It’s Not Always Dovetails & Unicorns

March 21, 2013

Hi Everyone

I think most will understand the tongue  and cheek title. The reason why I’m writing this is because I haven’t posted about furniture work in progress for awhile. Have I stopped making furniture? No, there just hasn’t been any new commissions until recently so I’ve been working on small items such as cutting boards, candle holders, cheese presses, along with other small projects. There is a somewhat large cabinet commission that has been on hold while the slab Walnut top settles down a bit more. Aside from that, not much in the way of furniture. There are shows coming up but budget has not allowed me to build new pieces.

Why am I bring this out in the open? Simple answer is because most self employed furniture makers and wood workers will face similar at one time or another. Some see it through and others give up and find full-time employment. We all have dreams of becoming the next James Krenov, George Nakashima or Sam Maloof. Clients calling, selling out at every show, cost is no object commissions, dovetails and unicorns fill our days. Truth is, this doesn’t happen for many of us so we need to do what works for us as craftsmen.

For me, I’d rather continue to work from a small studio doing what I love even if it means building candle holders and butter presses. Sure, its simple work and can be done with basic skills but it is wood working and I’m making money from it. I admit, not a lot of money but it does provide an income. With this I can invest in materials to build more pieces for shows and pay bills. I have heard from other woodworkers that feel they will not compromise and do the small craft type items because they have a high skill level and only want to build high-end pieces for high income folks and make high dollar income themselves. These seem to be the least happy of the woodworkers I know. Others tend to work for pennies on the dollar just so they have work. I have done this myself and at times it paid off because I received more or higher paying work but more often than not I developed a clientele that wanted high quality work for cheap.

For those who decide to do this full-time I’d like to hear from you as well on this topic. I’m not much of a writer and only had limited time to write this post so I’m sure I missed a few things. I”ll re-visit this topic soon in another post, perhaps with input from other self-employed furniture makers and woodworkers.

Take Care



7 Responses to “It’s Not Always Dovetails & Unicorns”

  1. Dale – I’m with you. I rather be woodworking than not. I think those who attempt to keep the dream alive do what they have to do. Not everyone falls into things the same way, or has the same ambition, or will make the same compromises or lack there of. It’s all a matter of what each one of us is willing to do to keep going.

    I do two things to help keep me moving forward… 1 is I make small stuff like you do to sell at shows, on my website, and to the community of people around me. The second is I do custom furniture commissions. Now many would say there is nothing wrong with a custom commission, and in a certain sense I agree, but it’s not the same as building a collection or pursuing the craft purely as an artist. At least for me that is. When I build for a show, it stems from passion, desire, and creativity that is only limited by my determination. When doing a commission, I’m locked in and bound to the piece. Even though I’m building one of my designs I have still put on the restraints and largely always stay true to the original piece that was presented. That’s a huge difference for me.

    Well, that’s my quick two cents. Keep it up. Look forward to your Urban Wood Pieces. Hope to make it to the show. Are there any details yet?

  2. Thanks for the reply Joe! Here is a link from 2012 Urban Wood Encounter, info still applies. This year it’s in July during 3rd Ward Gallery Night. If your interested in joining contact Dwayne, there may still be a spot.

  3. Well said Dale,
    For the last couple years, I’ve found myself responding to inquiry after inquiry with the words “custom furniture is my core business, but I guess I can do that repair/restoration for you…”. Frankly, I get inquiries for repair work at least 20:1 vs. custom pieces. It’s not as creative an endeavor, but it pays the bills, so I’ve formally added these services to my business. My preference remains making, but as I see it, if you do a fantastic job for someone, and the appreciate furniture enough that they own something worth repairing, you become THEIR furniture guy (or gal, as the case may be). Do a fantastic job and they’ll be back, and converting a repair job to a repair+ job, or a replacement piece is a way of continuing to operate in your shop, earn income, pay the bills etc, while the commissions aren’t rolling in.

  4. Great post Dale. I tend to build a lot more small items (jewelry boxes, turned items, etc.) that can be shipped rather than larger furniture pieces. I like doing larger pieces from time to time, but have found that my attention span works better with smaller projects. I think you can still do nice work on a smaller, more craft-like scale, and sometimes that can be the gateway piece for customers. Unless you have extreme notoriety, most woodworkers have to be flexible, and make what sells. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have certain standards, but we need to be open to doing a variety of different projects even if it’s not what we would consider our ideal project.

  5. Dale,

    As I’ve matured, I’ve realized I’m an artist who happens to work with wood. It is not enough for me to simply be working with wood.


  6. Great replies guys, keep the coming.

  7. I do 10-12 art shows per year and I have learned over the years that you have to have a variety of items in different price ranges. I always have 2-3 bigger pieces that are what I want to build. The rest of the booth is made up of pieces in several price ranges that make up the bread and butter of sales. You kind of have to. When you are spending $4-5k per year on show fees, you need to think about the bottom line. I try to view the shows as marketing, but I still want it to be profitable while still showing potential clients the level of craftsmanship they can expect from me. Plus it is nice to be able to show your range of craftsmanship as well.

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