I recently received a letter from a woodworker looking to make a stab at a business in woodworking. Over the years, I've had lots of contact with folks doing this and have tried to share thoughts that I might have benefited from hearing earlier in my career. I touch on my experience in my book, but I thought that the topic warrants a more thorough look. Of course, any time that one addresses this topic it will be through their own lens, so I will describe a bit about my path in later. For the record, I don't consider myself a great businessman, actually not at all, but after many years in the ring, I'm still swinging, so take my comments for what they are worth to you.
For this first stab at a response to his letter, I want to go right to the heart of what I think is the first order of "business" which is figuring out why you want to do it. Quite frankly, woodworking on the small scale is a tough business, so folks jumping into it usually have personal reasons for taking on the challenge. Over the years I met lots of different folks with many interests and sensibilities. The common theme amongst the successful ones is that they hold true to their interests and are very aware to nurture them, while keeping an honest assessment of how the results translate to the buying public.
So what drives you to want to make a living in woodworking?
Are you an artist bent on self expression?
Do you see money growing in the trees and spread sheets thrill you?
Do you love wood as a material and just want to be around it?
Does furniture of all sorts fascinate you?
Does the curl of a shaving from a handplane fill you with a sense of wonder and accomplishment?
Does the hum of a well tuned jointer make you swoon?
It's usually some sort of mix of all of the above. The nature of your interest must be the first question you address, because the job of mastering your process and contending with the buying public won't mean a thing if it isn't in line with how you want to spend your time and effort.
If you are a businessman at heart, you have a good chance of doing well because you can quantify the public desire for a product with cool detachment, price out the tooling, materials, labor and competition and create a viable business plan. The problem is that I have yet to meet the woodworking enthusiast who wants to trade the workbench for the front office. We are a notoriously romantic lot. Besides, a person capable of detaching their passion that way would quickly assess that carpet cleaning and home meat delivery have much more growth potential.
For the artist, I have bad news, but you probably already know this. For most folks bent on self expression, the market is fickle and a life of fulfillment will most likely come from your deep and lasting connection to your creations and process. Good marketing and extraordinary talent can overcome this, but if you are looking to quit your day job, beware, it’s a tough transition.
If you are a furniture nut, you have a leg up on getting started because you, more than most, can already relate to the viewpoint of your potential client base. It’s a very different person that covets a piece of furniture than one that admires the construction and wants to build one, but it’s easy to confuse the two. I admire the skill and achievement of lots of furniture, but it mostly sends me reaching for my sketchbook, not my wallet. It takes discipline to not confuse the two.
If you think that anything made would be better made of wood, you might have a tough time understanding why the exquisite bubinga toothbrushes you make aren’t flying off the shelf, “don’t they see the figure? Most humans find the warmth and beauty of wood to be pleasing, but inappropriate use and overuse is as much of a turnoff as eating a dinner of all starch. For most folks, wood will be a welcome accent and they will never rise to your level of attachment, or at least not enough to detach them from their money.
If you are a confirmed shop monkey, you might find yourself in the most tricked out shop of lovingly restored machines and elaborate dust collection with no real driving passion to make anything but a better crosscut sled and mirror polish on handplane soles. This is a tough one, because you have to sell something to pay for all that stuff. Lots of machinery can be bought at a bargain price and be brought to life, but you aren’t creating value unless you make something with it or sell the machine. Selling the machines might be better business plan for you if you love the tools. Of course, parting with your “babies” might cause some post partem depression.
If you are a hand tool and old technology lover, you are probably comfortable with the notion that you aren’t going to be the fastest, but in your mind the most genuine. This is a tough sell for the public who might admire your skill and passion, but refuse to subsidize your quaint ways. Hand tools are indeed fast and effective, and have many advantages when it comes to expense, storage, power and maintenance. But to be a viable path to production, you will need to make choices about the product and materials that bring them up to speed with the value that the public puts on the end result.
Defining your interest and relating it to the buying public is the first step in assessing your potential for supporting yourself from your woodworking. It's tough, because let's face it, woodworking fascinates you and it's easy to mistake this for value in the minds of potential clients. The other honest assessment that you will need to consider is about your needs. You will most likely have to "need" less for a while as you sort out your skills, product and market. So the first step isn't buying the tools or mastering dovetails, nope it's harder than that, it's a long hard look at how you want to spend your time and what kind of life you hope it will bring you.