Friday, June 26, 2015

Humble Home

I'm back from a great trip to the Port Townsend School of Woodworking and I'm finally settling in to my new shop space here in Boston. This is going to be my first shop in 12 years that hasn't had to do double duty as a teaching shop and tool factory. Speaking of teaching, there are only two slots still open for my August 17th chair class at North Bennet Street School, so if you're interested please check it out soon.
Here are some shot of the space, lots of air and light.

 It's the same size as my other shop, but with a storeroom in the back and higher ceilings.

Working by the front door gives a great natural raking light.

Being a lefty, the lathe is strategically placed to gather the shavings into the corner to contain the mess.
 The sharpening station  has lots of real estate and light.

 Here is the view from the storeroom and workbench area.

 I've been really enjoying making spindles in this space, as you can see.

 Here is a shot of the majestic Rhodesian Ridgeback Kobe, who I am teaching to be a shop dog, but he seems to think it's a bit beneath him.
He needs to take lessons from Lil, she's a pro.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Letter to a Woodworker Pt. 3

The subtitle of this entry should be " A Party of One". As I've reached out over the years and met so many other makers, there is one constant that seems to transcend ability or interest. It's the characteristics of introversion that nearly all of us exhibit. It's especially noticable during a big show like Handworks, wherein exhibitors and attendees alike seem to share this trait. It's like a loner convention.

I suppose it's worth defining what I mean by introvert. A book that I recently read called "Quiet" by  Susan Cain does a great job of describing it. I only realized the extent of my own traits upon reading it and felt a huge sigh of relief to learn that I wasn't the only one. Basically there is a spectrum of introvert extrovert and everyone falls somewhere along it. Perhaps the greatest sign of introversion is that social interaction is draining and alone time is very necessary to "recharge". I am a bit jealous of people that gain energy at social interaction, for me, it is hugely desirable, but leaves me drained.

This may come as a bit of a surprise to those who have only seen be in my role as a teacher or public speaking. But in those moments I am excited and engaged by the challenge of communicating and sharing my love of the craft. Take note of my whereabouts after the talk, I usually slip away to a quiet corner to gather my energy.

What has this got to do with starting a business as a woodworker? Woodworking is a solitary sport and starting a business is a very personal challenge, pitting your abilities and desires against the world at large. If you are uncomfortable with intense periods of alone time or self motivation without external influence or support, you might find starting an operation that stems from a single operator a tough road. Of course the extrovert might find the sales and marketing of their work much easier as they  naturally gravitate towards interaction, whereas the more introverted might prefer to stay in the shop making stuff. Cultivating both abilities, public presentation and private achievement are both essential to making a go of it as a woodworker.

It is worth stating that there will most certainly be periods, probably extended ones in which it's just you, the work and the voices in your head. This should be considered and expected, especially if you are prone to depression or as many creatives are, self doubt. Reaching out to others in the field, such as I do often through shows like Handworks or WIA is a good idea.

I don't have any great words of wisdom on this subject, it's so very personal. I've spent many years both indulging my introvert tendencies and fighting them. If you haven't paid much attention to your own tendencies, starting down this road will likely bring them into focus.

Thursday, June 4, 2015

Letter to a Woodworker Part 2

Once you are well on your way to establishing your motivations and interest, what about your clients? Understanding their desires and spending habits is just as important and potentially elusive. The purchasing public fickle and they have a lot of competition for their dollars. Establishing the value of your work relative to their money can take some mental exercise and time to develop.
Who are these people that you hope will consistently purchase your woodwork at a price that will support your business (and hopefully family)? Again, I think that the best place to start is with yourself. When did you last spend money on a product similar to the ones that you hope to produce and at the cost you hope to charge? Usually the answer for the budding woodworker is "never". 

It's important to remember that folks operate with much of the sensibilities that guide your own purchasing habits. Try putting yourself in their shoes. I'd advise looking into the buying habits and interest of your peers, friends, parents and neighbors. What would your plumber realistically pay for that? He probably has more money than you think, but how do you connect him to the value of the work? I recall a relative saying "Who would spend $1000 on a wooden chair?" and while it was crass to state, it was the right question. 

It's easy to imagine a wealthy clientele for whom the costs of your product won't be noticed while it's value is obvious. But aiming squarely at a "wealthy" clientele has some inherent risk. Only a small portion of society has such deep pockets and the competition for their dollars is high. As the maker, it’s all too easy to equate your assessment of the value of the time, skill and materials in a piece and imagine that you can think like a “rich” person “ who will have no problem dropping their cash in response. This is not a business plan that I would bet on personally.
To state it plainly, what you make is not valuable until you establish it as such in the mind of your clients.
I’ve sold chairs to library clerks and traded them, at full price for firewood. What is it that connects those folks to the work enough for them to surrender their hard won cash?

As an example, here is an approach that I've taken with my chairs. It's sort of a one act play that I've done a thousand times. 
Know it or not, we all have a deep connection to chairs. My goal is to expose folks to the choices that I’ve made in materials, construction, design and tooling and the ways that this affects the result. 
Usually, interested people see the chairs from across the room and notice the overall impact of the design. The gesture of the chair, the lightness, something different from the norm. As they approach the chair, they begin to notice the shapeliness, the subtle tool marks and the thinness of the parts. Then they touch it, contacting the smooth surfaces and the tooling, noting that not every surface has been treated the same. Upon sitting they smile, never having sat in a wooden chair that flexes and feels comfortable. While they sit I can take a moment to demonstrate the role of hand tools and split wood in the production of the chair, not as a romantic gesture but as a means of gaining strength, comfort and durability.
When they stand, I ask them to pick the chair up. It never fails that they laugh as the chair is much is so much lighter than expected. Then I demonstrate the flexibility of the spindles, which usually elicits an audible gasp, and my job is complete. I’ve replaced their previously held assumptions about wooden chairs and as such built a connection. This may not result in a sale, but their engagement is gratifying for both of us and assures me that I am on the right track. Of course this depends on some deliberate choices in the type of product that is made and the quality of the results, which I'll look at in the next post.

Testing your market and educating your community is essential to guiding your production. I spent many weekends at local Farm market craft shows building my awareness of the buying public and my reputation amongst them. After a few years, folks felt like they knew me and had watched my skills grow while they coveted the work, that's when the sales became more consistent and I started to gain a footing. Small time craft shows may not be where you envision your high end products selling, but I've sold lots of chairs there and more importantly, gained a sensitivity to how the public assigns value.

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Letter to a Woodworker Part 1

I recently received a letter from a woodworker looking to make a stab at a business in woodworking. Over the years, I've had lots of contact with folks doing this and have tried to share thoughts that I might have benefited from hearing earlier in my career. I touch on my experience in my book, but I thought that the topic warrants a more thorough look. Of course, any time that one addresses this topic it will be through their own lens, so I will describe a bit about my path in later. For the record, I don't consider myself a great businessman, actually not at all, but after many years in the ring, I'm still swinging, so take my comments for what they are worth to you.

For this first stab at a response to his letter, I want to go right to the heart of what I think is the first order of "business" which is figuring out why you want to do it. Quite frankly, woodworking on the small scale is a tough business, so folks jumping into it usually have personal reasons for taking on the challenge. Over the years I met lots of different folks with many interests and sensibilities. The common theme amongst the successful ones is that they hold true to their interests and are very aware to nurture them, while keeping an honest assessment of how the results translate to the buying public. 
So what drives you to want to make a living in woodworking?

Are you an artist bent on self expression?
Do you see money growing in the trees and spread sheets thrill you?
Do you love wood as a material and just want to be around it?
Does furniture of all sorts fascinate you?
Does the curl of a shaving from a handplane fill you with a sense of wonder and accomplishment?
Does the hum of a well tuned jointer make you swoon?

It's usually some sort of mix of all of the above. The nature of your interest must be the first question you address, because the job of mastering your process and contending with the buying public won't mean a thing if it isn't in line with how you want to spend your time and effort.

If you are a businessman at heart, you have a good chance of doing well because you can quantify the public desire for a product with cool detachment, price out the tooling, materials, labor and competition and create a viable business plan. The problem is that I have yet to meet the woodworking enthusiast who wants to trade the workbench for the front office. We are a notoriously romantic lot. Besides, a person capable of detaching their passion that way would quickly assess that carpet cleaning and home meat delivery have much more growth potential.

For the artist, I have bad news, but you probably already know this. For most folks bent on self expression, the market is fickle and a life of fulfillment will most likely come from your deep and lasting connection to your creations and process. Good marketing and extraordinary talent can overcome this, but if you are looking to quit your day job, beware, it’s a tough transition.

If you are a furniture nut, you have a leg up on getting started because you, more than most, can already relate to the viewpoint of your potential client base. It’s a very different person that covets a piece of furniture than one that admires the construction and wants to build one, but it’s easy to confuse the two. I admire the skill and achievement of lots of furniture, but it mostly sends me reaching for my sketchbook, not my wallet. It takes discipline to not confuse the two.

If you think that anything made would be better made of wood, you might have a tough time understanding why the exquisite bubinga toothbrushes you make aren’t flying off the shelf, “don’t they see the figure? Most humans find the warmth and beauty of wood to be pleasing, but inappropriate use and overuse is as much of a turnoff as eating a dinner of all starch. For most folks, wood will be a welcome accent and they will never rise to your level of attachment, or at least not enough to detach them from their money.

If you are a confirmed shop monkey, you might find yourself in the most tricked out shop of lovingly restored machines and elaborate dust collection with no real driving passion to make anything but a better crosscut sled and mirror polish on handplane soles. This is a tough one, because you have to sell something to pay for all that stuff. Lots of machinery can be bought at a bargain price and be brought to life, but you aren’t creating value unless you make something with it or sell the machine. Selling the machines might be better business plan for you if you love the tools. Of course, parting with your “babies” might cause some post partem depression.

If you are a hand tool and old technology lover, you are probably comfortable with the notion that you aren’t going to be the fastest, but in your mind the most genuine. This is a tough sell for the public who might admire your skill and passion, but refuse to subsidize your quaint ways. Hand tools are indeed fast and effective, and have many advantages when it comes to expense, storage, power and maintenance. But to be a viable path to production, you will need to make choices about the product and materials that bring them up to speed with the value that the public puts on the end result.

Defining your interest and relating it to the buying public is the first step in assessing your potential for supporting yourself from your woodworking. It's tough, because let's face it, woodworking fascinates you and it's easy to mistake this for value in the minds of potential clients. The other honest assessment that you will need to consider is about your needs. You will most likely have to "need" less for a while as you sort out your skills, product and market. So the first step isn't buying the tools or mastering dovetails, nope it's harder than that, it's a long hard look at how you want to spend your time and what kind of life you hope it will bring you.