View Full Version : Anybody making a decent living SOLELY from custom furniture?

Tom Overthere
02-26-2009, 4:26 PM
QUESTION: Are YOU making a decent* living based only on your
own limited production of furniture and/or home furnishings products?

*For me, "a decent living" means a moderate middle-class lifestyle where you're covering all expenses, plus 10% of income going to savings. Enough discretionary income remains for a little charity, and a few "perks" for you and yours.

a) For the purposes of this question, a retired person who is
augmenting his/her retirement income is not counted. :(

b) And if your spouse has a well-paying livelihood that allows
you the freedom to work wood at a less-than-sustaining level,
you're out, too. :(

I'm at a tipping point. This will likely be my ONLY source of income. I'm single and have no retirement on which to fall back. I'll have to spend about $13,000 on additional tools and startup materials, plus figure out a way to insulate and heat my garage, upgrade to 220v and expand my woodworking techniques a lot in short order. Or NOT...

I've been driving myself NUTZ(!) trying to make this decision, in light of what appears to be the coming worldwide Depression (and that last word did not start with an "R").

THIS IS A REALITY CHECK FOR ME, so don't worry about dampening my (or anyone's) enthusiasm. I'm getting a strong feeling that now may not be the right time, regardless of my level of dedication and/or talent. Any accurate insight is, for me, a helpful and appreciated insight.


P.S. While this question may require some uncomfortable soul searching on your parts, I hope it's not offensive to anyone here. I ask out of neccessity and deepening concern.

Chris Padilla
02-26-2009, 4:43 PM

Assuming you take the plunge, you need to set up time horizons, I think. Like, if I don't break even in x amount of time, I need to get out (go back to school, look for another job, etc.).

Otherwise, I think it takes a firm jaw, brave soul, and a clear plan to delve into such a thing at such a time. I wish you the best.

John Shuk
02-26-2009, 9:03 PM
I'd say that if you have a job or stable situation you try making some pieces on spec in your spare time and see what happens.
Some might say nothing ventured nothing gained and give a rah rah about self confidence and such. All of that may be true but Especially now it is important to hold onto what you've got.

Sawmill Creek has a very diverse group of woodworkers and not many have professed to be able to do what you have stated. The best WW'ing advice I've heard here was from Ian Barley and that is that you should build a Product and market it. Become known for a great line of "Adirondack chairs" or dressers or whatever. Then if a custom order comes in once in a while maybe take it.
Another idea would be to make semi custom furniture. I know a guy who makes different stuff. Captain's style beds mainly that you can choose a headboard style from 4 or 5 choices.(If you give people too many choices they will choose nothing) He makes good quality stuff that is affordable mostly builds only when there is an order and seems to be doing well. (what ever that means)

I do think that if you proceed slowly and frugally with a mind toward a worsening economy when things go up you can go up with them. I know a bunch of contractors for whom money seemed to grow on well fertilized trees and they spent like it. Now they are barely holding on.
Hope this helps a bit. Good luck whatever you do.

Earl Kelly
02-27-2009, 7:46 AM

I've been building custom furniture since the '80's. And I can tell you it's very difficult to sustain a decent living wage soley on Furniture. To give you an example, for the last 2 yrs I've been building Museum exhibits. There's a tremendous amount of Marketing and self promotion that needs to be done continually. And on top of that you need to be very good and have a unique style or product.

But, if you're young and single with no debt or very little, what have you got to lose. I would go for it. If you fail, you have yrs to recoup and start another profession. If you're in it strictly for the money, forget about it. Many other things you can do that will make you more money.

Good luck.


Lee Schierer
02-27-2009, 8:53 AM
Questions to ask your self:

1. Do you like selling? You're going to spend 25-33% of your time woodworking and 66-75% selling and book keeping.

2. Are you self motivated enough to go to the shop early and work late to meet a deadline.

3. Can you take criticism? There are some consumers out there that feel oblogated to denegrate everything they buy in hopes of knockling a few bucks off the purchase price.

4. Have you written out a detailed business plan and reviewed that with a bank to see if they will loan you the money? If they won't lend your the money because your business plan isn't sound, why should you.

5. Can you make the monthly payments of $245 on your $13,000 investment and pay all your other expenses, like eating as well.

6. Do you have at least two years of income based on last years W-2 in the bank to live on until your business turns a profit?

7. What are you going to do when a customer refuses to pay for or accept a piece of work you have done for them?

David G Baker
02-27-2009, 9:07 AM
Good advice Lee! Makes a person take a little look at reality.

Peter Elliott
02-27-2009, 9:35 AM

You probably already know your answer! my guess...:rolleyes:

Looking at this from the business end, you got to have all your ducks in line. Cash to buy tools and materials. What product category do you want to focus on. Who is your customer, etc...

I am not sure hanging a sign on your garage, getting some efficient tools and saying I am open for biz is going to work in these days.

My #1 question is where do you live? That old saying - location, location, location. If you want to get into the fine furniture market, you need to live/work when there is a substantial customer base (people). To me, this would be near a major metropolitan area.

Do you need a store front? Doesn't need to be big. Could be open for retail viewing on just Saturdays alone, create interest into orders! Space is cheap right now and could do a short lease. Mon-Fri in the shop, Sat in the store!!

There are the shops in rural Maine and all over Vermont that are probably doing ok selling to major city areas but they have long established their business, like a Thos. Moser.

Do you want to be retail driven or commercial driven? Retail, how do you get to the customer. Commercial, how do you cold call the companies.
Both - which I assume you will, then you have to search for both customers.

Do you want to be web based. YES should be the answer no matter what. You have to have a good quality website. This is not expensive but you have to be on the web. You can save a bundle doing this your self or you probably could find a friend to help out. $200 will get you a site and software anyone can use to build a nice site (bluehost.com, coffeecup.com - no affiliations)

Tools - you don't need the finest line, at this point I would be very frugal with every penny. Put the $$ where it's needed. A HF tool or craftsmen tool could most likely get you buy for years, while you establish yourself. If a tool can dramatically streamline your operation, then yes go for it. You might be able to sub some work out, like if you need to have a panel/top sanded. Find a company with a widebelt and ask.

Finish work - you'd be surprise how many full time furniture makers sub out the finish work. The key is to hook up with some one you trust, admire their work and affordable. Yes, they are out there!! This way you can focus on woodworking. Not that you can't do finish work or if a small project doesn't merit the cost. Just an option if you start to roll in the jobs.

Most importantly, you have to sell yourself. Your work is you. You create each piece of fine work from inception to delivery.


And finally, give the customer what they want, no matter what you think.
Be an adviser, not a critic when selling a job!

Don't forget to come back and tell us your 1st job and company name ;)

Best wishes, be smart, be proud!


Mike Henderson
02-27-2009, 12:28 PM
There are certain "attractive" jobs in this world - jobs that provide a lot of personal satisfaction and don't require a tremendous amount of formal education. Interior Designer is one of them. Many people, often women, dream of being an Interior Designer. Because of that, many people try to become an Interior Designer - many more than the market will bear. Some become successful but the majority fail and later go into some other area of work.

Building custom furniture is one of those kinds of jobs.

You'll find more success in fields where other people don't want to do the work (for whatever reason), or where there are significant barriers to entry. Being a CPA is an example of barriers to entry. You need special education and you have to take an exam.

Unless you are a furniture designer and have some unique designs that appeal to a significant group of people, you'll have a hard time. Building furniture that's already been made only works if there's some other "special" aspect of it, such as built-ins.

Good luck!


Tom Overthere
02-27-2009, 2:39 PM
'Just a quick 'blip' to let you guys know I'm checking in.

I just read all comments, and have some questions / comments in response, but don't have "time for typing" at present. I hope to get back here tonight or on Saturday.

THANK YOU for taking an interest, and for giving me the benefit of your advice.


Al Willits
02-27-2009, 3:12 PM
When times are tough, you need to find a product not being offered that you can make and find the market to sell it in, if it means making 10,000 bread boards for some retail store, and its gonna bore ya to death, consider if it puts food on the table beer in the icebox and a few bucks in the bank, that is much better than having one of a kind major pieces that sit on your shop floor collecting dust, whether because you have not developed the market for them or people are just not spending the money on then.

Once your up and running and you develop a customer base, you can start making more custom pieces, first and foremost imho is getting the business up and running, even if it is just making breadboards for Walmart.

Good point on over extending yourself on tools, our woodworkers guild did a tour of a high end boat refinishing shop, working on antique wood boats, and we didn't see a Fesstool or Sawstop in that shop.

Lots of good advise here, good luck.


Prashun Patel
02-27-2009, 3:39 PM
1. Do you like selling? You're going to spend ...66-75% selling and book keeping.

That's pretty much ANY business where yr self-employed.

Larry Edgerton
02-27-2009, 5:33 PM
I tried just furniture and furniture grade cabinets for about five years, and I had to wander back into construction and less labor intensive cabinets. I just could not get ahead the way I wanted because I had too much overhead, and spent so much time in the shop I didn't have time to sell properly. I have all of my tools, and they are all paid for now, so I may give it another shot soon, but I will keep my fingers in construction to be safe.

I have a friend that found a niche making canoe shelving and went into production of that only, did the show circuit, built an internet site, and has made a living at it, but he is not doing wood work any more, and that is his tradeoff.

Until you aquire some status as an "Artist" which requires more PR than raw talent from what I can tell, you can not charge enough for one-offs to make a profit at them. I still do one once in a while but I do them for people that I like because I know I am losing money on every one.

For example I charged 23k for the office furniture in my friends shop, a large secretary station, two desks, a file cabinet with 9' drawers, a computor station and an end table. It was made out of Jotoba and maple in a Greene and Greene tribute style, with a finish that fit in a high end body shop.

I lost my butt, but I am most proud of that job of any I have done. I figure after expenses I was paid about $5 hr. on that job.

So my suggestion is that if you want to jump, jump, but know that the idealistic dream of building beautiful creations from your imagination is not always possible. As someone else mentioned ironically, I did a run of cutting boards for a resturant chain myself, just to make the payments. I was living in my shop after a divorce, so at one point I decided I wanted a home and pulled my builders licence out of escrow.

Also to complicate issues is an ecomomy that is tetering on collapse, a worry that even those of us that are established worry about. If you have steady employment that looks stable, I would be inclined to keep it for the forseeable future, and save all that you can while the storm is apon us.

That being said, I can't wait to get back to working for little, but doing what I really want to do. I have all of these designs floating around in my head............

Craig D Peltier
02-27-2009, 8:24 PM
I find with the economy the way it is and even when it was good. You have to find the right consumers that are willing to spend 4-5k on a table and 3k for a dresser etc. Now its even tougher. You can always find the people who want the 800 dresser and the 1200 table but you will loose money.
So you need some serious advertising in the right demographic, skill an time to build up and get word of mouth around.
I would suggest trying to make some cabinets as well. Whether there kitchen or built ins someone always needs them but not a new table.

Tom Overthere
02-28-2009, 12:53 PM
The diversity of your opinions/responses is a clear indication of the diversity (and intellect ;)) of the SMC membership. I find it VERY helpful to read your divergent points of view. Surprisingly, I have been thinking in line with EACH OF YOU in one way or another (not a split personality, more like a splintered personality :D).

I'm middle-aged, very healthy and presently without income (so nothing to loose). Like Larry once was, I'm in recently-divorced mode and it's time for a serious reboot. At this point, I figure the only "right" option is to "Go For It" - except I'm not entirely sure what "It" is...especially considering the current worldwide economic situation.

I understand about "bread board production runs" and have considered that. Done as a temporary "get by" measure, I could do it standing on my head, but I dread the prospect of a business based mostly on cranking out "the same thing" again and again and again (even if it's a beautiful and intricate "thing").

In response to Lee, I LOVE SELLING to interested customers. I used to handle all the advert, sales, promotion, client contact and admin for our family business. Unfortunately "our" business was based on my wife's unique skill set, and when we parted she took "our" business with her. :eek:UCH!!! Yeah, that hurts.

I do have a specialty/niche market in mind and have had several projects on the drawing board (in varying states of completion) for a long time now. There is a technical aspect to what I have in mind (as opposed to style and aesthetics), and the fact is, NOT ONE of my designs is "ready for production" yet. If I had a working prototype, I'd KNOW whether to jump or not.

Thanks to your helpful insights, I see that we're all thinking pretty much along the same lines. I appreciate you guys giving me THE NUDGE, and as soon as my garage thaws out, I will use only the tools I own to get off the drawing board and build working prototypes from something cheap, like MDF (my favorite target of "obtuse inquiry" lately :D).

I'd like to respond to individual points made by each of you, but there are SO MANY great points made that I cannot devote enough time/typing. Suffice to say, I read and internalized every word.


Jim Becker
02-28-2009, 4:37 PM
I do have a specialty/niche market in mind and have had several projects on the drawing board (in varying states of completion) for a long time now. There is a technical aspect to what I have in mind (as opposed to style and aesthetics), and the fact is, NOT ONE of my designs is "ready for production" yet. If I had a working prototype, I'd KNOW whether to jump or not.

Until you have something that you can do some market research with, you don't have the information you need to know if your idea has merit commercially. It may be the best thing since that metal object that folks typically cut bread with, but it's got to have appeal to enough folks for you to judge how well it will sell for what you'll have to sell it for to make money.

And I also like Lee's list.