Upon graduating from high school, I wasn’t sure exactly what career to pursue, but I knew it had to be something that involved creating things with my hands. I’d always had natural talent working with tools, and despite having been an A-average student, I was never fond of conventional academics. Not having better plans at the time, I took one calculus course, got an “A”, then promptly decided two things: I didn’t enjoy college and taking on any debt would force me into a dull, conventional 9-5 job until the debt could be paid off. I didn’t know this back then, but I was pretty much a textbook case of the restless student with the entrepreneurial spirit. Just a few months later, I got the opportunity to accept an apprenticeship at Remmert Studios which was an incredible break. It was a result of reading a local newspaper article about the business, then going to meet the owner. Not many are able to break into woodworking that easily, especially in the high-end market. That company did a lot of contemporary furniture for churches, and being short-staffed, it wasn’t long before I was given a full-time position.While working that job, I was also taking week-long classes at Marc Adams School of Woodworking as time and money permitted. The combination of hands-on work and classroom study allowed me to acquire new skills very quickly. Being at the school also netted an internship opportunity with one of North America’s most prestigious furniture-makers, Michael Fortune.
Though I’d not planned to strike out on my own, in 2012, it occurred to me I had gained the experience and skills needed to do so and financially, it appeared to be a good time to make it happen. Since I had experience in the field, I chose to remain in the church furniture market but focus more on traditional styles. I’d always admired the old, high altars in European churches and hoped to build some myself. Large scale work does require more than one person, and fortunately, I was able to recruit Austin Glidewell to help establish Altare Design, LLC. By this time I’d mastered conventional woodworking techniques and possessed a working knowledge of marketing, website-building, photography, 3D modeling and business tax laws.
In being self-employed, one day will greatly vary from the next, but generally, I start in the morning by dealing with in-town errands or head right to the shop if there are none. Once at the shop, there’s an e-mail check, then a brief glance at various websites to look for new developments related to our market and clientele. Then the real workday starts. I’ve got a bunch of notes regarding current projects taped next to my computer and will make a list for the day’s tasks by picking the highest priority items from the notes. The goal is to get that stuff accomplished by the end of the day. There are two of us in the shop, but we usually work on separate projects, so that’s why I have my own to-do list. Some days are spent on the computer designing or creating programs for the laser or CNC. Other times we’re doing runs of sunglasses or guitar parts which we sell wholesale to other businesses. In which case, I may be operating the laser or CNC. Despite the high-tech tooling, there’s still a lot of bench work to do, and that can involve cutting and fitting joints with chisels and hand planes. Besides that, there’s always plenty of rough lumber to mill since no project can begin until boards are flattened, surfaced and cut to dimension.
Of course, there’s the occasional install, client meeting or photo-shoot, but those don’t happen often enough to be considered a typical day. I should mention that every day brings its share of phone conversations with clients and suppliers. That happens at all hours. Most work days end by 7:30pm, and once I’m home and have eaten supper, I’ll usually put another hour into handling whatever financial, legal or internet tasks are most pressing at the time. Altogether, a typical work day is about 12 hours, and this is 6 days a week. At 2 1/2 years old, the business is still a start-up which is the reason such long hours are necessary.
My hands-down favorite thing to do is develop the process for manufacturing a new product. This involves figuring out how to design a product so that it’s not only durable and functional, but also economical to build. Then all the jigs, fixtures and CNC programs have to be created and tested until the whole process is running smoothly. Up to now, the most challenging project has been our line of wooden sunglasses which were developed for a specific client. We spent hundreds of hours just figuring out how to build the first pair then hundreds more hours refining the process until they became profitable.
The worst part of the job for me is dealing with legal matters and paperwork. There may not be a lot, and hiring an accountant and lawyer removes much of the burden, but it still seems like I’m filling out a form or making a phone call at least once a week to deal with red-tape. Even something as simple as setting up to buy from a new supplier can require filling out and submitting a tax document. We did have to spend a half hour unloading a wood delivery in freezing rain once, which was a terrible experience, but still not as bad as the constant need to fill IRS forms.
Develop lots of connections
My basic advice is to develop lots of connections with people. Most branches of woodworking are hard to sell without knowing the right people – especially when targeting the luxury furnishings or corporate markets. I started down this path with the idea that I might own my own shop but forgot about that once I’d accepted employment in the field. Since I was satisfied working for others, I didn’t bother making the connections, and now I’m so busy it’s hard to get away from the shop long enough to do so. That’s not the end of the world, as we’re still pulling in plenty of work. It just took longer to get there than it should have. For those considering a self-employed woodworking career, it’s a good idea to meet individuals who associate with the types of people that are likely to become future clients. Word-of-mouth is still a powerful form of marketing even in this age of internet.
Three other tidbits
I’ve got a three other bits of advice: First of all, get really, really good at woodworking. There are lots of people who enjoy it as a hobby. To sell your services, you’ve got to be able to do far superior work or do it much faster than everyone else (preferably both). Failure to do so means competing against hundreds of amateurs who make things for the pleasure of it, then sell their work at cost to fund the hobby. Second, develop great people skills. Most professionals do custom work and few focus on selling a product. Most of them sell a service, and a big part of that is getting customers to enjoy the experience of collaborating with a woodworker to create their dream products. If your customers don’t like you, they can usually save time and money by getting something from an online catalog. People who buy handcrafted items from woodworkers are often attracted to the idea of supporting artisans. The face behind the work is important to them. Last, develop an iron-clad work ethic. In this field you’re directly trading time for money, and that time is very limited. It’s important to be productive, so try to get 40 hours of actual productivity (as in making things) every week. Accounting, phone conversations and social media marketing may be important, but none of them provide an actual paycheck, so they don’t count as productive work.
As for schooling, many local school districts, community colleges and woodworking stores offer woodworking classes, but those are a mixed bag. A handful is really good and many are terrible. There’s also a big difference between woodworking for fun and doing it for a living, and most classes are geared towards hobbyists. Out of all the proper woodworking schools with good reputations, I’ve only had personal experience with Marc Adams School of Woodworking. That place I recommend 100%, as the instructors are generally active professionals in their specialized niches, so one can always pick their brains for extra information related to earning a living. The director of the school also does a good job of screening instructors to eliminate the ones that don’t interact well in a classroom setting.
Apprenticeships or internships are definitely a viable path. They can be the fastest way to learn due to all the hands-on experience, and some will even provide a small income. Those opportunities can be hard to find for those not already familiar with the woodworking scene. Supporting skills such as accounting, business, marketing, photography and website administration can be learned formally via conventional education such as college, but it’s tough to dedicate time and money in that route while also trying to master woodworking. Books and the internet are handy in this regard, and I did learn to setup WordPress websites by utilizing a basic Lynda.com subscription.
Getting your foot in the door
One simple method of getting your foot in the door is to check out Craigslist help-wanted ads. It’s about the only place I’ve seen a decent selection of job postings for woodworking, and some are entry-level positions. Once a little experience with basic tools is acquired, more options open up. However, a lot of the most interesting positions can’t be found by searching jobs postings. Many high-end furniture shops recruit via networking instead of advertising for help. To break into the custom furnishings market, do research to find out who is doing the sort of work you’d like to get into, then figure out what circles they participate in. If they belong to a particular artist association, try to attend their shows or get an introduction to one of the members. If they teach classes, attend their classes. The goal is to get their attention, and let it be known you wish to pursue a woodworking career. Demonstrate good work ethic, reliability and a willingness to learn, and someone might take notice. Talk to people and continue to introduce yourself to others.
Get an internship
Don’t be afraid to ask if there are internship or apprenticeship opportunities. Even if you’re declined, people will know you’re looking, and if you continue to hang out in their circles and demonstrate that you’d be a model employee, someone will take notice. There’s no shortage of woodworkers, but there is a severe shortage of enthusiastic and phenomenal woodworkers.