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Making a living with woodworking?

kmausmus's picture

Hi all,
I'm at a point in my life where I'm trying to figure out what I want to do with my life. I'm working on a master's degree but not sure that it's what I want to do. My question is this. Is it possible to make a decent living as a woodworker? And if so, what kind of work would it be, and how would I get started? I realize that the scope of those questions is pretty large, but I'd appreciate any advice you have to offer.

Kyle

boilerbay's picture

(post #118905, reply #1 of 267)

Kyle,

Finish masters first. You can always fall back on it. Do ww on side while building skills. Understand all small business needs and accounting. It's a business first and foremost and there is no place for a hobby outlook IF your going to make a living at it. If you want a hobby that's different. You will have to have good to excellent product, be better than average go gettter, a self starter and good to great marketing skills with the ability not to quit if it gets a little rough. It will be. Develop contacts - social and business. During that time, reassess and think hard if that's what you want to do. Time in grade will answer many of your questions. If you can be more specific, ask the individual questions here because what you ask is a biggy.

Most here will help you if you ask.

Bon Chance

BB

9619's picture

(post #118905, reply #2 of 267)

Kyle,

You asked: "Is it possible to make a decent living as a woodworker? "

The only possible answer is "OBVIOUSLY, since many people do it, and have for centuries.

YOu asked: "what kind of work would it be?"

Answer: If you have to ask, then the answer would be "Whatever your boss tells you to do? The reason is that one who is in charge would do whatever he wants to do (that will result in making money.)

You asked: "how would I get started?"

Answer: First learn how to do woodworking and how to run a successful business. Put the two together, and the rest will be history.

You didn't say much about yourself. You are working on your second degree? Are these degrees relevant to woodwork? Art would be relevant. Business would be relevant. ????? What can you tell us about your degrees?

What can you tell us about your degree of skill in woodworking? Are you quite knowledgeable, or just getting interested in what woodworking really is?

What is your monetary status? Are you independently wealthy? If so, woodworking would be a fine thing to get started in. It would be as good as anything else. Are you married to a woman who can bring in enough money for you to have negative cash flow for a number of years?

Why are you interested in woodwork?

There is a wealth of information about woodworking as a business in the archives of Knots. A wonderful thread on how to make money in woodworking just petered out a few weeks ago. There have been lots of previous threads on this. I can't imagine that anyone would have anything new to say. I recommend you spend a few evenings looking up what has already been hashed over.

Do you know many of the players on Knots. There are a lot of successful professional woodworkers here, although the hobbyists outnumber them greatly. I am of the latter ilk.

There is some old wisdom about learning about a company before you interview with them for a job. My personal opinion is that is ALWAYS a good idea. For example, before I would recommend that a person ask the questions you asked, the person do a large amount of research, and then ask more specific questions on Knots. It shows more seriousness. I have to wonder why anyone would get two college degrees and then think about getting into woodwork. To be successful in woodwork, one must be focussed and have sticktoitivity.

I wish you a great deal of good fortune, whatever you do. Whatever you do, homework is important. Have fun. I hope I was able to help.

Mel

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

kmausmus's picture

(post #118905, reply #3 of 267)

Thanks for the quick responses. Allow me to elaborate on my situation a bit. You asked about my degrees and their relevance to woodworking. I have a bachelor's in Biblical Studies and am working on my Master's in Divinity. These two degrees pretty much allow me to do one thing, and that is be a minister in a church. While faith, and religion remain a staple in my life... circumstances have changed in such a way that I do not think I will ever be employed by a church. If you have more question about this, I'd be more than happy to talk in greater detail about it, but that's the short story.
I am not independently wealthy. My wife is a school teacher, so the money isn't exactly pouring in.
As far as my woodworking experience...I am a beginner. I'm interested in it because the experience I have had with it, I have enjoyed. I realize that there are lots of things I need to do before it would be possible for me to make a living at this, and I know I have much to learn. I appreciate everyone's willingness to answer my questions. I'll try to become more specific as I learn more.

Kyle

newbie303's picture

(post #118905, reply #6 of 267)

My experience in woodworking started by a friend asking me if I could make her a "kneeler" so she could say prayers at home. I make it from oak and padded the kneeling platform before covering it with leather. Since then I have made 3 more for her friends (including a pastor)and sold them for slight profit. I guess for what it's worth, the church is a good place to develop your woodworking interests. Start with something small such as a Bible box and present it as a gift, and see where it leads. Good luck!

BG's picture

(post #118905, reply #17 of 267)

newbie303,

Recently, someone made a couple of rolling carts for our church that sit in the vestibule supporting church fliers and other stuff like that. They are awful. My guess is they were built as a first project by someone who is enthusiastic but hasn't learned some of the finer points like square joinery or what a plane is for. Of course, I've learned these things...along with the fact that there are numerous people in our community that are graduates of the North Bennett Street School...so I wouldn't touch a project like that, devout coward.

Hastings's picture

(post #118905, reply #23 of 267)

K:

Haven't you asked and answered your own question?

"These two degrees pretty much allow me to do one thing, and that is be a minister in a church. While faith, and religion remain a staple in my life... circumstances have changed in such a way that I do not think I will ever be employed by a church."

Your move into woodworking would follow in the foot steps of one J. Christ and in that vein your undergrad and masters (if you decide to complete it) could be useful.

A little more temporally, expertise in marketing and business would be helpful. As has been said many times on this forum, woodworking businesses don't fail for a lack of woodworking skill.

Regards,

Hastings

Lataxe's picture

(post #118905, reply #26 of 267)

Kyle,


The Jammer gave you the best short answer to your question, worth repeating in summary:


"You can make a living at anything.....  You can also fail to make a living at all those things..... Woodworking is just another item on that very long list".


Many others have pointed out that the business of woodworking is mostly about business and little about woodworking.  So do you want to run a business or enjoy yoursen making wooden items of utility and beauty?  If the latter, it's best to keep woodworking as a hobby.


There are exceptions that (unfortunately) gain prominence.  The Maloof or the Krenov model appeals to would-be professional woodworkers and tends to hide the business-drudgery under the sheen of their success.  One comes across many other commercial woodworking ventures where drudgery is the general order of the day and fellows have to make the same boring old kitchen cabinet most of the time.  They are compromised and rarely get to make what they would like to make.


In any case, even the kitchen cabinet making becomes a welcome relief from the business drudgery they must do 90% of the time.


Is there something of this story revealing itself to you with the divinity-education scenario?  You want to learn about matters to do with spirit and apply them in the world; but any related employment seems to involve the drudgery and compromise that goes with the various institutionalised aspects of churches?  Just a guess.


****


Ambitions to join work and pleasure are laudable.  Some manage to do it.  Many others fail or (worse) find themselves in a long limbo between failure and success.  Only you can decide if you want to take the (considerable) risk; and whether you have the drive to not just succeed financially but deal with all the necessary compromises, one way or another.


Personally I regarded work as a necessary evil and became a wage slave.  Even wage-slavery offers some delights and pleasures amongst its frustrations, not least a decent wage and pension.  But also some interesting activity albeit often polluted with management idiocy, office politics and the like. 


However, the beauty of 9 to 5 is that 5 to 9 is all yours (as well as the weekends).  Many of my self-employed friends work 12-14 hours a day, seven days a week.  They are rarely content, even when the business is successful.


Lataxe, a now escaped wage slave so free at last.

Napie's picture

(post #118905, reply #4 of 267)

While I was never a professional woodworker I owned /built a large mechanical contracting firm for quite a number of years and there are some similarities (I’m now retired after selling the business and do some part-time business/sales consulting).  The most important question you can ask yourself is “what is a decent living?”  Only you can answer that.  If the work is satisfying enough that money is secondary then you understand your value proposition.   A younger single guy in good health can get by on $500 a week from a 65 hour workweek if he wants too.  But what about marriage and sending two kids to college and all the costs associated with that, my daughter’s undergrad cost me $220,000.00. Granted it was a costly school(s) but as a student you know firsthand what those can be.  Benefits?  Insurance? Retirement? 


No matter what, the business of any endeavor is really far more important than the endeavor itself.  While I did mechanical contracting the piping, sheet metal, equipment, controls, plumbing etc, etc, were NEVER as important as the business side of the operation.  First you gotta sell, and then you execute and document and manage then most important you must get PAID!!!


I do love my woodworking hobby though, the contracting paid for some pretty nice stuff.


Just my thoughts.   

9619's picture

(post #118905, reply #8 of 267)

Napie,
Given your background, I'd like to hear your thoughts on what it would take for this young man to become sufficiently proficient at woodworking that he has a chance of making a living at it.d

How long would he have to train, if he trained under someone who is already very good? What do you think the cost would be for that training? I am just talking estimates. They could be way off, but something in the way of an estimate might help.

How long would it take him to train himself, using books, DVDs and Knots, and practice, practice, practice.

I am assuming that he would have to live off of savings while he either got trained or trained himself.

Finally, how much would he have to spend on a shop/tools, to be ready to make a living, after he has sufficient skills?

I am guessing that if he is a good student in woodworking, it would take him around two years to learn enough, under the tutelage of a good woodworker. I am guessing that it would take more than twice that long if he tried to learn on his own. I am guessing that it would be difficult to put a shop together, even using second hand tools, for less than $5,000.

Notice, I didnt ask anything about him learning business skills, and how to run a shop. That is a REALLY difficult question.

I am afraid that he is going to get a bunch of very positive advice from folks like the nice person who suggested that he start with Bible boxes and kneelers, and try to make a few bucks off of each from members of the church. Unless he is in a very wealthy, very big church, this clientele couldn't support him, IMHO.

My suggestion would be that while learning woodworking, he would have to develop a business plan, with times and dollar amounts that he needs to achieve. If he has only enough money to support himself for three years before he needs income from woodwork, then his plan needs to have sufficient income from woodworking in that amount of time.

Also, I believe he has to determine what his focus will be in woodworking, eg, making and installing built ins, making fine furniture, etc. There is an immense amount of competition in most areas in making and installing built ins. Making fine furniture, IMHO, requires that one have access to people with the means to pay for such items. I don't seeing anyone making a living in woodwork by trying to compete with IKEA.

I am anxious to hear your thoughts on the time to learn and the cost to get started.

Have fun.
Mel

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

Napie's picture

(post #118905, reply #9 of 267)

Sam Maloff stated in his book that he considered woodworking school a waste of money and that you would be far better off buying tools, machinery and lumber and teaching yourself as he did, who am I to argue.   So as to the actual woodworking, I have nothing to add, it’s a hobby for me so if I want a new shoulder plane, I just buy it, a professional needs to access if one is even needed.


He asked about making a decent living at a craft and that is a business related question not a craft one.  Maloff got the equivalent price of a new BMW five series for a rocker that probably will not happen again even though both are good values for the money.  It is often overlooked at just how skilled Maloff was at promoting himself, he was a born salesman.  So, he needs to do the market research, customer evaluation, skill assessment including his ability to sell (that is key, our economy is sales driven, no order no work) and write the business plan to see if he can make it in this endeavor all framed by his expectations of the lifestyle he wants to derive from it.


(Sounds like a consultant don’t it…)

CStanford's picture

(post #118905, reply #15 of 267)

Wasn't Maloof a graphic designer, a pretty fair artist, before he changed media to wood?

Napie's picture

(post #118905, reply #16 of 267)

I believe he was 35 when he started woodworking fulltime, prior to that he was a graphic artist/illustrator.

CStanford's picture

(post #118905, reply #19 of 267)

Innate artistic talent transferable to different media. That's what he had.

Obviously, not all of us find ourselves in that happy circumstance. It does make a difference.

Buster2000's picture

(post #118905, reply #20 of 267)

It seems to me that Esherick, Maloof, Krenov, and Nakashima all turned to furniture later in life.  But were involved in other Artistic endevours prior to...

CStanford's picture

(post #118905, reply #21 of 267)

Yep, unfortunately no substitute for raw talent. An analogy from athletics is probably appropriate "you can't coach speed."

Buster2000's picture

(post #118905, reply #22 of 267)

Of course those guys are an extreme.  Nakashima, Maloof, and Krenov designs are very distinct.  I think someone could be considered successful without reaching these levels.


Honestly all my business experience points at one thing:  You have to be very good at marketing yourself, you only have to be competent at you're chosen skill...

Jammersix's picture

(post #118905, reply #14 of 267)

Mel, I'm not Napie, but I have part of an answer.

The trades have had established apprenticeships for centuries. A modern apprenticeship is a course that has evolved over that time, and is designed to be the fastest route from here to there.

That wasn't always the case, in the Middle Ages, an apprentice was another stream of income for a Master, both in his tuition and in the work he did. That has changed; now an apprentice's wages are set to generate a small payoff for the employer, but in practice it's approximately the same payoff you get from hiring a J-man. An employer is expected to donate the bad language necessary.

At any rate, a modern, formal apprenticeship consists of classroom work, (in union classes, the lectures are on dvds) supervised "projects", (supervised by J-men who are chosen for their ability to teach and employed by the union at the school) and employment. In my opinion, all are necessary-- you must have the experience, there is no substitute for work performed under the gun, and in light of the cold, hard fact that if you can't keep up on this, you're going to lose your job. You must have the "projects", because no one under the gun wants to talk an ape through hanging a door for the first time, and you must have the classroom, because on the job, the J-men he's working with may or may not be able to teach him what he needs to know, and may have little or no interest in answering his questions. Not to mention that there isn't TIME to answer the question "what is slump?" during a concrete pour.

The payoff for an employer is simple. A brand new, raw first year apprentice starts at 60% of J-man scale, and is promoted in increments of 5%. If you take him and teach him to nail sheathing, and you drive him to do so reasonably quickly, say, at 80% of the rate of a J-man, you make 20%. That's your incentive to teach him individual tasks, and give him just enough knowledge to do one thing, and a reasonable amount of slack to "practice". Then if he isn't cutting it, you replace him. Being laid off is, in construction, a teaching tool. One of the wisest things an apprentice can learn to do is to go to a foreman who has just laid him off, and ask "is there anything I can do to improve on my next job?"

So, after taking the long way around, my opinion is this: modern apprenticeships, a combination of class, projects and experience, are the fastest way to learn a trade. Cabinetmaking (millwork) is a trade. Carpentry is a trade. Furniture making is a trade. There's nothing new here. Those trades are literally centuries old, and while the curriculums, equipment and methods evolve, they evolve slowly enough that the trades aren't that different from thirty years ago.

You can take someone, sit them in a classroom, and stuff everything into him about how to build a house, or a tiltup, or a cabinet, a chainsaw or a milling machine, until he can pass any test on paper. But when he gets out to the jobsite, he's still going to beat the hell out of his thumb with his hammer, until he learns. Likewise, if you take a guy and have him nail pans for four years and never teach him about the theory of concrete, you'll have a guy who can nail pans faster than anyone in the county, but won't be able to do anything else. It's not just about knowledge and it's not just about experience.

When someone tells me today that he has three years building furniture, I hear "fourth year apprentice". That's being VERY generous if he's working alone, without instruction.

The apprenticeship to become a Journeyman Carpenter is designed to be four years long. Millwork used to be four years long, I don't know if that's changed, there were rumors a few years ago that it might change. Furniture is four years long. At the end of that time, you will be a Journeyman, and will have a fairly good, basic understanding of working as labor in your chosen trade.

Business is another story. Management and leadership demand different knowledge, and more experience. No one will follow a foreman who doesn't know the trade, for starters. Past that, most of business can be taught in a classroom, and a Bachelor's in business would be, in my opinion, a fine place to start. Not to mention that paying tuition at a university is MUCH cheaper than paying your accountant to explain a balance sheet to you, or an attorney to explain the various forms of limited liability companies. Don't even get me started about contracts and fiduciary responsibilities, and how that can apply to a civil suit.

Leadership is an extremely complex subject, but it's also surprisingly simple. Leaders are not born, they are created. Leadership is a skill, it can be taught, learned and deliberately employed. It is by far the most difficult to master and has by far the greatest payoff.

So how long to learn woodworking? My answer would be four years, provided that you have a source of good, consistent instruction.

Good luck, and to the original poster, welcome to the trades!


"A few of us went down to Gettysburg. Some of us didn't come back.

If you weren't there, you'll never understand."-- Unknown Infantryman

9619's picture

(post #118905, reply #18 of 267)

Jammer.
IMHO, your response is a classic. I hope the OP reads it. He has gotten some very good feedback. Prunus (Charles Stanford) gave him excellent advice, and so didn't you.

But, you know, our advice has been "general" and not specific to the OP, who we barely know. The OP has put six years or so into getting two college degrees. Given that, my recommendation would be to get a job related to his degrees and learn woodworking while doing that. Six years is a BIG INVESTMENT in time and money. All three of my kids have advanced degrees. If any one of them had told me that after getting a masters or a PhD, they were going to dump all of that to go into something else, I would have lost my cool and delivered a lecture that they wouldn't have paid attention to. Luckily they used their education well.

There is nothing wrong with going to college and studying something for a while and then deciding it is not for you. BUT SIX YEARS IS A LONG TIME, and six years is average for two degrees.

I have never had woodworking lessons. But I have been learning slowly since 1968, with no reason to learn more quickly. If I were going to get into woodwork, I would surely find someone who I believe is GOOD, and work for them. I would only do this with someone who is successful in the business end of woodworking and was going to teach me the business end as well as the woodworking end.

Can you learn woodworking by yourself? SURE, most of us do. But most of us here in Knots are hobbyists. I guarantee you that if I worked for Ray Pine or Rob Millard or Richard Jones for a few years, I would learn infinitely more than I could figure out by myself.

But there is one guy who is well known to have been successful in teaching new woodworkers to become successful in the fine woodworking business. He is David Savage, of Great Britain. He would be my first choice to learn the woodworking business.

Last point. If a kid came to me and asked me to teach him woodworking, I would consider it, but I would first check for something, and that something would be "fire in the belly". He or she would have to REALLY WANT to learn, and that would have to be demonstrated not by words, but by what they have been doing - trying things, reading, learning, making things, getting some tools, etc. THere is a young guy here on Knots with fire-in-the-belly, and that would be Chris (Flairwoodworks). He is a real up and comer. Reading what the OP has written, I see more of a gentle inquiry than fire in the belly, but I may be wrong.

Thanks for your great response.
Mel

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

PrunusSerotina's picture

(post #118905, reply #24 of 267)

I take offense to you stating that I'm Charles Stanford. I prefer to keep my anonymity, but I can assure you that my name is not Charles Stanford.

You shouldn't make these assumptions in public to the entire forum. I come to this forum to discuss woodworking topics, and to help out when I can. Unlike Charles Stanford (he admits this openly) I get no satisfaction from seeing the forum wars rage on between individuals. In fact, it disgusts me, so I stay away from those threads.

Let's try to get it right, ok Mel?

9619's picture

(post #118905, reply #25 of 267)

Prunus,
I apologize. No offense intended. I think highly of Charles.
Mel

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

forestgirl's picture

(post #118905, reply #29 of 267)

Perhaps you could go back and edit the post....


forestgirl -- you can take the girl out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the girl ;-) 


Edited 9/18/2009 11:59 am by forestgirl

forestgirl -- you can take the girl out of the forest, but you can't take the forest out of the girl ;-) 

CStanford's picture

(post #118905, reply #30 of 267)

Mel, I post under the above name. That's it.

9619's picture

(post #118905, reply #31 of 267)

Charles,
I thought you also posted under the name Forestgirl. I guess I was mistaken. :-)

Glad to hear you are limiting yourself to one name now. I believe that is a good idea. -- not a necessary one, but a good one.

Have fun,
Mel

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

Measure your output in smiles per board foot. 

CStanford's picture

(post #118905, reply #32 of 267)

I've thought about creating a screen name and posting as a total alter ego, a real goody two-shoes, but I just couldn't bring myself to it.

The waterfront is more than covered with them.

Jammersix's picture

(post #118905, reply #5 of 267)

You can make a living at anything.

People make livings singing songs, writing (and reading) poetry, talking on the phone, babbling on the radio, posing for pictures, climbing mountains, teaching scuba diving, music, painting or driving, watching TV, fixing teeth, cars, air conditioners and listening to people talk about their sex lives. Some people even make a living having sex.

You can also fail to make a living at all those things.

Woodworking is just another item on that very long list.


"A few of us went down to Gettysburg. Some of us didn't come back.

If you weren't there, you'll never understand."-- Unknown Infantryman

BenM's picture

(post #118905, reply #7 of 267)

I'm just a hobbyist so read this with that in mind.  If you want to make a small fortune in woodworking start with a large fortune.  You are better off being a so-so woodworker and a great business person than being a great woodworker but just a so-so business person.


If your master's is an MBA that would be a good thing.

ukmeager's picture

(post #118905, reply #10 of 267)

A very good question andone that most of us ask at some point the answer is yes you can if you are very luckyI firstly sauggest you buy a book called CABINETMAKING A PROFESSIONAL APPROACH [2nd edition ]by ALAN PETERS ISBN No 97885442-111-4 This will tell you prety much all you need to know Of course your work has to be good enough and a sufficiently high enough standard to command the pices you will have to charge. If at all possible try and find someone who is already doing it and talk to them BEST OF LUCK GED


 

PrunusSerotina's picture

(post #118905, reply #11 of 267)

I'm going to give you a dose of reality. You say that you are a beginner at woodworking. That's a good place to start. However, what you are suggesting is about as likely as saying "I want to be a professional basketball, baseball, football, or (insert sport) player.

You have to first acquire the skills to make either furniture, crafts, or cabinetry that people are willing to purchase from you. And, you have to be able to do it at a high level of skill, over and over again.

Now that you have this wonderful skill developed, you now need to have a properly outfitted workshop with all the necessary tools for you to complete the projects you plan on selling (remember that word.....selling).

Now, you need to have capital, otherwise known as money, money, and money. It can exist in the form of a wife whose salary is enough to pay all of your bills, or it could exist in the way of a line of credit against your home (which I STRONGLY advise against), or even a rich relative willing to properly back you.

Now, you need the knowledge and experience to properly set up and run a successful business, with the ability to change hats from woodworker to janitor to building engineer to accountant to manager to SALESMAN (notice, in capital letters.)

Now, with all this in place, you need the most important skill of all. You must be an excellent sales person. Some of the finest craftsmen and women around the country are starving because they can't sell food to starving people. If you don't have a background in sales, or at least the affinity to successfully communicate and sell to other humans, none of the other aforementioned skills are going to help you much.

All of these things listed above are critically important to a successful business plan. However, only being an outstanding sales person can overcome starting a business in the present world economy that we all find ourselves in. To put it plainly, this economy is probably not the best for starting a new endeavor in. In fact, if you were my son, I'd tell you to forget about it for a few years.

Develop your skills in woodworking, and see where that goes. Stash a few thousand bucks in the bank for the rainy day that is certainly going to come, and learn what you can about operating a business.

I've only covered a small bit of what it takes, but it's a start. Ask questions.


Edited 9/16/2009 6:02 pm ET by PrunusSerotina

Eef's picture

(post #118905, reply #12 of 267)

kyle,

for what it's worth, i did cabinet work for seven years and that was my sole source of income for that time period. i never had to advertise, as all work came by word-of-mouth. i learned a great deal. mostly what not to do. my skills improved. the work was often varied. mostly built-in type cabinetry, some furniture and plenty of entertainment centers. in 1992 i was asked if i would like to teach high school wood shop and i went to work at several inner-city schools in los angeles. my partner from 17 years ago is still at it. he does ok. having good insurance for my family and a steady paycheck has been nice. i still take on cabinet work during summer, as i do not get paid during that season. i still suck at bidding so i do now what i did back then. i run all of my bids past my cabinetmaking friends, and that seems to work out fine also.
just my experience...

eef

mvflaim's picture

(post #118905, reply #13 of 267)