I like to find other woodworkers that are doing well, and try to glean some inspiration and business advice from them. The following is an interview with Brad Sears, a woodturner who specializes in Salt and Pepper mills, and does very well selling them. Brad website is here.
Q. What inspires you regarding wood creations? A. As a turner, I draw most of my inspiration from classical forms like Grecian urns, which inspired my “Classic Series” and, perhaps surprisingly, chess pieces, which form the basis for my “Antique Series.” Interesting though is that my “Olde Tyme” series, one of my most successful designs, was inspired by an old wooden Cracker Barrel. Go figure….
“Classic Series” Salt & Pepper Mill Set; Lathe-turned Cocobolo.
Q. What are the greatest challenges that you have met along the way and how did you overcome them?
- A. Wow…so many. Probably the greatest were (1) overcoming negativity, (2) discovering products that sell while (3) maintaining integrity in the face of the “rules” of the marketplace.
Overcoming negativity. Striking out on my own was pretty scary – and having family members and “friends” telling me that this or that idea wouldn’t work, or that I should concentrate on types of work that weren’t profitable, wasn’t helpful…to say the least(!). I still struggle with this problem, but have overcome most of it by creating a solid business plan, discussing my business only with constructive individuals, whose opinions I respect, while avoiding the topic/setting firm boundaries when it’s not. The second challenge, finding (or discovering) salable work came about by experimenting with a wide range of work in a targeted range of venues, based on my business plan; at the same time, keeping good P&L records to clearly show winners and losers; then focusing my efforts in the winners. The third, maintaining integrity, is the most difficult. The books written on this topic alone could fill a library; but for me, maintaining integrity boils down to the Golden Rule (“So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12 – ESV)). Said differently, I believe in establishing a bond of trust with my patrons. My work is not inexpensive. While a minority of my patrons can easily afford even my most expensive work, I know that others – the young lady just graduating college, a cousin buying a wedding gift and so on – are laying out their very hard-earned money against the promise that they will receive a work that’s finely crafted, unique, beautiful, and durable. For them (especially), the act of purchasing my work is an act of trust. That trust is important to me. I take that trust very seriously.
“Classic Series” Coffee Grinder; Lathe-turned Black Walnut.
Q. What are the greatest rewards that you received from woodworking, personal or tangible?
- A. Being able to earn a living in area about which I am passionate is perhaps the greatest privilege any artisan can receive. Beyond that, working with wood connects us with history. Wooden implements, along with stone, are among mankind’s earliest achievements. The wooden club, spear and bow provided food. A wood fire gave warmth and protection from predators and the elements. Charcoal drawings on cave walls give hints to the nature of prehistoric life. And so on. The Bible tells of the use of wood for both general and very specific purposes (“The cedars of Lebanon,” Acacia, et al.). Jumping ahead, the Renaissance saw the rebirth of exquisite woodwork – some of which has never been equaled. Lathe turning, to give a very personal example, became a hobby of kings and a tangible form of human improvement that persists to this day.
I believe the late David Pye said it best when he wrote,”…in free workmanship (that is: in handmade work) we see the natural order reflected in the works of man.”
Q. What is been your favorite creation so far?
- A. My last one. That might sound trite, but I sincerely try to make each piece a little “better” than the last one. That takes discipline, and I don’t always succeed, but I try to put myself in shoes of the person who buys my work.
To be more specific: my “Olde Tyme” series are fun, lighthearted pieces that recall a slower time, when life centered around semi-autonomous communities; where people knew each other and, for the most part, looked out for their neighbors. My “Antique” and “Classic” series are more formal works – attempts to mirror “pure” forms like chess pieces and Grecian urns in everyday settings. Q. What tips would you give to somebody that is trying to make some money in woodworking?
- A. Be as honest as you know how with your customers and more importantly with yourself. Recognize that “making money” is a “business.” When you start selling your work, you, by definition, become a professional. Do your best to act like one in everything you do. To elaborate on what I mentioned earlier: running a business requires discipline, organization, thrift, energy, passion, funding, and a huge amount of commitment. Give yourself time to learn the various skills of the trade; not only your craft, but the ancillary skills of marketing, product photography, writing, sales, and so on. Celebrate your victories and learn from your failures.
When you find something that sells, concentrate on making that one thing – and make it extremely well. Master that one form, then improve it – and improve it again. Move on to the next only when you have explored that form as far as you are able. I began by making my “Olde Tyme” series pepper mills. Period. For over a year, I only made that one style of pepper mill and sold them at a very reasonable rate making little or no profit. Patrons then asked for matching salt shakers. So I learned to make two forms – the salt shaker and pepper mill – that were virtually identical (at least to the naked eye) and it grew from there. Q. What skill would you like to learn, or some part of woodworking that you haven’t pursued that you would like to?
- I want to continually improve – both my skills and ability to present my work to the community and the public and eventually learn to present my work at the very highest levels – in museums, seats of government, and so forth.
“Antique Series” Salt Shaker/Pepper Mill Set; Lathe-turned Black Walnut