the furniture when it comes in.

From contributor L:
Start a woodworking shop. There are millions of cabinet shops, custom cabinets, crap cabinets, etc. that produce all day long every day. But what they don't produce comes to us. That is everything from the not so typical cabinet to furniture to doors. You get to make some really cool stuff and that's what it sounds like you want. To make something that isn't normal or ordinary. I design most of my jobs and offer my clients details they won't find from most shops around and offer them at prices that are affordable. You get the benefit of building everyday cabinetry, to jewelry boxes, and believe me, it feeds the family. Good luck, enjoy working wood, and thank god that everyone wants to build frameless cabinets. It opens the doors to a whole lot of business:) And don't try to get rich. Love the work; money comes naturally. Otherwise, you will be like everyone else.

From contributor S:
To appease my furniture-making artistic side, I started aggressively up-selling to my existing cabinetry customers. If they're spending $30-$50k on a new kitchen, it's not that big of a stretch to go after matching china hutches, dining tables and chairs, occasional tables, mantles, etc. Sometimes it's not about going after new markets, it's about penetrating the one you're already in a little deeper.

From contributor O:
I'm in a similar situation, having just started my own cabinet shop. I have to say that the expense may be greater than you think. I am on time and on budget, having spent 2 months and close to $35,000 getting my shop up and running.

Just finished my first direct mailing to contractors in my area (230 listed in a 6 mile radius from my house - cha-ching!). Every obstacle I overcome creates even more excitement, but I have been planning this for years. I would suggest going into it with an open mind. Ask advice from anyone in the business you can corner and be prepared to learn new things (accounting, financing, publishing, sales). You may want to start with going to a community college and see if they have an evening class on writing a business plan. I refinanced property I own for my start up capitol, but if you don't have that option, a business plan might open some doors to financing and useful advice from non-woodworking entrepreneurs. Oh and by the way, that figure I mentioned was in addition to all the machinery I already had in my basement woodwork shop.

From contributor I:
I might suggest a visit to the contractors you really want to work with after that mailing. Some probably don't take time to look at mailings but maybe once a month. Take along something nice with your name on it for them to keep. A stainless coffee mug, a dash notepad for their truck, or a dozen golf balls with an invitation to play 9 holes. A Friday lunch barbeque at your shop with wood gifts might also help you get established. Something to keep your name in their mind. Don't forget interior designers - they were my best source of work.

From contributor Y:
I tried to make custom furniture after I had been woodworking for a while. It was fun; I liked it a lot, but I couldn't feed my family on what I could make. Too many hours were spent dealing with the customers and not enough time actually producing. I did get a job to do the interior on a new jewelry store that lead to what I do now, store fixtures and commercial interiors. If you must give it a try on a part time basis, keep accurate track of the time and money you spend. Maybe you will be lucky and hit it big enough to survive. A key requirement is a very good PR department! I've known several very good custom furniture makers, but none that have made a real go of it.

From contributor O:
Check this out. 24 hours after my first batch of fliers were sent out, I got a call from one of the biggest architect/contractors in the state. All excited, I run down to his shop (at the end of the business day, had to play it cool). He asks me to bid on a *huge* public library. Easily quarter of a million dollars. Way to big to be done in my 1500 sq ft shop. Tomorrow I'm going to meet with a couple of the more established shops in the industrial park I'm in. I want to see if they will divide up the job with me. I'm kind of concerned that it will be my name on the contract if we get it. If they fail to produce, I'll be the one holding the bag. Chances are I will probably have to pass on this one.

From contributor I:
*Public* library is the part that would scare me. A job with a city or state will require lots of hoops to jump through. You will probably need to be bonded, have proof of huge liability insurance coverage, maybe even meet equal opportunity employee statements. Be sure to do your homework with the local government before even spending any time on this at all. The sugar plums dancing in your head with that huge dollar amount may become your very worst nightmare.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor K:
I think the advice here is generally right. I, however, have taken a different approach and one that might work well. I contacted a few furniture stores, and out of respect for the ones I deal with, I try to keep a distance between them. Basically all I do for them is custom work, their customer saw something they liked, but they wanted a blend of this and that or the sizes to be different. It is a market that most large manufacturers won't touch.

In the meantime, I do market at art shows to high end customers some pieces I just make as sort of stock pieces (and I do a lot of small, somewhat boring things with my scrap wood to bring in the small customers). I take a cut of course, by selling to the stores, but I don't have the time spent dealing with the customers. I'm not greedy, and I do quality work, but I'm not trying to make $50 an hour either. I make a good living, and have a family and a mortgage and all of the usual bills.

I would caution against financing things or taking out lines of credit when starting up. That got me in a heap of financial trouble the first time around in this industry. If you can't buy the wood without a deposit I wouldn't do it. I wait now and collect at the end, I have less problems that way and by the time I'm done with a piece, all of the money is there. My last suggestion is this: Make templates, and detailed cut lists for every piece, even if you think it will never be made again. If you market yourself well, chances are ten people will say, "I like it but I want it a different size." If you have a cut list and assembly plan, it's easier to modify than starting over!