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Thread: making money at woodworking

  1. #1
    Join Date
    Nov 2007

    making money at woodworking

    I am trying to develop the skills so that when I retire ... in about 15 years, I can make some extra money doing something that I really enjoy. I would like to benefit from the experience of The Creek to understand where the money is in woodworking. Here are some thoughts that I hope that you will add to:

    1. Building and installing cabinets. I find it hard to understand where there is money to be made here, since you can go to any number of cabinet companies and order pre-made cabinets in so large of a variety.

    2. Building furniture. Same as above.

    3. Building custom -- very high end -- cabinets ... those that cannot be purchased. I don't really understand what this would mean ... again, because of the variety of cabinets available.

    4. Building "fine" furniture. How do you find the market and what is fine furniture, and why does it command a price high enough to make money?

    OK, so those are my novice thoughts. Can you help me out here?

  2. #2
    Join Date
    Dec 2006
    Blog Entries
    Make money at wood work? Who ever heard of that?Make money, buy more tools to make more money so I can buy more tools.
    What you listen to is your business....what you hear is ours.

  3. #3
    It's not an easy thing to do Ray. Most woodworkers never break even. I think that you have to come up with something unique, and or be able to market yourself and product so that it will make people perceive value and worth. If you can get your material as cheap as you can, and make the process as efficient as possible, you'll have a good start.

  4. #4
    Let me preface this by saying woodworking is not my profession....

    The way to make money ( with anything you do ) is establish a VALUE for your work. It will be difficult to succeed in a small shop with clients that first and foremost are concerned with price. Finding the right clientele would be the key to say, custom cabinets.

    In my house for example, there are not many choices for my TV/Entertainment center, so that would be a custom cabinet / furniture situation.

  5. #5
    Well, this isn't really an answer to your question, but there's the story of the woodworker who won $3.5 million in the lottery. When asked what he was going to do now, he replied, "I think I'll keep doing woodworking until the money runs out."

    Go into the world and do well. But more importantly, go into the world and do good.

  6. #6
    Join Date
    Nov 2007
    Yeah, I have sometimes thought that maybe I could come up with something unique and sell it at craft fairs. I saw a crafts fair last year where someone was selling adirondack chairs and tables, and they were not very well done. I thought that if he could do it with such poor quality, then I could probably do it, too.

  7. #7
    Join Date
    Mar 2008
    Colfax, CA

    woodworker and pizza

    A fellow woodworker asked me " What's the difference between a woodworker and a pizza ?" I said I didn't know.

    He said a pizza can feed a family of four !

    Like the others said " you need sonething unique ."


  8. #8
    Join Date
    Feb 2008
    Amarillo, TX
    I was a partner in a custom cabinet shop roughly 12 years ago. I started it with a very good friend of mine. We scratched together a small living for the two of us for about 5 years. We never really got ahead and made it what I would consider a success. We sold the shop at a break even price and went our seperate ways. I have since got into the ATM industry and my friend is an engineer for a rather large millwork shop in NM. I dropped of the wood radar up until last year when a friend of mine asked for some help with an entertainment center. With the few tools I had left we threw one together. I looked at it and was somewhat disappointed with my rusty skills, he was estatic.

    That is when it occured to me. I have an income that takes care of my needs. Woodworking now has a place in my life again. It gives me a sense of peace and the ability to create. Do I want to make money at it? yes ... Is it worth the potential heartache and ruin my desire to build? For me, No ...

    Just something to think about ....
    aka The Putz

  9. #9
    Join Date
    Jan 2008
    Forrest City Arknasas
    Greetings & Salutations,

    I am retired and have some of the same thoughts about
    making some extra money.

    I have built some lawn furniture such as porch swings and
    some unique 2 piece lawn chairs that I have been able to
    make a bit of profit on.

    There was an article recently in one of the woodworking
    mags and I would have to go thru mine to fine which on
    but it had a formula on how to price your work.

    The one key is "what is your time worth or how much do
    you want to make in a year.

    The formula worked by breaking down your labor to an hourly
    rate that would make you "x" number of dollars in a year.

    I plugged the numbers in on the Cherry Cedar Chest that I
    built for my nephew as a wedding gift and at a modest $15.00/HR
    I would need to charge $1800.00 for the chest. Included in that
    figure were shop supplies, cost of heat, air, electric and such
    along with materials.

    I also did some research on the computer and there are some
    folks that are hand making ceder chest out of fine woods and
    getting as much as $3500 or more.

    So when the opportunity came up to price one to my insurance
    agent that seen the one I already built I quickly quoted $1800.00.

    Well I didn't get that but I almost fell over when he offered $1500.00
    so guess what I said I would build it. LOL

    I would not want to go into a full time situation where I would
    have to build one right after another but rather be able to
    price out a project and work on it at my own pace.

    It does give me something to do and keeps me from roaming
    the streets at night.

    Hope this helps.

    And to think it only took me 2 weeks 26 hours and 43 minutes to get that top flat.

  10. #10

    First, you won't be making things out of wood to make money!!!!! You WILL be running a business that sells the stuff you make, to make money. Big difference.

    Second, sharpen your elbows... it's crowded out here. Find a niche, attack it with all you've got and be prepared for this: even if you love something you've made that doesn't sell or can't be produced at a profit... scrap it and get on to something else in a hurry. Marry a product or product line that doesn't sell and you'll starve in a very clean shop.

    At 40 and I started in woodworking (12 years ago) by sending 20 prototype designs to over 100 brick and mortar shops. I had a profiable business running full time in 6 months. It can still be done today.

    In the last 12 years, I've made and offered over 350 designs, many in a few sizes and configurations. My core business consists of only about 150 of those designs at any one time (the rest being failures), and about 50 of those designs sell enough volume to float the boat. Each year I launch about 15-20 new items (fewer every year), and drop about that many off the roster. If you've got only 10 things to offer, stay home.

    This year an entire line of Stickley-style inlaid veneers is new (ad in Woodwork magazine at $475.00 a pop)... I've been working on these for over four years and cut them on a $20,000.00 laser. They're selling great, but giving birth isn't for the timid.

    If you aren't represented with your own website, you're invisible these days. Plan on spending more time on the website than on prototyping goods to sell. I've got many hundreds of hours invested in my website(s). No kidding here, either learn to get it up and running or pay to have it done for you. I've had one for 10 years, I'm on my third platform and I think I'm about 80% happy with it.

    Remember, just because someone has a gee-gaw on his site that doesn't mean he's selling it in any great numbers. Many items on my site sell 1 to 3 units per year.

    Go for the gusto.

    Having said all that, I've done shows with Debey Zito (back cover of FWW a few years back) in the next boothe and saw her sell a $14,000.00 chair and a $23,000.00 hutch in one afternoon. She doesn't need to ship as much stuff as I do to pay the bills.
    "I love the smell of sawdust in the morning".
    Robert Duval in "Apileachips Now". - almost.

    Laserpro Spirit 60W laser, Corel X3
    Missionfurnishings, Mitchell Andrus Studios, NC

  11. #11
    Join Date
    Apr 2007
    Birmingham, AL
    Quote Originally Posted by Ray Schafer View Post
    I am trying to develop the skills so that when I retire ... in about 15 years, I can make some extra money doing something that I really enjoy.
    If you are already going to be retired, and all you want to do is make some "extra" money, then I think you can get by with just making small items or whatever interests you. If I am understanding your situation correctly, it sounds more like you want a hobby that winds up not costing you money and maybe even makes some on the side. My grandfather-in-law and his wife did this when they retired. He made small wooden items, his wife painted them, and they sold them at craft fairs. They didn't make the kind of money that you could count on for budgeting, but they made enough to pay for their supplies, the cost of the trips to the craft shows (gas, meals, rooms, etc.) and a little bit left over. I'm sure that if you divided up their "profits" by the amount of time that they spent making the items, that they were getting very little in monetary compensation, but for them it was more about the friends they made and all the fun they had working together. It was a hobby that paid for itself and provided a lot of fun experiences that made their lives richer. Hard to really put a price on that.

    If I misread your original post and you are actually looking to get into woodworking as a serious source of income, umm... well... I have nothing to offer there. Good luck.
    If I could ever finish working on my shop, maybe I could find the time to start working in my shop.

  12. #12
    Join Date
    Jun 2006
    cheasapeake, va

    first, some quick responses -

    1. labor services (installing cabinets) all depends on your location. there is a consistant lack of "good" people that know how to work with their hands and are willing to do so. you don't have to be a master craftsman but if you can do simple things like return phone calls and show up when you schedule yourself, you'll be in high demand. i occassionally install cabinets for one kitchen designer. she's constantly turning over sub cabinet installers because guys don't show (or do unacceptable work - not just bad, but putting-in-a-cabinet-upside-down bad). my expenses are minimum - the business is out of my house (no shop) and there just aren't many overhead expenses to keep up with. if i were to do this full-time, and assuming some level of constant work, i could probably make $60k-$80k/yr. with that said, here are the two biggest obsticles as an installer - 1. i install solo and it just wears your body out. i guess i'm still young (33) but i do come home tired and sore. i'm very aware of being dependent on my body to make money. i'd much rather be dependent on my mind. 2. problem #2 is i'm not making any money when i'm not working. this is different from my semi-former job as a general contractor. i don't need to work as much when the plumbers are there as i do when i'm running trim. this doesn't seem to matter as i'm getting paid for the build, regardless of how much physical labor i provide to get the job done. as an installer, all of my sick and vacation days would be unpaid.

    i don't think opening up a kitchen cabinet shop is a good idea in today's market. this market is way overcrowded and you and your competition's first move will be to cut the price. i'm sure it is possible to market yourself as high end, but the deck is stacked against you.

    2. furniture - i think it has been over-discussed that most individuals aren't willing to shell out the bucks for quality furniture. there are people willing (and wanting) to pay for your services but i think this would be a hard market to break into without personal connections and advanced marketing.

    3. & 4. custom wood products - i think this is the best choice. you'd be skilled enough to build any and everything. entertainment centers and custom built-ins will probably be cash cows.

    i'm just starting a small commercial woodworking shop and i'm specializing in nothing. i'm going to offer up a bunch of different services and go from there. this is a business first and foremost, so i'll be specializing in things that the market demands and can satisfy my financial goals. i've got a serious marketing budget and am committed to it without hesitation. i'm in a fortunate position given that i can use my personal savings to start (and maintain for a limited period of time) this business. you cannot go bankrupt using your own money - you just call it quits. i think i'm as prepared as i will ever be so i'm taking the plunge.

    as a side note, and perhaps of serious importance, while i enjoy woodworking, i'm entering this market for financial improvement more than quality of life. not to say that i am not going to enjoy woodworking once i'm on the clock, but i see my business filling a void in our local market, so it is partial for quality of life and partial a business decision. like others have suggested, i plan on losing some of the joy of the hobby when i have to make a living at it.

    as another side note, i installed a gate and doggie door yesterday and today. i'll take any job that turns a profit.

    good luck,


  13. #13
    This is a tough question. But after a really long time "in the business, I may have something to offer. First of all, you need to ask yourself if you want to be a woodworker or a businessman whose company does woodwork. If you want to do woodwork, stay very small. Just you and maybe one other guy. Any more than that and, like others have pointed out, you will be spending much more time supervising, managing and "administering" that you will spend doing any actual woodwork.

    Another thing to consider is your "target" market. With just you and one other guy, there is no way you are going to compete with factory mass producers. And unless you have a very large bankroll, you are not going to be in a position to set up your own factory. So you need offer your customers something that the big guys cannot offer. And you need to find customers who can appreciate the difference and are willing to pay for it.

    When I had a shop with ten to twelve employees, I made very little money. We survived but my employees had it much better than I did. After I "downsized" and went back to working my myself and then with my son, I did much better, had a much lower stress level and enjoyed the work much more. And of course, I actually did woodwork!

    You absolutely must be able to design and build very high quality pieces that will appeal to people who can and will spend the money if they can justify it. If your work looks just like what they can buy anywhere else for half the price, why would they pay you double? Your "manufacturing methods" will not be a factor. Most people don't care how a dovetail is cut. But they will care if you are offering them something that they cannot get elsewhere.

    As to where to sell your work, "craft fairs" are a good place to start if you have small items that are easily transported. The thing about these fairs is that people often see the same stuff at every one. Every once in a while something really unique will appear and that item will sell "like hot cakes". Then others will start to make them too and after a while, they will become just another craft fair "staple". By then, of course, you will have come up with something entirely new, thereby remaining ahead of the pack.

    For marketing larger pieces, look for crafts "co-ops". There are often like "stationary" craft fairs and can accommodate larger works. Also, if there are any "design centers" near by, start taking a day a month and visit them with your portfolio. Designers can be PITA to work with but they can also be the source of a lot of work, love (for the most part) being able to say "I have this guy who just does the best work..." and can be your "entree" into the right circles.

    It ain't easy but it can be done. And here's another thought for you. As things get tighter economically, things can change very quickly and we may soon see an "about face" in this whole "world market" thing. If fuel costs continue to rise (as it seems like they will) along with the cost of everything else including "foreign" labor, it's very likely that we will see a "leveling of the playing field" to a much greater extent that we now have and that's going to make "local sourcing" much more attractive.

    David DeCristoforo

  14. #14
    Hi Ray,

    I've thought on this subject awhile and touched toe to water once or twice. But then, every hobby I have, it seems, I like to dream (or scheme) how I could make money at it.

    When we started our fossil business 14 years ago for my wife's income and built an addition to our home to accomodate it, we didn't know if it would sail or not. We just figured we'd turn it into a woodshop if fossil preparation failed and try that avenue. Turns out I quit my job and the fossil business now supports the two of us, so we never took the next leap. Still, I'm always thinking of the future and hatching new schemes.

    In your case, you should begin now with plans for what you hope the future business might cost to startup and how much you hope to earn. Obviously, it takes a "name" to fetch the big bucks for single pieces. That takes years of experience, reaching a market, gaining word-of-mouth, all those things and more. The sooner you start with any plan and get your work out there, the better set you will be when your retirement date arrives.

    It may prove prudent to shop for some tools and establish your shop now, paying as you go, even if you don't go straight to working with wood items for sale. Often friends who see your work might comment or ask to commission some items. Over time, this can expand till the income is greater and you'll get an idea beforehand if it's a worthwhile endeavor.

    If your retirement income might be marginal, you'll appreciate having some of the costs already absorbed during your final working years. And you won't be starting entirely from scratch later with higher needs and expectations. Tools probably won't be be cheaper 15 years hence, another consideration.

    There's a million wood items that are not "furniture." There's things that set on the floor, and then there's things to place on top of them. Knick knacks, wall hangings, boxes, shelves, carvings, clocks, Christmas and seasonal items, you name it. Outside a home, there's yard art and lawn furniture, birdhouses, whirligigs, utility items, even small structures such as storage sheds and what-have-you.

    Niche or unique items, such as dollhouse furniture, model railroading structures, restoration of old radio cabinets and other vintage wood items.

    Even if you start with minimal effort and time, you can still get your feet wet and try many things while you are not as worried about achieving instant profit.

    Consider taxes too. If you begin a "business" now that does not turn a profit in 4 years, the IRS may disallow many deductions. Perhaps keep cost records and take some tool expenses as a deductible later to help offset the presumed greater profits once you are established. I'd get further advice on this issue. If you end up being really successful, it may also impact your Social Security or other retirement earnings.

    Whatever item is really hot now, in 15 years it may not be. Be prepared to shift gears and re-aim your sights as time goes on.

    Good luck and I hope it's a wonderful time for you!

  15. #15
    For whatever it's worth, I'm with David on this one. In order to make money, as a small shop or one person operation, with woodworking you MUST offer something unique and of value and find the market that's willing to pay for it. Since you're hoping to do this after retirement, what the heck, don't be afraid to ask for the high price for your work if it's indeed unique.

    For myself and developing my woodworking business as as a sideline business, it's as much about selling the image of yourself as it is the pieces that you make! There are many woodworkers much more skilled than I am but who don't get anywhere near the price for their work that I do. I'm not bragging, just explaining that you have to sell yourself as a unique craftsman to go along with your unique work. And of course, tapping into that market that can afford to layout the bucks for whatever it is that you want to do.

    Forget competing with the big boys. Do your own thing, put your heart into it and you'll find a way to do what you want to do.
    Stephen Edwards
    Hilham, TN 38568

    "Build for the joy of it!"

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