I'm interested in a woodworking career, can you give me advice?

There's a flood of competing thoughts whenever I'm asked this question. This job/enterprise/career/life-pursuit/passion is so precious to me, and such a part of my identity that it would feel gross and dishonest to only perpetuate the romantic ideal of the lone maker at their bench, cutting wispy curls in a dusty shaft of light. It would also be dishonest to talk only about how tough it is. Because, it can be really difficult. But, there's something romantic in that struggle too. It's both. It's all of the things. And, it's overwhelming to give meaningful advice. Nevertheless, here are ~20 years worth of observations:

Making beautiful things out of wood is the easy part. YouTube is obviously a wealth of information about tools, techniques, tips. There are co-working spaces, workshops, and community colleges with woodworking programs in every major American city. And, for those who are more committed, there are places like Anderson Ranch, William Ng Woodworking School, Marc Adams, and dozens of others all over the country. For someone who wants the support of academia, there are undergrad/grad programs with a furniture emphasis at schools like University of Wisconsin at Madison, SDSU, RIT, RISD, SCAD, CCA, etc. And, you can find cabinet/woodworking shops out there willing to pay you peanuts to sweep and take lunch orders while you slowly absorb some skills... if you can afford paying those dues.

But! Like I said... making cool stuff is the easy part. Selling it is the hard part.

There are a bunch of different ways to get paid doing "woodworking" -whether that means building cabinets, restaurant interiors, small items sold on Etsy, or art commissions paid for by grants/fellowships in an academic setting. Something I didn't appreciate when I started is that you have to find people who are going to give you money for the pieces you make. Supporting a hobby is easy... you can sell pieces to friends/family at cost, or even give things away... and, that keeps things fun, and that's what I recommend to most of the folks that email me who are considering a mid-career change. I say -keep it as a hobby and find some other way to make money that doesn't crush your soul. I can't tell you how many people have left stable jobs, spent a considerable amount of their savings setting up a workshop, made a solid effort at generating business, and then called me in desperation after a few years to ask, "What am I doing wrong?? How do YOU sell your work? What's the secret?"

Getting paid enough from your craft to afford rent, live in a decent neighborhood, support a family, shop at Whole Foods, and have enough left over for savings or going on vacation is difficult. It's especially hard when you are trying to maintain a high standard of quality and are picky about what jobs you take. There are proven business models for a cabinet shop, but none really for heirloom quality "studio furniture". I feel like setting out to make a "good" living building your own un-compromised designs is as naive/unlikely as the young person stepping off the bus in Hollywood to "make it big." Can it happen? Yes. But, it's the exception, and comes with certain sacrifices and concessions.

Most "successful" woodworkers I know have a parallel career (in addition to making the impressive pieces on their websites). A guy I know who has an exquisite piece in the Smithsonian owns a cabinetry business where he manages a crew from 7am until 3pm, and when his guys go home, he can then work on his more artful stuff. Other friends take on custom corporate work. Some teach or work part-time as "handy-men" for $30-$50/hr. In recent years, I've seen plenty of makers attempt to subsidize their passion by being "content creators" on social media. Getting to a place where you can say no to certain jobs, or curtail other stable income activities takes many years -of making contacts, earning the business of repeat customers, and building a reputation.

"Success" is a moving target and that's why it's hard to give advice. My path is totally individual. I can't tell you how to get to this point... and what I want, or what my definition of success is will continue to change and evolve. There's no recipe or formula. I'm sure there are approaches or ideas that I would insist don't work that someone else (more driven or ambitious or foolish enough) could make work. As far as I know, success is realized from a mixture of innate talent, good fortune (meeting the right person at the right time, getting press, etc.) and hard work.

You only have control over one of those factors.

So, just do your best work, and have a vision for what you want.

When apprentices tell me they just want to do what I'm doing, I tell them "don't." It's the same advice that I was given by my woodworking mentors when I first started: "Don't do it! Find something else... sell insurance or learn to code or whatever... don't try to make a living at this... it's too hard!" And, if I can convince you (with a ton of compelling evidence) not to do it... well, then you weren't meant to do it. Only someone with a ridiculous self-confidence and stubbornness will have the gall to ignore that advice... and it'll be that stubbornness that will be required when it gets tough and the consistent weekly corporate paycheck looks really nice.

I strongly recommend reading the book Boss Life, by Paul Downs. I wish I'd read it when I first started. It starkly lays out the real economics of running a woodworking/craft-focused business, month-to-month for a year. Obviously, Paul's business or approach won't apply to everyone, but the book reveals many of the questions that entrepreneurs need to be asking themselves.

I do feel profoundly grateful that I've been able to sustain this career as a full-time designer/maker since 2002, and I credit many understanding, generous, and repeat customers as well as supportive family and friends for that. I didn't start with a trust fund or inheritance, but for most of my professional life I've had a supportive partner/spouse and that makes a huge difference. If you are fortunate enough to have a trust fund, an inheritance, or some other means to float your woodworking enterprise, I suppose you can disregard much of the above. But, you know the old joke: "How do you make $1,000,000 crafting furniture?"

"Start with $2,000,000."

Best of luck to you!

Can i come visit the studio?

If you are considering commissioning a custom piece, please give us a ring, or send an email with some details and we'd be happy to schedule an appointment.

If you are considering moving your business to Downtown Stockton and would like to ask about our experience, please get in touch via phone or email and we can set up a time to chat/visit.

If you are just hoping to see the studio, chat about woodworking, etc. please know that we are incredibly grateful and humbled by your interest. But, we are extremely busy and already feel like there isn't enough time spent with family, friends, or the outdoors. So, at the moment, we're not able to host drop-ins or casual visits. There are various events throughout the year when we open the studio to the public. Please follow our Instagram page for news about upcoming events. We'd love to see you there. Thank you for your understanding.