Making is Living

Becoming a maker does not always or need to mean that you make your living from making things to sell. Sometimes we see selling as a validation to our efforts, a sort of badge of merit if you will. Look, I just sold a chunk of wood I had and made £10 for something that was firewood an hour ago. Suddenly we project ourselves into the world of the artist and even if we sell for a poor amount that will likely keep us poor we at least sold to another person who wanted what we make. Whereas I do see that we feel the importance of making to a level that people see a quality that sets us apart, the reason for making is much, much higher than merely selling. Everyone who works to make money coming from someone else sells themselves to that someone else. This will never be avoided because, well, there is an economic reality whereby working is the means by which we engage with employers even when we think that we are so-called freelancers or self-employed. In reality, neither such animal exist. Often, using the term freelance means you could not get the job you want doing what you love most, or those providing work don’t want employees that depend on them keeping records, paying taxes, staffing an office and withholding money for government departments like social security and national insurance, etc. Taxi drivers and deliverers of food are good examples, you know, these are the ones who self-declare themselves as self-employed or freelancers even if in their hearts they know that they are not truly ‘free‘ lancers or ‘self‘ employed.

Go back into the etymology of ‘freelancer’ and you will find mercenary fighting men who sold themselves to others as men who fought with their lances and would not pledge any particular allegiance to another higher authority but sold themselves to the highest bidder. They had no loyalty and might even switch sides for a higher pay mid fight. I would never consider myself to be a freelancer anything. I am more dedicated than that. Being a so-called freelancer is often a substitute for being unemployed these days. Sad to say.

I charged $1200 for each one of these medallions. They were part of some restoration work in downtown San Antonio. Did I earn my living from making them. Nope! I made them only because I wanted to do them, not for the money. Glad to say there were no CNC routers at the time.

Making is a way of life for me and always has been. Of the eleven or so coffins I have made thus far to date I have never needed to charge anyone for them so I haven’t. Each dovetailed corner I cut caused me to reflect on the dovetailed lives this or that person touched with their own life, polishing the outside made me think about how woodworking is as reductive a process as life itself is. We are constantly being reduced by circumstances that cause us to rethink where we are going, where we came from and what we left behind. I made sure that the casket was strong and made only from biodegradable wood and finish, again a respect for where we came from as in the earth. They take me 40 hours to make one coffin and the insides are lined with wool padding. cotton fabric and love. Would I ever make a coffin for money? No, I am afraid not. But there is nothing wrong with that. Wooden caskets readily return to the earth as they rightly should.

In 1986 I made my first hollow log birdhouses and feeders and ended up selling 100,000

Other work that I have done has been income-producing and some of the favourites have revolved around my interest in wildlife and birds especially. Of the collection I used to sell in Texas under the name Hollow Log birdhouses I had some favourites that came as my first designs. I made thousands of these birdhouses and these were my bread and butter items for several years. I wanted bluebird houses that were fit for purpose. I hunf= them on my fenceline. My first efforts were again an act of love. No money exchanged hands as I tested them out over several seasons. Of all of my wildlife encounters, my first most magical moment was seeing a pair of western bluebirds build their nest in one of my boxes and then raise a first and second brood in a single season. In making the thousands I took only wood that was destined for bulldozing and burning, converted it into product, fine product well made, and sold each piece to my customers. I was working for them when I made them in the same way I was making them for my family to support them as they grew. You see I was self-employed on paper, technically, yes, but I was engaged in work for my own needs and the needs of others. Was I self-employed? Yes and no. If self-employed means doing everything yourself then yes I was. I wore many hats in a day from bookkeeper to telephone operator, marketer to maker. This is self-employment. This is freelancing. Take it or leave it, we never work for ourselves, even when we retire!

My wide-mouthed birdhouses suited bluebirds perfectly well.

23 thoughts on “Making is Living”

  1. 100,000 birdhouses sold? Even at 1 hour per birdhouse, that would be a lot of hours! Avg 50 hrs per week and that is 38 years just making birdhouses. No weeks off either in that period. Is that a typo, maybe 10,000?

    1. No, we cut out 150 per day and assembly was a day; two people, sometimes three working. Cut out time was approx 3 minutes. You were right on the holidays though. I have never taken more than one week per year plus Christmas.

      1. Andrew Wilkerson

        Great to read, thanks Paul. I am the same, I took my first proper holiday in 17 years just this last Feb, only a few days camping really and I was still keeping up with my emails and admin. Just last night I had a woman demand a refund she says I’ve had long enough now to make her sign and demanded her money back. I told her right from the start that she was on a long waiting list. Some people just have no idea what it takes to run a business, let along one where we have to do absolutely everything with our own hands custom made to order. It can be disheartening at times. I refunded her money immediately and sent her my opinion on the matter. Perhaps not as calm as you would have been though 🙂

        1. Gino Centofanti

          Hi Paul.

          If I may ask, do these birdboxes need to be cleaned out occasionally?
          I’m thinking over the years would get all clogged inside.



          1. It is best to remove the old nests after each brood has left the cavity but of course, in nature, cavity-nesting birds just build on top of the old and some even remove some of the old nest. This is why the lids on mine are either fully removable or hinged and held fast with a mechanism.

          2. Gino Centofanti

            Thank you greatly Paul for taking the time to reply, that was informative.



    2. 100,000 bird houses at 150 every 2 days(1 cut and 1 assemble).
      =333 calendar days

      Well in the range of reason.
      Just shows “It doesn’t pay to challenge Paul!”.

      Let’s get back to woodworking questions.

      Process? Cut in half lengthwise first? Then how did you hollow it out?

      1. The houses shown are one or two versions of a product line I developed numbering 20 types. The ones I made most were ones where I cut the back 1/4 off first pqssing it into the bandsaw in its vertical position. I then laid this flatface on the bandsaw table and cut the top and bottom off and shaped in a special way. Stand the mid section back up and run it around the bandsaw blade parallel to the outside face.

  2. From the photograph I was trying to work out how the log was hollowed. the top one looks like the log was split in half. I am guessing that you then used a bandsaw to cut it out, or simply gouge it out. Might give it a try.

  3. Hey Paul, those natural log bird houses are such a a great idea. It just seems so obvious and I really don’t like using this term, “organic”. It’s like, why didn’t I think of that?

    Thank you for sharing your life, your thoughts, and perception.

  4. Jeanine Rollins

    Paul, You make woodworking fun! This is a new hobby for me and my younger working husband is happy to see me enjoying my retirement doing something I always wanted to try!

    Thanks for your wonderful, caring approach!

  5. Those are nice! I’m guessing you hollow the logs on the bandsaw? Can’t believe you put out 150/day, wow! People always say “work smart, not hard”, so stupid. It’s impressive to see what a smart and skilled worker can pull off when he still works hard and takes pride in it! You are an inspiration, thank you Paul.

  6. Had a go at making a log birdbox today. Used my electric chainsaw to do the work. Made the back, lid and base from log outside slices and nailed it together. Will see if it attracts inhabitants. Not sure that I could make 150 in 2 days, but 2 / 3 an hour more likely. Possibly more if I geared up to do it.

    1. I hope no one here has to ever make 150 a day. I was feeding my family at a time when there was a need for work so I designed these back in the late 1980s. It worked. My first order was for 500 and they needed them next week!!!.

      1. For similar reasons I worked 100+ hour weeks at busy times> I guess the pressure to do something just means that you get on and do it. I am assuming that you didn’t do 150 in an 8 hour day.

  7. Freelancing or self employment are available routes for taking the enterprising out from that dreadful label “redundant”. Far too often the redundant person has been made so through no fault of their own, as companies grind along their natural money-squeezing courses. I’d expunge the term from the English language.

  8. Michael Briggs

    Thanks Paul, those who like making when not thinking how and what’s next, spend a lot of time pondering while creating.

    I am no different regularly being told you could sell those. Nah, it would curb my flexibility and require timeliness and may just take the fun out of it. Making things from scrap or recycled material then passing them to someone as a gift or for something needed is feeling that makes it all worthwhile.

  9. Graeme C. Payne

    Thank you for the derivation of the term free-lance. I admit I had not thought much of it, but your explanation makes it obvious.

    At the end of my professional technical career I was occasionally at loose ends, so I often did temporary work for others but using the title “consultant” instead of freelancer.

  10. There is a satisfaction that comes from creating something with your own hands. Absolutely no doubt. Sadly we are a small percentage of the population but I would not have it any other way. The pleasure I get from finishing a project, regardless of how small or insignificant, is a part of my life and has been since I was 8 or so when my dad let me play in his workshop. Those of us that choose to do these things regardless of the medium are fortunate especially in these times. I have no trouble spending hours alone in my shop and there is always something to do. It keeps me sane and happy at the same time.

  11. John Cantwell

    That’s a wonderful tale Paul. I gained similar joy from building nesting boxes for tiny Sugar Glider possums here in Australia. It was a real thrill to see the little fellows spread the skin between their legs and sail off over 30-40 metres to the next tree!

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