Starting a Wood Shop

Help with visualizing the shape of a startup woodworking business. August 19, 2013

I have been making wood products by word of mouth for several years on and off, traveled with a job, now relocated. I live in a rural area in the county. My shop is 2400 square foot in an older pole barn. I want to take my woodworking to the next level and work up to a full time business. Any thoughts on the best route? I have built furniture, cabinets, custom trim and just about anything I have been asked to do. My current shop includes…

10 Unisaw
14 ras
Pm 90 lathe
Delta 3/4 shaper 2hp
Whitney 1 1/4 double spindle shaper
Pm 2a tenoner
Woodmaster 718
Woodmaster 38" drum sander
24" 7hp planer
12" jointer
20" Delta bandsaw

Pm 30 combo sander
3 pm power feeders

Forum Responses
(Cabinetmaking Forum)
From contributor X:
The backbone of my shop that I could not do without is a press. It does my assembly work. It's the next step.

From contributor H:
You will need lots of jobs, and a good source of revenue so you don't have to spend all your time looking for work. I suggest that as you find a source for steady work, you focus your business along those lines: shop name, shop layout, tool purchases, etc.

From contributor R:
Commercial work is steadier, but nearly impossible for a one man shop. Very tight and inflexible deadlines. So with residential, you need to get your name in front of a ton of people to get a few small jobs. Talk to contractors, interior designers, lumber yards (if you still have any in your area). Any tourism in your area? Any artist co-ops? Learn social media techniques, and hit the bricks. It's not going to be easy.

From contributor M:
Stay small as long as possible. Don't be afraid to charge more. Charge for things that you usually consider part of the job.

Attend IWF and AWFS. Do not attend the local hobby woodworker shows, unless it is for fun. I will repeat this. Attend IWF and the AWFS. You will learn more in three days than you have in the last many years.

Buy a CNC machine. Even a light duty machine like ShopBot. Buy good software. The software is more important than the CNC machine.

Don't be afraid to outsource things like doors and drawers when the time comes. As good as you think you are, Conestoga and DBS are just as good; likely better.

Look for work outside of your area. Being located in a rural area has huge advantages. You will have a higher profit margin than the shops located in the metro areas. Shipping is not that bad if you find a good hauling service.

The hardest part is the necessary shift in thinking required to turn a hobby/part time shop into a business. You have to learn to see your work through the eyes of your clients and not as a woodworker. Things like sanding to 240 grit, hand carved details, brass hinges, top grade lumber and perfect joinery need to take a back seat to efficiency and meeting the client's expectations. If you disagree with any part of that statement or if you think "my clients are different," you are in big trouble. I had to make that transition, and I have seen it over and over on forums like this and in other shops that either failed or succeeded.

I am not trying to crush your spirits or rain on your dreams. I love this business and can't think of anything else I would rather do. My customers love my work, I enjoy making things for them and I make money. It is great. It is a passion, but it is not a hobby.

From contributor D:
I agree with contributor M on most of what he says. However - the single most important thing you can do is determine exactly what you are going to do. Build kitchens and compete with BigBoxCo? Build kitchens and do it for designers and architects? Get your photo on the cover of Fine Woodworking? Work for friends and neighbors? Build reproduction 17th century music boxes? Plank on hull sailboats? Japanese soaking tubs? Presentation boxes for dueling pistols? Wine or whiskey barrels?

Most responders are cabinetmakers in the modern sense, so that is where you will get guidance from. However, it is a big world and most successful small shops have found that niche exploitation is where both financial and personal growth are to be found.

Seriously, woodwork encompasses a huge range of products, from cheap to monumental levels of craft all along.

Buying a CNC is totally a waste of time before you know very specifically what you are going to do, and what your costs are. CNC is for either narrow dedicated tasks or for punching out cabinet parts in quantity. If cabinet parts, then you need panels saws, and edgebanders, and you will have to compete with big boys that can underbid you for 10 years with no sweat from them.

Once you decide, do a little market research and see who is doing what you want to do, and where they are, how many there are, and what they charge. You can do this, or buy market research info.

Don't forget to learn how to operate a business, get all your state, local and Federal numbers, permits, etc. Also, you need to have a solid architectural and design history background, sales skills and discipline.

What about finishing your product? Do not go into anything blind. Hard work and perseverance are part of the equation, but even the most diligent person cannot compete with Ikea.

From contributor L:
I'll agree with most of what has been said. Finding a niche for a small shop is necessary. Don't try to compete on price with established shops. The CNC is only useful for some things and until you have established your market niche, don't spend money on one. Speaking of money, more shops probably fail because they are undercapitalized than anything else. I run a small commercial only shop, can't deal with homeowners, hard enough to deal with GCs and designers. In this line of work: know what the contract terms mean, assume you will not get paid for at least 60 days and that they will withhold the last 10% for another 60. Whatever you do, don't try to buy work to get your foot in the door. All that will get you is a damaged foot. Hit the bricks, get to know lots of people, take advantage of every opportunity to spread the word about your new found niche.