Profit in Self-employed Woodworking?

Question:

I very much enjoy reading your blog Paul. I went to college to train as a furniture maker after I left school but was unable to find suitable work so re trained as a carpenter (don’t worry I don’t sharpen chisels with a belt sander) your blog is like a window into my dream job. I just can’t see how it could be possible I look on line for things that I could make in spare time , it just seems like there’s so little profit with the price of timber and a society that can’t tell the difference between Ikea or oak furniture land and craftsman made pieces . Any ideas ?

Answer:

I think celebrate the freedom we have to live outside the box of educators and plan a career in spheres of creativity that actually defy many constrictive practices and extraneous input. Now we can move forward. Being self employed and in creativity also defies banks who treat you exactly the opposite and really don’t want you sitting on their office seat if you work as a woodworker. Anyway, being self employed  takes guts, critical thinking, risk, initiative, entrepreneurialism and generally these essentials don’t fit people that give up. Now I’m not saying you gave up so much as perhaps the time was wrong and now it’s more right than it was then. You won’t find many successful businessmen or women teaching in educational establishments because they were successful but because they were not successful. Same in schools too often. Those that found their sphere of creativity and became successful live in realms that have nothing to do with money or, more likely, money happens as a byproduct to lifestyle craftsmanship.  See, what banker hinges his bets on risk takers, free thinkers and those inspired by  people like PS. People occupying these creative spheres defy quantification and yet the business world is made up of a massive section politics and economics cannot quite ignore. Join the team and enter the world of small businesses.

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Remember this as you look forward to your future. Many colleges and woodworking schools may have something small to offer, but its usually smaller than they make out. You’re convinced (by them and others around you) that they are the gateway to your future and it may be true to some level but not for the reasons they and you might think.  The qualification often doesn’t match the reality of real life and that’s probably in some measure what you discovered after going to college. You joined the ranks of many thousands and then you thought the problem was you or the circumstances. Fact is when you are young and inexperienced in life in the real working world of wood, which is not college, people, customers and businesses that might further engage take a lot of persuading to trust in you because they have very little to go off.

DSC_0194 Colleges and schools do indeed make promises that rarely pan out in actual jobs or career paths for furniture makers as far as I have seen over the past couple of decades. Like many sources of misinformation they flounder all the more as they rely on ancient models. It’s mostly about bums on seats I am afraid and you pay for it. Now, before you give up, this then leaves me with a lot of hope because if anything this gives us face to face reality for our situation.DSC_0187

I doubt that apprenticeships will ever return in the fulness they once did except when craftsmen and women find a space in their workshop to add in someone who they believe they can help. That’s what I and others have done for decades. Often of course, to do this, we have to work outside of our comfort zone because trainees often take too much of our time for very little return. Make no bones about this. As I said I doubt that apprenticeships will be as available as they were in my day, not without some radical transformation in global economics back to more sustainable local changes we can live and work in and with. Now there is something you can believe in.DSC_0272

I have always liked challenges and when I made my mind up to be a furniture maker making pieces I decided many things not the least of which was that it was my responsibility to find and educate my customers, not to sell them furniture like a salesman. Generally customers find us because they are already on the lookout for something we have. Sales is not a nice job for a creative crafting artisan.  I decided that years ago – decades. Soon, when you see you have a good product, you also see that there is no need to manipulate them or use any stories to bolster your case and that absolute honesty is essentially our responsibility too. We craftsmen and women should always make sure we have an honestly made product that never compromises forested lands resulting in deforestation, prices that are always just and fair, staff always paid appropriately according to skill levels and that the presentation of a finished item always represents appropriate quality according to price. My work always carries a lifetime guarantee that I will always repair a piece if the damage results from negligent workmanship or materials. I have never been back to a piece in 50 years that I can recall. I always stick to my estimates even when it costs me if it’s because of my own failure.DSC_0043

But above all of that, I have been a lifestyle woodworker as a furniture maker and woodturner and the emphasis here is lifestyle. Lifestyle for me means more than anything; that I came to a point where I chose to continue in my craft and that economics, social recognition, political movements and so on could not influence me to change. That means I no longer had the choice to do or be something else. I was going to make my craft work as a provision for me and my family even if that meant I would work twice as long for half as much as the expectations others might have as employees.DSC_0047

Though my life has changed somewhat over very recent years, 95% of my working life over a 50 year span has been as a producing craftsman. Even now I still make several pieces in any given month. My chosen and self imposed lifestyle of woodworking can always be applied to all crafts requiring skilled work as a lifestyles and this includes gardening for food and small animal husbandry, farming and market gardening. It’s not really to do with the costs of materials but educating our customers and elevating the meaning of craft so that they feel inclined to support a lifestyle.

24 Comments

  1. gblogswild on 21 November 2014 at 12:23 am

    “Colleges and schools do indeed make promises that rarely pan out in actual jobs or career path…”

    More true than any college recruiter will own up to, especially private colleges.



    • Michael on 21 November 2014 at 9:27 pm

      We live in the era of a phenomenon known as credentialism. Very unfortunate.



      • Paul Sellers on 21 November 2014 at 10:43 pm

        So sad but true that credentialism is a belief people, parents, grandparents and so on believe in; that a degree somehow qualifies proves to be the only valid way of measuring intelligence and qualifying people, which has proven for decades to be far from true. Even educationalists don’t really believe it but must promote it to cushion themselves from the real world and still the more use it to foster dependency on them. Instead of going to university because they want to learn something specific that ties to their interests and calling, most students go because its become the automatic path to a career and a good job. It’s only a very small percentage of students that use their degree in tandem with their job. Mostly it’s just another step along the conveyor belt.



        • gblogswild on 23 November 2014 at 1:53 pm

          Converyor belts have a way dropping things off at the end and breaking them. I’ll be teaching my new daughter the values of quality and time, and the value of quality time. Hopefully one day she will be the one watching other people fall off the belt and trying to convince them to step off of it themselves.

          Untilo then, wow, I’ve got a lot of work to do freeing myself. Children learn by example and that’s what we’ve got to give them – examples worth living up to.



      • Phill on 24 March 2016 at 11:50 am

        then why not create a credential for a craftsman? “Paul Sellers Graduate” – hang that on the wall in place of the MSCE certificate. My 100% rating on eBay is just another form of credentialism in a world where finding an honest man is getting harder and harder. Time only moves in one direction – if you want to revive the old, you have to make it new.



  2. peter on 21 November 2014 at 3:19 am

    So true, on so many points , you could be reading my mind- and yes it is hard to go against the norm, the accepted way it takes a certain tenacity
    People /customers are so tired of the big business hype that reeducating them is often a matter of reminding them of what, deep down they already know



  3. Ben on 21 November 2014 at 9:51 am

    Thank you for your reply Paul I understand that your time is precious and so really do value your comment.I have never given up as such I have made furniture for my home,fitted out a narrow boat in ash which was quite challenging due to the unusual shapes but I was chuffed with the finished product ,I am currently making three toy boxes for my nieces for chrismas . I suppose it’s the old saying without risk there is no reward your blog has certainly inspired me to do more even if it is only a hobby . My dad is the best woodworker I have ever met he has made high end shopfittings for all over the world from Saudi Arabia to LA he has fitted out boardrooms in football clubs and banks in Moscow sadly in the last twenty years he has worked as a builder . I hope as you and others that comment suggest times are changing and real skill will become more valued



  4. Andrew Wilkerson on 21 November 2014 at 10:46 am

    Very inspiring Paul. Yes I think the times are changing. I left my well paid job as an electronics technician and manager and it hasn’t been easy but I have no regrets. This was over 10 years ago now. If it wasn’t for the internet I couldn’t have survived. I made a website then made it work. I make a lot less money but I’m much happier and I moved to the country away from the over priced housing and living costs. I think the internet is putting the craftperson directly in contact with customers and widening the market in a way that has never been available to craftspeople before. There is a lot of hope for the small one man business. If you are truly passionate about what you do then it simply can’t fail. You will not even have to make it work it will just work.



    • Paul Sellers on 21 November 2014 at 5:38 pm

      Thanks Andrew. This is exactly what people need to hear. They don’t need false hope and their minds massaged by people selling long courses or magazine editors who generally know very little about woodworking in my experience of working with them for two decades. What they need is reality from people doing it and making it work. I think that’s why one by one the magazines seem to be slowly toppling and unable to keep a presence in today’s woodworking world. Thankfully the internet has a positive side and we are able to bridge the gap, generate online interaction and pass on the best of woodworking to the new generations. Perhaps you can email me and let me know more of how you are doing what you do. Why you do it and what you see as a future for our Australian woodworking brothers and sisters. [email protected] works.



  5. Spencer on 21 November 2014 at 3:20 pm

    I have the same dream that I am working towards maturity. The first step was analyzing my expenses; cost of living, taxes, transportation, etc. and then determining what money I could free up. That gave me the minimum money required to live. “If you want to change things in your life, things in your life have to change.” My wife and I now see the opportunity and what it will take. Both of us will have jobs. Mine will be 1/3 woodworking, 1/3 marketing, and 1/3 accounting and each one will need my full attention and commitment. I could hire someone for marketing and accounting, but after paying them, I would make the same money, or less. Big box stores are not our competitors. I will focus on low volume, high quality/price, and spend the time to find the customers that want to support local business and quality masterpieces. I had to ask myself and family, “What are we willing to sacrifice to make the dream come true?” The end result will be more time at home with the kids and family enjoying everyday doing what I have a passion for. Will it work? I will let you know in a year or two. I have heard a cattle rancher’s job described as, “It’s not a good living, but it’s a great life.” That, to me, is what it is all about.

    To Paul, thanks for everything.



    • Paul Sellers on 21 November 2014 at 5:40 pm

      Sounds like a great plan, Spencer.



  6. Peter on 21 November 2014 at 5:55 pm

    Hello,

    what do you think about the current situation regarding apprenticeships in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and South Tyrol and some more (now even expanding to China according to Wikipedia)?

    You can become a carpenter or a cabinet maker and many other things. Would love to read what you think of it.



  7. Jim Mount on 21 November 2014 at 5:58 pm

    For those of you who are serious about starting out on your own, I recommend you read Paul’s account of his start up experience at Texas craft fairs, where he went to meet and educate his customers. You could also look at his thoughts on a business making canes; this, it seems to me would be the kind of thing you could do part-time while you built a clientele and transitioned to full time woodworker. That part time model would work for other items as well. For those interested in using the internet (instead of or in addition to) craft fairs, take a look at Curtis Buchanan’s web site, and his series on building a Windsor chair from a log. For us woodworkers, I found this an amazing experience. There are others.
    Part of what Paul was saying is that you cannot rely on others to define your life. If you slot yourself into whatever the school is offering, then you have less control over what you get, and depending on the others involved it may be very little indeed. When you are arranging your own “university of life” experience you have to listen very closely indeed. For example, Paul talks in an off hand way about “small animal husbandry.” This is something that bears thinking about. It’s another example of taking oneself out of the mass production complex. With the price of food in the markets these days, it may make sense financially, but like building your own furniture, there is something elementally satisfying about supplying one’s own food. And then, there is nothing quite like serving your own roast chicken, potatoes and kale. Each one is like some other species, as opposed to the stuff from the market. And you are absolutely sure there are no hormones or other bad stuff in your food (unless you put it there). All very much of a piece.



  8. Salvador on 21 November 2014 at 7:09 pm

    I’m always happy and motivated by reading your posts Paul, and this is no exception.
    I live in Mexico, last year I was working as a design engineer for an appliances corporation. I didn’t like my job. Always lack of optimism and motivation because I could notice the reality of the industry, and is not just ugly in my country but in many, even in the developed countries. It is unsustainable. I find the crafts as a real solution to this situation. We can all have a better world with more craftsmen and less industry. So I deeply believe in this.
    Last year I quit my engineering job and tasted the bitterness of following ideals in a contrasting reality. Now I’m making furniture mainly to friends and relatives who need quality, fair price and that trust me to make them.
    And having very little money and space, I decided to go by hand tools, plus a router and a old circular saw and some wooden jigs i made for that. I really love making things, but at certain point it seemed far from being possible, but getting into your youtube videos and this blog was a breeze of hope and confidence. I will never be able to pay you back for that.

    I have huge work ahead, I need to speed up my skills (I think I make good things but slowly), and work to get more clients.
    What has worked to me so far is, as you suggest, educate people: on quality of the furniture, durability; still I should put more emphasis about life style of the maker; for most it is like a revelation.
    Saludos!



  9. Brian Lowery on 22 November 2014 at 3:58 pm

    I agree with the thoughts about starting part time. There’s nothing wrong with being a carpenter and building furniture on the side. If your designs and workmanship are good, then you have a chance at being successful building furniture full time.



  10. salkosafic on 22 November 2014 at 10:22 pm

    Good luck to you all,

    Be humble don’t live in the clouds for there is someone else out there better than you, accept your a student and your learning never ends.

    Respect the timber that God’s given you to work with so don’t be wasteful.

    There will always be good days and there will always be slow days even dead days which can turn to months but in the end it always balances out. It’s called perseverance some call it positivity but it’s plain old simple patience and persevarance like a cab driver who sits patienly on a rank for two hours and gets a small fair not enough to even buy him a packet of smokes but at the end of the week he has accumulated a bunch of small and large fairs which has given him a wage.

    Lastly switch off your idiot boxes and radios don’t listen to the news it will only bring you down and will create unecessary racial animosity towards your fellow mankind whom you depend upon to survive.

    Forgive me if I have said something out of line.



  11. Jim Chrisawn on 23 November 2014 at 12:27 pm

    Just some thoughts
    I just finished a custom five piece bedroom suite from cherry for a lady to give her daughter as a wedding present. She kind of knew what she wanted and we sat down and worked out the design over a couple evenings. I then ordered the lumber. When it arrived we met at the supply center to look at it together. I took a hand plane (no4) and planed a few pieces so she could see it, touch it, and feel the texture as she saw it go from ruff to semi finished. Once I began cutting the jointery I invited her to come by to see the parts going together. Once I was ready for the rehearsal just before glue up I invited her to stop by and she glady did so. As the pieces came together she enjoyed feeling like she was part of this gift of love she was going to share with her daughter. When all the pieces were completed I set them up in my living room and she came to give it one final look before I delivered it. She was delighted. She paid me on the spot and even gave me a generous bonus as well. The point to this long story is as woodworkers I have found that we can offer more than a well made product. We can offer an experience unique to each piece and each customer. It becomes more than just furniture that we have to offer. Jim



    • Phill on 24 March 2016 at 11:58 am

      the Uber craftsman. Now go plant a tree to get ready for the set their children will need. And, in the end, they will have spent less on quality than their contemporaries will have spent on disposable junk.



    • Mark Howell on 26 September 2018 at 11:29 pm

      Nice story, Jim



  12. AndersMJ on 1 December 2014 at 11:56 pm

    I agree with you on this Paul, I too have little left over for the educational system (and by this, society today in general). I’m 25 and I still haven’t got an education. Had it been more possible than it is, to make a living from making handmade furniture like they did in earlier centuries, I would have done it. (or boats perhaps)

    Fact is, Ikea is messing it up and most people cannot see how bad a habit it actually is, buying from Ikea for instance. It’s ok if you are young I think and just need to get going, but I plan to make most of my furniture myself and ditch all the junk stuff.

    I have a friend, who says she knows many university masters who doesn’t know a thing. They are simply stupid when it comes down to it (and yes she was dead serious). Who knows, perhaps trade jobs will become better paid now when no one wants to do them anymore?



    • Klaus bermann christensen on 2 December 2014 at 11:06 pm

      The way things are shaping up to be, all honest make it with your hands jobs will be on polish or ukrainian hands for a pay that a normal taxpaying dane couldnt live on…



      • salkosafic on 3 December 2014 at 5:50 am

        That’s google translate for ya



  13. Adam of Canada on 25 March 2016 at 12:41 am

    Hello Mr. Sellers,

    Im 16 and strongly considering furniture making or architecture with furniture making on the side as my future career. I’ve invested money from jobs into so woodworking tools and am fairly well equipped (my father has a table saw, band saw, scroll saw, lathe and various other tools, I have a Stanley No.4, Stanley brace and bit, a Veritas chisel set, a japanese crosscut/rip saw from Lee Valley, and have built a rebate plane and a prettier version of the poor man’s router). I also have a decent income from jobs and my parents. Do you think an apprenticeship would be worthwhile as a post-secondary education option or do you believe it would be better to learn on my own with the help of various books (including your own) and the internet. My ultimate goal would be to design and build my own furniture using real wood and traditional methods.

    If you have the time, please suggest any pros and cons of each option.

    Thanks,
    Adam



    • Paul Sellers on 25 March 2016 at 9:00 am

      I wish I could steer you into an apprenticeship but all apprenticeships really offer is a place work and perhaps kickstart what is likely to be in you already. Machine woodwork takes very little skill in the using of it and most machinists spend more time adapting themselves and their intent to the constraints of the machine’s limitations rather than developing skill that empowers them. I very rarely have met woodworkers using hand tools at any kind of resourceful or skilful level in today’s woodworking world. I know that they are out there but are more the rarity rather than the norm it used to be. In other words with most if not all furniture makers these days, if it cannot come directly from the machine then it cannot be made.
      Apprenticeships have become a cheap way of financing labour here in the UK. It’s become the cheapest way for employers to train staff through government support or endorsement of low wages so believe it or not a first year apprentice wage here in the UK is £2.78 per hour; about a quarter of what is considered a living wage. At 18-20 it rises to £5.13 per hour and for 21 and over it’s £6.50. This is due to change but only slightly in October. A living wage in the UK provinces is £7.85 and in London it’s £9.15.
      We have been able to train people as internees over the years and that means they train with me for a year of solid woodworking and furniture making and they only make things for themselves and not me. I ask almost nothing of them, not even cleaning and sorting or sweeping up. From 9-5 they make. At the end of a year they have the equivalent of 5 year’s apprenticing with say a regular company in the business of making and selling and they have none of the fees they would need to find for college courses too. We give them as much as they need to become bona fide skilled craftsmen and women, although so far we have not had applications from women.
      My suggestion is that at your age there is no hurry. If you subscribe to my woodworking masterclasses as a free member and then email me your details I will arrange for you to have a free membership to the full membership. This then will give you access to the projects we have presented over the years. You can pick any project and start the work. For instance say the clock, tool tote or whatever. If you will work through the projects for one year and send me questions , show pictures of the work (good and bad) I will steer you from here. I believe at the end of a year you will have built substantive skills and be able to sell more and more work. From here you will be able to then go on to design your own work.