Wednesday, August 17, 2011

A Question for the Non-Woodworkers

A friend on Facebook—Dale J. Osowski, who owns a woodworking business— was asked to repair a bench. He quoted a price and time frame ($150, two weeks) but the owner of the bench found the price and length of time to repair it to be unreasonable.

The bench cost $150—new.

Now, I didn't need to see pictures of this bench to know that it was built shoddily, quickly, and with cheap materials. (But the images are at right.)

We live in a throw-away society. We buy cheap stuff, it breaks, and winds up in landfills. Lather, rinse, repeat.

My question to consumers who buy this stuff is this: what would encourage you to consider hiring a craftsperson who makes his own products rather than head to a discount furniture store?

Which, if any, of the following points appeal to you most about a handmade piece and would persuade you to part with more money than you're used to spending on furniture?

1. It's built to last for generations.
2. It's made with premium lumber, not veneer-covered, pulverized garbage.
3. It's made with sustainable material.
4. It's made locally.
5. It will not add to our landfills. (see #1)
6. It's built to your specifications and to fit your space and style.
7. The craftsman will repair it for free if it breaks.
8. Anything else?

I'm not asking for me. But we woodworkers would like to keep our tradition alive and help those who have woodworking businesses stay in business. What is the best way for us to educate the consumer about the benefits of buying from a craftsperson?

Thank you for your help!


rgdaniel said...

My wife recently asked if I would build a piece to replace a small crappy ("veneer-covered pulverized garbage") chest of drawers. When she learned that the cost would be, just for the wood, a visit to Ikea began to seem like a more sensible choice, financially. We may have landed on making it a bookcase instead of a chest of drawers, which is all she really needs where it's going, but a bookcase made in a non-assembly line way.

It's one thing to agree in principle that quality and longevity are good things and worth the extra money... but it's another thing to actually go ahead and spend that money, when maybe it could be spent on more urgent things.

Mark Poulsen said...

So my slide down the slippery slope of woodworking started shortly after I got married and we needed to start furnishing our home. We would go to the furniture store and see expensive stuff the was particle board and plastic veneer. We stumbled opon an antique/junque store and found cool old solidly built furniture that just needed a minor repair or two and refinishing (I'm talking stuff from the 20's and 30's). After doing a few of those projects, I saw how it was put together and that it wasn't that complicated. No crap in out house. I either made it or refinished/repaired it.

Kari Hultman said...

rgdaniel, I totally understand. We all need to watch our money so if it's a matter of paying the mortgage vs. having a finely made piece of furniture, I know which one we'd choose. I just didn't know if there was something that would add to the value of the handmade product. I'm thinking the "green" angle might work best, but I don't really know.

Mark Poulsen said...

Oh, the junque store stuff was usually less expensive than the new crap!

Kari Hultman said...

Well done, Mark. I wish we could say the same about the items in our house. ; )

Dyami Plotke said...

As I'm a woodworker, I might not be the target audience for an answer, but here it is. Which points appeal to me? Points 1 (it lasts), 2 (good materials, though I do like man made sheet goods), 6 (can't be custom enough).

For me there's also another point, the fact that I, or someone I know, made it. That adds a lot on a sentimental level.

Charles Davis said...

Along these lines, I only developed a true appreciation for well crafted furniture after getting bit by the woodworking bug (I'm still scratching at it).

At this point my home already been stuffed with things made with MDF and such.

One day when I checked out my local craigslist under antiques my stomach just dropped. I could not believe some of the amazing pieces of furniture being dumped their for well below the cost of even the cheapo new stuff. If I had a clean slate I would furnish my home entirely from there without question.

We definitely live in age of consumerism. I bet if you were inside the heads of today's consumers in big box stores you'd hear "Yeah, I can see this working for the next 10 years or so".

Furniture doesn't need to have an expiration date.

Trevor Walsh said...

I came from product design, I disagree with most of the modern methods of product development, marketing, manufacture and distribution. There is an excellent video called "The Story of Stuff" which talks about all the consequences of products, that we aren't paying for directly/yet. I'm renting and just over a year out of college. I refuse to spend money on crap and "ikea" in particular. I make do without until I can build what I need. This has come with taking a hard look at what a person actually needs.

Ultimately, going to school for product design showed me how much stuff we are trained to consume, and helped me decide to break away from that way of living.

As a buyer, of my own furniture, I like all your points, and I'll add one which is pride. I feel really good about using the things I make, and the things I make for people.

Cathy Mentzer said...

Hi Kari,

Good questoin. For me, it's a combination of a couple of things. First, I love wood - real wood. I hate veneer and fake wood, so having a piece of furniture made with fine materials is very appealing.

Quality is key. I hate when you buy furniture you have to put together, and then the pieces don't line up exactly and just look cheap and crappy. And I appreciate fine craftsmanship. Dovetail and mortise and tenon joints - love that stuff.

Probably the biggest motivator for me is the prospect of having something custom-made.(I think I even asked Nancy once if you'd consider making me a coffee table. :-) I can never find any I like!)

All that said, it always comes down to an issue of money for me. I just can't justify spending the kind of dough that hand-made pieces are worth most of the time. But for key pieces, I would definitely consider it. Hope that's helpful.

Kamsar said...

The argument my wife uses for not always (I sometimes convince her otherwise...) getting good furniture is that although it may be able to last a hundred years or more, the style of the piece will be no longer the style of the period long before that - so while particleboard has a shorter lifespan, its lifespan is usually as long as the piece stays current.

Obviously there's environmental consequences of that attitude - hence why I'd rather spend my time in SketchUp and the workshop.

Erik said...

Isn't it interesting that we (as a culture) no longer think of passing things on to the next generation? At least it's not in the forefront of our minds.

I work in Commercial construction and the same thoughts process is evident. If folks of just a few generations ago had thought the same way, we wouldn't have; the Sears Tower, Grand Central Station, Empire State Building...

When the cost of long lived items is averaged over it's useful life it actual costs less than the cheap and crappy equivalent.

Of course, my opinion is jaded as I used to build and install custom kitchens...

Michael Ferrin said...

Kamsar- I think you could turn your wife's argument on it's head. Well-made furniture tends to be well-designed, and good design never goes out of style. Cheap imitations of "modern" design are what winds up looking dated. Just think about all of the mass-produced mid-century modern pieces you see in second-hand stores. I think the safest bet is to look to older styles that have stood the test of time - it's hard to imagine a time when well made Shaker or Arts & Crafts pieces (even reproductions) won't be appreciated.
As for the cost of materials, so much usable wood gets thrown out. As a woodworker, I've found some of the best sources are old doors (they're usually chestnut under the paint), desk tops, and other pieces of broken furniture you can find on the side of the road.

Wilbur Pan said...

I'm going to propose a (very) long term solution. Support arts education in schools. That's the only way to teach kids as a whole the utility of having beautiful, well designed things around us. I don't think it's a coincidence that as arts education got cut over the past couple of decades that there has been a movement to disposable goods in things that were previously thought as more durable goods, like furniture.

Douglas said...

When I began woodworking in 1975 the first book I read was James Krenov's "The Art of Cabinetmaking" and in this book he has a very similar commentary, and almost 40 years later we are having the same discussions. The average consumer either from lack of knowledge or more probably a lack of exposure to the advantages in quality and economics of finely crafted one-off or small production furnishings continues to buy "veneer-covered, pulverized garbage". I am hoping with the blogosphere filled with articulate writers and bloggers like you will turn this in the next 40 years.

Vic Hubbard said...

Kari, I hope you get a lot of real world responses to this. That being said, as another woodworker, I have always tried to buy as good of quality as I can afford. When I was a bachelor, I bought antiques. Not ones in need of major repair, but pieces that were in decent shape. Hey, I was young and just playing. I wasn't even contemplating the future. When Sylvia and I first got together to start a partnership, we had very little and we bought at places like IKEA, both because we like the Danish modern style and we needed furniture "for now". Now that we're pretty well set financially, I'm also better situated to design and build unique pieces, which is what we would be filling our house with at this point anyway.

So, what I'm thinking is basically, my and Sylvia's age and financial status are really what my target audience's situation is going forward. Where we are and those that are in even in better circumstances.

Pete said...


But honestly as a part time home owner/handy man I've used mdf more than I'm proud of due to cost restrictions. Those projects are still around.

I thought now that I'm retired I'd be able to start replacing those make do items. The time just melts away.

Anonymous said...

Here's my thought on this.

I'm not a true woodworker, instead, Imake artisan chocoaltes and pastries for a living.My store is not in a trendy part of town. How do I make customers understand that there is a difference between my stuff,and the stuff they buy in a drugstore?

Answer: I give classes. I give adult workshops,giving all sorts of education about chocolate and how it is made, and I give kid's classes, doing the same thing. It is a slow process, but it does work.

Closefriends and family members do not know what "solid wood"is, do not know what "particle board" is, what veneers are, do not know that wood moves, and do not know that intregal mechanical wood joints are far, far, far superior to mechanical fastners. They also don't know where to buy "real furniture", or why it is so expensive.

Education is needed before we can coax the public to buy the real stuff. I view it as an opportunity.

Pablo said...

Good point Anon. Keeping the craft alive is a different problem to the demand for barely functional furniture. Sell the craft not the furniture. I would pay $150 to work with a master

Darnell said...

I used to be an IKEA employee. I have great respect for the company, and learned a lot about managing my own business and my customers from them. Their philosophy is that everyone needs furniture, regardless of their station in life. I can understand the appeal of the $99 desk and bookcase for a student. What I can't understand is when people who can afford better shop there.

Superhero!! said...

ohhhh, this post hit me right on my heart.
For me, woodworking is a hobbie, 90% of the stuff I built is at my home.
But sometimes people ask me to build something for them and ask for a price. They always hit his jaws on the floor when I tell them just the price of the wood.
They believe my finished work is cheaper than Ikea furniture.
That kind of people breaks my heart.

Vic Hubbard said...

This may be sacrilege on Kari's site, but to address the use of mdf and veneer in a fine piece of furniture, I have to disagree with the above sentiment. These materials can and are used in high end furniture. It's how well a piece is designed, what materials are used and how it is built that makes a fine piece. Many times the stability of a man made substrate is the superior choice. I am not a Luddite, I believe in a hybrid working model and also that there are some superior products today that weren't available in the past and taking advantage of them is a smart thing to do.

tom buhl said...

Kari, Many aspects to this issue.

I am a woodworker of almost five years so not totally your target for this line.

Regarding furniture, art, clothing, food, whatever, I am big on connections and feeding off of the passions of other individuals. So created by the hands of someone I know would have enormous value to me. I would pay appropriate amount (within my means) to carry on that connection and feeling that connection every time my eyes, hands, mind touch that item.

Quality and the made for me is important. I'd rather (no, strongly prefer) to have a few special items in my life, than bunch o' stuff. Quality probably doesn't trump the connection aspect though.

That being said, I have high regard for Ikea and such as the general design values and functionality, for their target market, is pretty decent I'd say. Material quality falls much short of those attributes.

For young people or people facing dramatically changing lives, the Ikea, 5-10 year life span has value (assuming low cost relative to...). If you have to move on, you can give it away or sell it very cheaply go your merry way. A mobile society can find family heirlooms to be quite a burden or limitation to being open to opportunity to explore oneself or the world. It's just stuff. Maybe worthless stuff, or valued treasures, but usually of lesser value than people and exploration (physically or mentally).

Long ago my maternal grandmother offered me a family highboy dresser/chest. Probably mid-1800's I'd guess. As my life grew more stable (geographically at least) I came to regret that I felt the piece was too large to handle. But now I realize I would have had to pass it along (which she did anyway), or been saddled with this monster-sized treasure. Sure would like it now, BUT not if it had meant I wouldn't have gotten into the old, rundown van and headed to SB's sunny shores to live in a 35-foot trailer while starting my graphics business.

So, not everyone is in a place (financially or life style) to appreciate or manage custom creations. But life is greatly enriched when we are able to appreciate the work of passionate and talented people.

Anonymous said...

Oh,I do shop at Idea, but I like them for all the wrong reasons.

1) I steal their ideas and concepts. Some are good,some are evil. F'rinstance, the way the beds are fastened, two bolts through a 3"length of 1/2" rod. Good idea,lousy materials.The hex bolts are soft and strip easily. But I took that idea, and that part. I re-tapped the rod to accept 1/4"/20 bolts and used real steel bolts. I used this method on 3 work tables for my bakery, and after 5 years they are rock steady.

2) I use the wood. Face it,most of Ikea's stuff ends up in the back lane,and the rain melts away all the particle board. What's left? Fastners and hinges, which I use. Sometimes even real wood! I made a 12" bow saw (tfww plans and parts) from beech from a Poang foot rest. Some of the solidwood countertops thrown out, as well as beds--and the ubiquitous bed-boards has given alot of bdft for projects and fooling around.

3) 5 years ago we bought beds and desks for the kids from Ikea. They never lasted. Now I have an excuse to to build "real" furniture tht will stand up to the kid's abuse. If you're smart and use reycled materials, re-cylced hardware, soft woods, laminates (and iron-on veneer!) you can make decent looking kid's furniture that will last--for a while longer than Ikea.

But face it, particle board does not do well in furniture that takes dynamic loads, it does not accept fasteners well, and it will fatique and fall apart if moved. It is lousy for beds and for desks. This is an evil concept, as the item is guaranteed to fail. But all that being said, particlebaord is excellent for kitcen cabinets--static load, no kids playing jumpy-on-the-bed.

The arguement for a $99 student's desk is a good one. In a perfect world, you could rent a well built desk for a year or two instead of tossing out a barf-icle board desk when it is guaranteed to crumble apart in two year's time.

Kari Hultman said...

The things you all have posted--woodworkers and non woodworkers-- are invaluable. If you have a friend who is trying to make a living in the craft, feel free to copy and paste the perspectives and ideas listed and send them to the person.

I agree that educating the public is key. How we can start a movement probably begins with the individual craftsman, but it would be outstanding to have the backing of a large organization for help with getting the message to a larger audience.

I do think things can be turned around, especially in light of the green movement and the trend to cut back and simplify. Buying well made pieces is an investment and is much less expensive in the long run. However, not everyone can afford them or they have other restrictive situations.

And sorry to slam veneer-covered particle board. Most definitely, fine craftsmen do use it and it looks great. I was really referring to the stuff that is meant to fall apart in a

Bob said...

Oh my goodness!

You've touched a nerve.
I agree with the idea that people are naive and need to be educated. Buying something to last as a concept hasn't been around since the second World War.
This is only one example, but I once had someone ask if I'd make a small chest of drawers for them, and I simply asked, "is this going to be a family heirloom?", since it was going to be in the neighbourhood of $1200, (and nothing fancy, but properly made, and pretty inexpensive I thought!), whereas something perfectly serviceable could be had from Ikea for around $400. They chose the latter. It might have even been less, I don't recall.
But these people had no idea about shop time or material costs. Hey, I might only do this "woodworking thing" as a hobby, but I have a few bucks tied up in equipment, thank-you very much.
I also think they asked me since they thought they had some sort of "in" and that I'd do it on the cheap. Wasn't about to happen. Why work for free?
Maybe the answer to the original question should be, "I won't fix that".(concerning the cheap bench) and leave it at that.
Not even worth going to the trouble of giving any kind of hint as to the cost.
One of my former brothers-in-law, a perfectionist piano tuner, absolutely refused to touch a piano that friends had bought since the thing was nothing more than a piece of furniture. (I had told them this, but they bought the it anyway) Sounds snobbish I know, but sometimes junk is just junk.

Vic Hubbard said...

I think that Tom's comments about a more nomadic society has the most impact on how we view heirloom type quality, especially on larger pieces. While families are younger, they tend to move quite a bit. The last I remember, the statistics were every 7 years. It seems to me it's even more than that. Large pieces tend to get dinged up and/or broken in moves. It took us 10 years to be stable and prior to that I moved quite a bit.

Also, in regards to man made materials. I find a huge difference in the use of particle board vs. mdf. While neither will take mechanical fasteners well, I find mdf to be a good material for table tops and most flat panel applications that will be veneered with quality veneer. The trade off for that stability is a huge amount of weight. Particle board, on the other hand isn't a good substrate for much of anything other than laminate counter tops. At this point neither product is what I would consider "green". While both are in terms of recycling, the bonding agents used most commonly have too much out gassing to be considered green.

Morton said...

I am a professional furniture designer / maker - and of course want the highest-quality best-made stuff in my own house as well. Unfortunately I have 3 small kids who tear things up, and as they grow, they need new / different sized furniture. I could make everything (it would last the abuse) - but it would take me quite awhile and they'd be out-growing it. So, in the meantime my wife and I actually do buy pieces from craigslist (great!) and Ikea (cheap and serviceable!) in the meantime. It gets stuff in our house and useable right away (sometimes with a paint job). It's not meant to be the best thing or last forever - a few years until we re-arrange yet again.

In the meantime, I'm focusing efforts in my own house for things that my wife and I want to have and last for a lifetime, the same decision anyone faces when spending a lot of $$ (or time) on something.

So - a slightly different take on the equation. But I bet we're pretty typical (in a sense). With 3 small growing kids, we need furniture to organize our house (CG, Ikea or other - cheap/serviceable/get-it-in-here). And also focus on a few beautiful / nice / expensive things over time - that will last us forever.

Bubba Squirrel said...

It's a matter of education. People don't know what quality woodwork is so they go by looks and price. As a society, we've just become inured to buy it use it while it lasts, expect it to fail, throw it away. I don't think there IS any hope.

Cat said...

I'll just add in that buying cheaply made furniture often weighs less too. For people who do not own their own homes, the ease and convenience of being able to move themselves pays off in owning lighter furniture.

Overall though I'd say money is the biggest factor.

Kevin Miller said...

I am a hobbyist woodworker, but I'll throw in my two cents.

It seems as though it comes down to priorities. Custom made furniture is expensive, and money is "tight" for a lot of people. Now, why is money tight, and what are you willing to spend your money on? Most people wouldn't blink at spending $1000/year on cable TV, and what about the average size of homes today? I could go on and on.

Now I'm not knocking any of these things in particular. It's just that when people say things are expensive, it really depends on your priorities. Most of us are wealthy beyond belief compared to just 100 years ago when well-built furniture was more commonplace. Our society has chosen to invest it's wealth in places other than quality goods. I personally thing is better to have quality over quantity, but I'll admit, sometimes the decisions are difficult.

Anonymous said...

Here's another thught for you,

My last employer o/o a 50 seat French restaurant. It was difficult to use the employee's john because it was crammed with Ikea chair parts! All 50 seats were Ikea softwood chairs. Every week the employer would cobble together a replacement chair from the broken ones, and every month he'd buy a few new chairs to replenish the broken ones. I think the Ikea ones are $35 each. But given the fact he's replaced them on an almost yearly basis--not to mention the time he's spent fixing them, makes thenm a whole lot more expensive.

Now, who's stupider? My ex employer, a guy who runs a succesful business, is a mature European, and doesn't understand the concept of buying a good chair and having pece of mind?
Or is it the mnfctr, who thinks they can get away with building softwood dining chairs using mechanical fasteners as the sole method of joinery, guaranteed to fail?

Me? When I opened my place 5 years ago, I bit the bullet and bought locally made commerical hardwood chairs. Cost me $120 each. Have not had a problem with them yet.

MDF is a good choice in quite a few applications, but it is not a good choice to use for joints that will withstand any kind of stress, or to span distances with any kind of weight.

John Cashman said...

There is another level to this as well, and I think education is key there also. I know someone who could afford nice furniture, and went out and paid quite a bit of money for a couple of pieces. It was solid wood, with mostly good joinery -- a few pocket hole screws too many, but otherwise well made and solid. But although it was solid wood, a twenty-inch wide piece must have had a dozen narrow pieces glued up. And the finish was terrible. So, while this cost as much as a custom piece, and it should last a very long time, there was not enough knowledge there to make a better choice. And they always ask what I think after the purchase is made, never before.

With the exception of mattresses and a sofa, the furniture my grandparents bought lasted them a lifetime, which is what they wanted. Most people just don't have the same desires any more. When their is the same status attached to owning a really nice piece of furniture as to an expensive car, watch, suit, or dress, things will change. But furniture lacks that status and appeal that one-upsmanship can give consumers.

John Cashman said...

While I'm at it, I have a question for some of you. I understand the need/desire for man-made materials, plastic laminates, etc. You all know, the stuff that isn't wood, but is a picture of wood. It would cost just as much to take a picture of a nice piece of wood as a crappy one, wouldn't it? Why take a picture of wood with several finger-jointed laminations, when you can take a picture of a nice, wide board, maybe with some interesting figure? If I have to sit at a restaurant and eat off formica, it can at least be a nice formica.

The answer is, they don't know any better, but it seems like a n0-brainer.

Manni said...

I pay our morgage by teaching at a department of management sciences but look after my mental health by designing and building furniture in my home shop... in other words I have ask those very questions many times around. I always come to the conclusion that woodworkers (I've observed the same thing with potters) are terribly mislead about the marketing value of the "it will last for generations" factor. My observations are that people who can afford handmade furniture will only commit to buying a piece if they can connect to it. That could potentially happen because they appreciate the outstanding workmanship but unlees they are woodworkers themselves they just don't have the knowledge to see the difference, as many pointed out. Quality brings satisfaction to the makers but it can't just be passed on to clients just like that. I find buyers can connect to a piece through style (design), though it often needs to be back up with an aprrepciation for the builders and selling environment. The artisan chocolate maker commenting above says it better than I can (and would get A+ in my strategic management class). People buying handmade buy a story, you need to tell a good one to stay in business!


Greg Miller said...

Gidday, Kari.
Interesting to see such a response to this post. It is territory which is very dear to my heart.

Here in Australia we have a real problem with too much timber going into landfill. Not only is this a tragic waste of a wonderfully renewable and recyclable material, but it also does not bring honour to the trees which produced the timber originally. Importantly, it breaks down slowly as it decomposes in the ground - creating a huge amount of green-house gasses over a very long period. Very bad environmentally.

Educating the public is a very important part of the process, and little is being done in this regard here, in our through-away consumeristic society. One of the other interesting dynamics is the loss of skills and understandings. In past generations, people knew how to fix stuff. There was a back shed with tools in it, and someone around who knew how to use them. Kids now are growing up in an environment where there is often no shed, no tools, and no-one around who knows how to use them anyway. So when things break, they get tossed even when they are very fixable. When not fixable, often the wood itself is still recyclable - but that just doesn't happen. A sad state of affairs really. A few simple hand tools and a few basic skills and a willingness to give it a go is all that is needed.

As a professional woodworker of many years experience, I gave up trying to compete with the cheap imports long ago. Once Australia had a thriving furniture manufacturing industry. Today, most furniture is made in China and imported here. Even our unique Australian timbers are being exported to China and then coming back in as furniture much cheaper than local manufacturers can do. Such is the globalised economy. However, what drives it is you and me, the consumers. The purchasing choices we make are the key here. If we chose to buy on price rather than on quality, then local skilled makers and manufacturers will always lose out. The same with food. If I chose to buy cheap oranges imported from California rather than from the orchard down the road here in Western Autralia, I am contributing to the demise of the local farmer who ends up pulling out his/her orange trees because they have no market. We as consumers are very powerful as a body, and our ignorance and choices reap far reaching consequences. The huge growth in farmers markets here in the city represents a lot of people making considered purchasing choices. Very topical stuff here is Australia right now.

What do I do about this? I try to only buy locally produced food. It may cost more, but it will cost local farmers even more if I don't support them. I hope they might likewise support me by buying quality locally made furniure from people like me rather than the cheap Chinese imports.

In relation to woodwork, a significant part of my business is making furniture from recycled timber and teaching basic woodworking hand skills specifically for the recycling of timber : industrial waste, discarded Ikea and othere stuff, packaging, and salvaged timbers from demolished buildings.

It is a long road, but I am on a mission to empower people by bringing back into common useage those skills, tools, and techniques which have been lost during our wild modern globalised consumeristic ride ...Ee-hah!!

Keep stirring the pot.

Mansfield Fine Furniture - Nick said...

Kari, brilliant question, and one that I'm sure more than just you and I and the others who have commented here have wondered. I shared your post on my facebook wall and am conducting a poll (Hey, I'm new to the whole social network deal, but it seems like a good non-woodworker forum to ask it) Hopefully, if there is a decent response, I'll post the results here, either in a comment, or send them you directly to display as you see fit. Thanks for the great work, and keep it up!

Dave said...

After years of hearing "hey you do woodworking can you fix...." I usually tell them that its cheaper & easier to just go buy new!

At one time I was asked to quote a price for a piece of furniture that I was doing for free (giving my labor for free) & when I went through the numbers for lumber & finish I was told "hell I can go to "X" & get one for $75!"

I've learned for the "average" quality can go out the door if the price is right!

Don said...


I've asked that same question for many years and the only answer I came up with was to re-educate the client. I hated it when some one would walk in my shop and hand me a printout of a web page from a big box unfinished furniture company, “can you build this for less” they would ask. I'd say 'no' but I can design and build something a lot better then you can find there. No thanks” they would reply and walk out. One time I had a couple walk in, you could tell by the look on the wifes' face that they just had an argument. I just knew this wasn't going to be pretty. The husband handed me a printout of a photo of entertainment stand for a large screen TV being sold from a unfinished furniture company just down the street. Then he asked that dreaded question, “can you make this for less”. This time instead of explaining what I do I said ' Looks like you bought a large screen TV” he shook his head yes, I asked him, “ mind if I ask how much you paid for it”, he answered, “$4000”. Then I said, “ you paid $4000 for the TV why do you want to sit it on a $100 entertainment stand?”

Every once in a while some one would come in and I would not have to explain to them who Sam Maloof was when they saw the Maloof style rocking chairs that I build and they didn't run out the door when I told them the price.

If I were your friend I would have told the client that the bench wasn't worth fixing and let it go at that.


will said...

The current wood craft movement has roots in the do-it-yourself fad of the 1950s and the fine woodworking renaissance of the 1970s. The questions you’ve posed have existed for a long time.

Generally, fine woodworkers don’t have showrooms, don’t mass market advertise and they don’t have shops near walk-in foot traffic. Often as not, woodworkers tend to have other woodworkers as friends and associates. It’s rare when a woodworker has an agent or hangs out with MBAs, bankers, sales people and Rotary type business people.

Toss into that mix, most woodworkers are not overly capitalized and rarely have an office staff or other assistants and they rely of word of mouth for potential business. Also, how many woodworkers are sales oriented with the (aggressive) skills necessary to close a deal while making a fair profit?

In my woodworking travels I’ve seen both failures and successes in woodworking. Generally, the success stories are woodworkers who’ve found unique niches. Perhaps it’s making guitars, architectural stairs, elaborate bird cages or kitchen cabinets for the handicapped. These woodworkers have focused their efforts and it’s paid off.

The failures I’ve seen include those who set-up a full spectrum workshops, build only things they like, they don’t advertise and they basically wait for customers to find them. Other failures include those attempting to be Krenovian, using the best of woods and gobs of time to build something beautiful - and then expecting the world to scurry to their door.

Against that backdrop are consumers who are accustomed to stores and all the things common to stores - parking lots, store hours, floor samples and price tags ... plus they can shop anonymously.

On the topic of education, no argument there ... but when it comes to shopping, Americans are obsessed with low prices and mass produced products.

Look around most neighborhoods, how many people actively seek out hard to find crafts people? With busy lives, people simply go to places requiring minimal shopping effort.

Jason said...

Sorry to break it to you - but someone can always make something superficially similar for less. It may not last nearly as long, but at the precise moment in time when the wallet comes out, their stuff will be cheaper.

Easy to buy.
You can get cheap stuff from the shops - which is where you traditionally go to buy stuff.

A lot of people like to buy new stuff rather than second hand because it looks shiny in their homes and makes them feel like they've made it in life.

But just so you can't accuse me of being the voice of eternal doom and gloom, Gabriel Brånby (who is neither a woodworker or a an axe maker) of Gränsfors Bruks (who make axes for people who work wood) has some thought provoking things to say about axes, that just might apply to furniture too.


Steve Branam said...

When I made the horse care tote on my blog for my wife, she asked how much it would cost if any of the other horse owners at the barn wanted one. I just laughed.

I said the cost would be way more than anyone would want to spend on such a plain functional item, when they could go to Wal-Mart and get a plastic tote for $5. Granted, that plastic tote wouldn't last generations or withstand getting kicked across the barn by a large animal, but people don't think like that.

People want it now, cheap, and if they need to replace it next week, they'll just buy a new one.

I do it primarily for the love of doing it and the love of making something for someone I care about. If I can make a few dollars here and there to make the hobby pay for itself, great.

Clearly, there is a small market for high-end custom furniture if you can find the right clients. But they will be rare.

My mother is an artist in Savannah. From her experience I learned you need to build a group of patrons. Selling to the masses is a hard road. Look for someone who appreciates the art as well as the function, not to someone who just needs a piece of furniture.

Chod Lang said...

"what would encourage you to consider hiring a craftsperson who makes his own products rather than head to a discount furniture store? "

My answer to the question is "design". You have a specific place, need or preference and you have the money to go to a craftsman whose work you like. Places like the Philadelphia Furniture Show showcase the woodworkers skill and their prices give you an idea of what the costs might be.

In my business, Furniture Repair in your Home, i tell my customers that if they are looking for better quality furniture that they go to estate sales and buy things from the 40s and before. That furniture can usually be successfully restored and passed on to your children.

Custom furniture is out of reach for most people and we live in a consumer driven society where people don't really have the time and money to invest in a houseful of beautiful furniture.

I love reading through Fine Woodworking and seeing the beautiful pieces of furniture that many of their contributors make but there's seldom a price given for how much a piece sells for. if a Mahogany highboy you build takes 300 hours and you're shop rate if $40/hr. (which is low today), how many people do you think you'll find that are ready to spend $12,000 for that beautifully crafted piece? The market for hand-crafted furniture is finite.

A solid maple, machine dovetailed drawer costs $40 finished. How much would you charge to make that drawer?

And carving. I had a friend make a beautiful replacement leg for an French armoire. He charged me $800 to make that single leg. Imagine if the customer wanted a new armorie to match?

The love and skill of the craft is to be commended but in these times, the realities of the customers who can afford and are willing to pay for these things are few and far between.

IMO, to make it in the world of craft, your marketing skills need to be better than your woodworking skills. I've "carved" out my niche by repairing furniture and applying my skills in small ways that people can afford and appreciate.


tom buhl said...

A somewhat missing component to this discussion is the "Shopping" drive present in so many people. Furniture shopping I'd guess is more (perceived) need than other forms, but still the trip to Ikea because of a "need" so often results in multiple acquisitions.

In my pompous condition I tend to look down on shoppers, or the act but put me in a Lie-Nielsen showroom or quality hardwood dealer and guess what? Yep, the drive is strong. Is it compensating for unsatisfying jobs, family, health and emotional longing.

There is an attraction for new and shiny to many. Others like finding the treasures in a dusty thrift store, tool bin, wood pile.

When casual people begin the conversation about the possibility of my building something for them, I usually begin with pointing out a piece made for myself and let them know what much the wood alone cost. That culls the herd quickly.

A few posters here have offered sound advice for those attempting to earn money at their craft. Unless you are in the gift shop, craft show trinkets range, your target market is very small. There are many things you can do to nurture that market. Many have used the educational approach on these posts. That education does not have to "teach" the "why quality is good value lesson."

Telling the story of you, your work and your passions goes a long way to generating interest. Kari's blog is a great example. That removes the price comparison aspect, becoming more of, "would I like it have that item in my life."

I take photos of my work as I go along and post an edited (culled, not retouched) gallery of the finished piece, including images of the small or hidden details. I also include photos of the process. Not to create a how-to, but because I like pretty pictures. And it tells the story.

A gorgeous finished piece doesn't tell much of the story to most people. We see so much beautiful (and otherwise) images in the media and all about us. The story is what separates your work. Bottle that and sell it to a hungry market. ; )

If you are selling items or services that you create, then be sure your name is part of the work's identity. Most people would rather own a Paul Schürch than a Santa Barbara House of Creations. Or a Kari Hultman than a Village Carpenter piece. Or the ultimate dream, a home full of Tom Buhl's.

Early in my graphics business a client/mentor with a elite level antiques dealership told me to ditch the HOMEFRONT GRAPHICS (as warm and fuzzy as it least to me) and build your name. Once that sunk in the business became TOM BUHL TYPOGRAPHERS and other variations of my name as business focus and technology changed.

In the antiques world the name (and reputation and legend) of the name establishes the value of a piece.

Thanks for the great topics, friends and stories you share, Kari.

Anonymous said...

I found this quote on the Lie-Nielsen facebook page. It wasn't made by them but a "friend"

"There is hardly anything in the world that some man cannot make a
little worse and sell a little cheaper, and the people who only consider the price are this man's lawful prey." - John Ruskin (1819-1900)

I refuse to deal with that type person. I have family like that and they all have several common traits.
They are self centered, selfish, sure that everyone wants to rip them off and know for a fact that your time is worth nothing unless you are doing something for them for free.

I understand that circumstance invades everyone's life and you just can't afford what you want all the time. I understand being frugal, taking care of your money for hard times, that is wise and isn't the same thing at all.

Sorry for the rant but the bottom line is this.
You will never make a dime dealing with "price only" people, they will only spend your time,not their money.
Frankly, your time is worth more than that, I know mine is.

Good question Kari.
I enjoy reading your blog and looking at your work and videos.
I've seen them all several times and honestly, the best of the bunch has to be "Princess Stabbity and The Golden Spear"
Of course those dog carvings with the little green feet were pretty cute. How you matched the grain on those I will never know.

Best wishes for all.


Kari Hultman said...

Thank you for all the thoughtful comments and insights. Your ideas can really help someone who's trying to make a living at his/her craft, so feel free to share the thread with others (copy/paste, send a link, whatever works). I really think your ideas need to see more daylight.

Federico Mena Quintero said...

About education... it would definitely help to be able to give people a leaflet or two with "things to consider" when buying furniture. Something that explains why wood matters, why joinery is good, why keeping the money flow within your town is better than sending it overseas.

If we had a set of flyers that we could print as we needed...

We can certainly gather interesting pictures of our pieces, their joints, etc. and put them together in a few PDFs. People with graphic design skills (hello, Kari!) may be able to make something eye-catching.

Is there a woodworking wiki or something like that?

Kari Hultman said...

Frederico, it would be great to have a group or organization pick up the ball and run with it. With backing, perhaps we could educate people through advertising and seminars. It would definitely be fun to be part of movement like that.

Robert said...

I believe in "Form Wraps Function" so we look for an application or a "need" to be addressed, then we make it pretty. To make a decision to invest on an item, brings a level of pain ... why do this the cheap way with throw away items and force ourselves to keep replacing these items? Partly of being green is not to fill up landfills. So my approach is to add ... make this item last. For many applications solid wood is fantastic and for many others quality plywood is also great.

Burr Shaw said...

A few thoughts from a very amateur woodworker.
First, you are never going to get people who buy junk to pony up the bucks for handcrafted, furniture. The leap is just too far.
Focus on what might get more people who buy the better made, though still mass produced, furniture to move up to craftsman made.
Second, most of us don't have that good of visualization skills. We need to see, feel, and play with, an item to know whether we like it.
Showing pictures of your work helps. Much better is to have a show room. Include a few finished pieces of each of the types you make.
Last, you are in the woodworking business, the rest of us aren't. We just want to get the furniture shopping over with and get on with life. Make the process as simple as possible. And, unless I tell you I have a van, you better have "free" delivery.

Personally, I don't buy junk. I get well-made, moderately expensive, furniture, when I can afford it.
If I can't afford it, I just do without.
Or I make it myself.

Celine Schomer said...

I am so grateful to see all of this. It is enlightening.
We make handcrafted furniture. And there is nothing more special than giving someone what they really wanted and thought they couldn't afford.
I know a person who actually believes that no one buys cedar chests any more and everyone they know shops at the ikea place. Yes their furniture will melt or just fall apart.
We have customers who are not wealthy but, want that something special. We try to keep our costs down in order that we don't have to increase prices so people can not afford handmade furniture. I know we probably don't charge enough.
Seems like it is just a fast world and like someone else said about the drive through to get dinner in 4 minutes, you will remember it for about 4 minutes also.
I suppose people just want to point click autofill their card information and they will have a piece of furniture in a week or overnight.
I have found some customers who want a custom piece built would rather email back and forth for two weeks trying to get something designed (which does not work). We can answer their questions in 15 minutes and get them a rough estimate in a day or in the same phone call most times.
It's sad. It does come down to you can buy four of those or one of these.
If I want something "trendy" in clothes it's going to be extremely inexpensive. If I'm going to spend real money on clothes it's going to be something that is going to work for at least the next decade. (ok or two)
I wish people could look at their furniture the same way.
Thank you for having this topic open. I wish I could share it with my cutomers!

Hibiki said...
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