In the most recent issue of Fine Woodworking magazine (#235), they have an article on making a living as a woodworker in their article, “Dreaming of Going Pro?“. It could have been a bit more extensive, but nevertheless, it was still very enlightening, because the article had case studies of various woodworkers, and how they were making a go at it. If you don’t have this copy of Fine Woodworking, you might want to get it. In fact, subscribe to the magazine – it’s hands down the best woodworking magazine out there, at least for woodworkers that want to advance their skills and make a living at woodworking.
The last woodworker featured, Don Green, had what I believed to be the winning formula for making money at woodworking, which can be summed up in one word: runs (or batches). His philosophy (and more and more, my own) is that making a living in woodworking can really only be had through, what amounts to, mass production. That doesn’t mean you are becoming a mini IKEA or Sauder, where every piece looks identical; that just can’t be if you have real wood, due to the woodgrain alone, let alone the hand work involved.
In his designing process, he not only goes for a form and function factor, as any good designer should, but he also tries to maximize efficiency and minimize hand tool use, stating, “The minute I go to hand tools, I can’t make any money. So I design based on how close I can get to a finished piece right off the machine.” That alone should be a head slapper. If you have to spend time (and therefore, money) hand tooling an inlay, making a custom jig or other such contrivances for a custom piece, you really can’t make money. I’m making a custom desk right now, and I can verify that – but live and learn. He goes on to say that when he’s designing a piece, “I edit out processes that are too time- consuming.” Too much finicky work, he says, “will bury you.” That’s not to say you should never do custom work, if you love to do it, or have the clients for it; it’s to say that it’s not an efficient way to make money.
Shipping is even factored into his design – another head slapper. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made a custom piece, and had to buy a special size box that it will fit into. Often, I have to cut and break down the box somewhat, or even a second box into the mix, which not only frustrates me, but costs time and money. I really hate packing and shipping, but it is usually necessary, unless I have a local client. If you design to have the piece fit into an readily available box, and you can add just enough cushioning material easily, that’s a very good thing.
You’re probably going to think this guy is my hero – and I believe you’d be right – at least in having figured out how to make money at woodworking, for the article continues to explain that Don will make a full size mock up out of 2x4s and sheetrock screws so he can get a real feel for the form – and refine it until it feels right. Once again, an efficient method. My process has been build a prototype out of the actual wood I had in mind, sell a few, refine, sell a few more, refine, and then i have it about right. What that means is I’m redrawing plans several times and probably re-making jigs as well – not to mention adding confusion.
So then, the question is begged, can you make a living in woodworking just doing commissions? Well, I suppose that also begets the question “What is ‘a living’?” – just how much money is that? Only you can define that. If your income is secondary income to your spouse’s primary income, the answer is probably “yes”. If it’s your primary income, it might be “no”. Commissions, can be feast or famine, and many guys don’t have the stomach (or the savings) to make it. When you have troubled economies, as we have had, then our type of work is usually the first to go.
In my opinion, at least for now (as making a living at woodworking is an ongoing learning experience ), the answer is probably, no, that making a living is not in commissions, but rather in making runs of a great pieces that sell well. This is just what Stickley does (see my three part article on that); they make runs of pieces – maybe it’s a dresser, table or bed for the next three days, then a coffee table and chair the three days following that – but they set up their factory so employees are all making vast batches of the legs, tops, shelves or drawers that are needed to make that certain piece, maximizing efficiency, and therefore, income.