The answer’s not as glamorous as you hoped it would be and it’s also something you already have, but are too busy feeling sorry for yourself to use.
Do you have a shop? You know, that place where you build and finish your woodworking projects? Of course you do, otherwise you wouldn’t be reading this thinking about how much it desperately needs cleaned. Notice I didn’t say anything about the ideal shop? The one with abundant windows, breathtaking workbench, handplanes as far as the eye can see, and your very own Appalachian style soundtrack in the background. Yeah, that ideal shop. Well, forget about it. You don’t need that one.
You need the hole in the wall under the basement stairs where you have very little headroom and inadequate lighting. You need that 5 foot corner on the garage that your wife allows you to occupy with just a handsaw and a can of shellac.
If you have a space that allows you to create pieces from raw material, then you have what you need for right now. It’s perfect for this time in your woodworking adventures. I know, it’s not ideal. There’s always room for improvement. But waiting until everything has improved will only keep you from simply doing that thing you said you really wanted to do – make and sell pieces from your shop.
The same thing applies to your tools as well. You’ll never have enough tools, and you’ll never have every tool you “need” if you keep focusing on what you don’t have. It’s not about the tools you think you lack. It’s about the tools you already have and use along your path to mastering the craft. One awkward plane shaving at a time.
Do you make…things? You do? Well, then you’ve met requirement number two. If you actually use your tools to make furniture, boxes, bowls, or the highly sought-after miniature electric guitar, then you have a product to sell. Right from your craphole of a shop. I know it’s not the intricate Philadelphia Highboy you dream of crafting with authentic period tools, but you still have things you make. You design and build the pieces you can with what you have, don’t you? It’s easy to look at your work thinking no one would pay for such things and convince yourself that you’ll start selling once you get better at making them.
When is that? When are you magically good enough? Is there a test you have to take? Where do you apply for your “superior woodworking skills” certification that licenses you to officially go ahead with your plans?
There is such a thing. It’s called every day at your bench, doing what you love, working with what you got.
Sell to the friends of the friend’s friends. In other words, people who are close by that you can network to, but aren’t directly in contact with you. That way you can get started selling without a lot of effort put into finding people. Don’t get me wrong, it’s worth the effort to find great customers, but in the beginning, you don’t always have access to them yet, or aren’t aware of who the perfect customer is for you. I know, these people aren’t the millionaires you had envisioned strolling into your shop with fur coats commissioning three houses worth of furniture. But they are people who are fairly close by (online connections can be considered close by too) and are potential buyers.
Never and I mean never accept work from or sell to close friends or family. Never ever ever. Stop it if you’re doing it now. Don’t start if you’ve been thinking about it. It’s ok to eventually turn clients into friends, but it’s not going to work the other way around. Trust me.
Here’s the kicker. The three things mentioned above, boil down to one important reality that most aspiring woodworking business owners don’t like to face. And that is this – you already have what you need to get started making money with woodworking. It’s not ideal right now. It’s not the best and the fanciest that it could be. But, you’re lying to yourself out of fear if you think that it’s supposed to be ideal before you begin. If you ask me, it’s time to give up on all of that. Give up on everything you’ve been using as an excuse to hide behind because you’re afraid.
It’s not about the perfect shop. It’s not about waiting until everything you create is as immaculate as Chippendale’s work. And it’s certainly not about waiting on the millionaire from the hills to stroll in and commission three houses worth of items. Like anything worth doing it’s about starting with what you have in place now.
Sure, it’s not the ideal vision you have in your head, but if all you do is wish for better and complain that you don’t have the right things yet, then your only accomplishments in woodworking will be dusty tools, someday speeches, and a big fat gut from sitting on the couch watching New Yankee reruns. Now you tell me what sounds like the ideal scenario to you.
So, now it’s time to look at those lists and realistically ask yourself, “What can you do with the woodworking tools and skills you possess right now?“ This one question is the key to starting out successfully. Successful people leverage what they have right now instead of wishing for something better before beginning. So, that’s exactly what you’re going to do.
Two approaches to design your work to sell.
A lot of makers find great business in taking this route. And it’s possible to find great satisfaction in it too…as long as you have an interest in that particular style and the whole culture that surrounds it. This will keep you from waking up one day wishing you had done something different.
The second approach is a little like the first, only instead of your work falling in to a recognizable period or style, it becomes a signature style that is associated with you. In other words, you design and make pieces that are distinct and unique only to you. You use design as the biggest marketing tool and forge ahead to create a signature style that people come to you for.
The pros and cons of both.
The first approach, associating yourself and your work with a historical style, has advantages in that it’s easier to find the culture and people that surround that style. Associations, antique dealers, forums, conferences, web sites, and magazines are all formed around a particular style. If you need further convincing, do a Google search for Arts and Crafts Style and look at the thousands of different sub groups formed around that style. Aligning yourself with a recognizable style can make it easier to plug yourself in to the lives of the people who will desire your work.
The downside to this is that there is stiff competition in certain style niches. Some are completely over-saturated with furniture makers and woodworkers of all shapes and sizes. It’s not to say you couldn’t compete, but it’s a lot harder to stand out from the crowd. Also, you run the risk of forever being associated with that style and historical period. If you do a good job of finding your niche in a particular style of woodworking, you will find it very difficult to move away from that style if you ever decide to do so. Now, if this type of work is truly a passion for you, then you will probably be very content being known for work in that style. And that’s great if that’s the case. But for most woodworkers starting out in business it can feel restricting to suddenly wake up and realize you have pigeon holed yourself in a niche with no apparent way out.
The second approach, creating a style around you and your unique vision, can be a bit more satisfying for those of you seeking greater artistic and creative fulfillment from woodworking. Also, it makes it possible to build a culture and community around you and your work. Look at Sam Maloof and James Krenov as modern day examples of this. There’s also a greater sense of freedom that can be found in this approach. You’re not stuck in one particular style or genre of woodworking. You, as the maker, are free to roam about with your designs. You can incorporate whatever inspiration and design element you find. All the while, maintaining that individual sense of style that people come to you for.
With that freedom comes some hard roads too. Taking this path to woodworking can be very very difficult in the beginning because it’s not quite apparent who your customers are and where to find them. You have to work endlessly to refine your designs so they become a reflection of yourself and your values. Because that’s what it takes to stand out from the crowd of other woodworkers taking the same approach. If you’re not mindful of this, you risk ending up looking like the other guy who’s being “unique” with his work.
It can also be draining, both physically and mentally to take this approach because you end up pouring your whole self into every design and piece. It takes a toll. That’s not to say this path isn’t rewarding though. It can be extremely rewarding both personally and financially as long as you have the mindset to stick it out. Be willing to make mistakes as you refine your style and your business approach. Just to clarify, none of the above is written to steer you in one direction over another. The fact is, you may not pick from these two approaches. You may have your own approach. Perhaps its a perfect blend of the two. Maybe it’s something completely different.
The key is to create an approach to making things that you can stick with and be passionate about. That’s the difference between hobbyists and professionals. The true professional chooses the path because of passion and sustains it until it’s time to take another approach based on passion. Not to say hobbyists don’t have passion. But a hobbyist lacks the passion to succeed in making a living.
Whatever you choose to create in your shop and business, make sure it’s chosen from passion and not from purely logical economic sense. Yes, you need to be mindful of what can sell and what can’t. But what good is making items that sell, when you dread going to the shop to make them?
The Secret to Discovering Your Perfect Customer
Finding the perfect customer for your woodworking business is an exercise worth the time put into it. In fact, the more time you invest in learning who it is, the easier it is to give them pieces and products that you know they desire and will buy. So what are the steps to finding awesome customers who make you eager to please them and return the favor with joy and sales? Drop the “s.”
What do I mean? Get rid of the word “customers.” The real secret to keep you from feeling overwhelmed is to begin to think in terms of one person. If you focus all of your efforts on a group of people and try to create pieces that appeal to the masses, you’ll always be wondering if what you’re doing will be what ALL of those people want. Will they like it enough to buy it?
But what if you were creating pieces for only one person? And you knew that person inside and out so it was extremely easy to know that your work would be loved and desired by that one person? That seems a little less overwhelming, doesn’t it? Of course, this doesn’t mean that you’re only going to try to have one real, live customer your whole life. It just means that you need to shift your view of how to get to know your ideal market as intimately as possible.
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