Making a profit in woodworking is really a simply mathematical formula – did you make more money then you spent, and was that money, when divided by the number of hours you spent on the project enough for you?
Wood and hardware aren’t something you can really control. Sure, you can shop around, but the money you’d save probably wouldn’t offset the time you spent looking for the deal.
How much you charge for the project is somewhat under your control; obviously, people will only pay so much for the piece.
Your time spent on the project is the most malleable factor of them all; the less time, the better. The sooner you can move on to the next project – and the next profit.
This is where the big boys – like Stickley – get it right. Having taken their factory tour, I saw firsthand how they turn out tens of (if not a hundred plus) thousands of dollars worth of product every day. They have a two-pronged advantage – they have the benefit of mass production, and the advantage of specialized machinery.
We’re the little guys – we don’t have that advantage; or do we?
Let’s steal from the big guys.
Do things in batches (or “runs). When you make one, you can make several. It’s much more efficent – and accurate – to set up a table saw (band saw, router, etc) once, and make many cuts of the same type, then to make many cuts and as many set-ups.
If it adds quality and saves time, buy it. I’m talking about tools, but also help, whether in-house, or contracted out. Consider investing in a tool such as a CNC router, which is very accurate, and can cut parts on it’s own while you do something else. In lieu of that, contract out some time consumptive task, such as a rocker seat, to another shop with a better CNC router that can pop them out with great quality. Get the picture? At Stickley, I observed this – they didn’t spend a lot of time (and therefore money) on things that didn’t add value for the customer. Yes, hand cut dovetails are great and all, but a typical consumer won’t be able to tell the difference between hand cut and those done by a highly accurate machine. Instead, they spent money (i.e, craftsman hours) on things that DO matter to the customer, fit and and finish.
Be Original. Yes, you can make a reproduction of say, a federalist table, but….so can other guys. If other guys can do it, that means…competition. You don’t want any competition. If you are putting out original (tables, chairs, cutting boards, etc), and it’s a good design, you have no competition, and therefore, should have more sales.
Look around and steal something! No, I’m not encouraging you to go on some felonious caper; what I’m saying is, look at what other guys in your line of work are doing and observe them. Look at their website – they often give off tips unknowingly about what works for them. I’m not saying steal their product idea – but how they market or sell.