The Business Of Handmade Furniture, Part I

When people ask me what I do for a living and I tell them I create custom handmade furniture they often respond with a combination of interest and perplexity. “That’s cool! Uh, what kind of furniture do you make?” Sometimes this initial question is followed up with, “Do you make rustic furniture?”, which used to make me wonder if I was a rustic looking person. But even after I started dressing better and shaving more often, this “rustic question” persisted. So, I have come to the conclusion that it is hard for most people to imagine an individual in our modern culture who makes elegant, nicely crafted furniture by hand. After all, there just aren’t that many of us out there. If someone says they are an architect or interior designer or mechanic, we can conjure up a mental image of what that person might do, but furniture maker? Uh yeah. What kind of furniture do you make? Is it rustic?

Texas Walnut And Pecan Media Cabinet
Texas Walnut And Pecan Media Cabinet

Many years ago when I first got interested in working with wood my highest standard was nice kitchen cabinets with raised panel doors and a glossy lacquer finish. That was what I aspired to make. Then one day I came across a copy of Fine Woodworking Magazine on a news stand and learned there were living people who could actually reproduce beautiful antique furniture and others still who were building new forms to their own design. This revelation blew my mind! In my ignorance I just didn’t know the art of furniture making was still being practiced at such a high level and was continuing to evolve.

Thirty-five years later, I’m not sure much has changed in the culture at large, though. People look for furniture that is functional, comfortable, in a style and color they like, but few people think of encountering furniture they might get excited about or swoon over. Almost no one thinks of furniture as an art form or as functional sculpture. Almost no one even knows someone who is a furniture maker. My friends and clients don’t even know what to call me. When they introduce me they say, “This is my friend, Louis. He’s a really good carpenter.” This frightens me because you would not want me to build your house.

Live Edge Figured Mesquite Coffee Table
Live Edge Figured Mesquite Coffee Table

But one mustn’t get discouraged by every little thing. Even after building hundreds of pieces, I still get excited when I start a new project. I have the opportunity to work with beautiful materials and bring new forms into the world. I have the opportunity to work to a high standard and to create things that are both functional and aesthetic. I am still passionate about what I do. I get to pour myself, body and soul into my work, and there must be a lot of satisfaction in such an occupation, right?

Round Bubinga And Curly Maple Dining Table
Round Bubinga And Curly Maple Dining Table

The answer to that question is yes, but one can’t eat satisfaction. Satisfaction won’t support my family or pay my taxes. As challenging as the creative and technical aspects of furniture making might be, doing it as a business and making a living at it is probably an even greater challenge. This subject, the business of furniture making, is one that seldom gets discussed in magazines, online, or even in prestigious furniture making and design schools. I have friends who have come out of such schools. They learn how to make incredible furniture but are left clueless as to how to market their skills. One might wonder if it is even possible to make a real living as a furniture maker. In coming posts I hope to share from personal experience what I have learned about this ignored topic.

Bubinga And Curly Maple Dining Chair
Bubinga And Curly Maple Dining Chair

Would you like to hear more about this subject of making a living as a furniture maker? Then please leave me a comment.

You can see more of my work on my website.

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8 thoughts on “The Business Of Handmade Furniture, Part I

  1. Louis, I really appreciate your sharing your lessons learned on your blog. I’ve been at this part time for 3 years now and we’re just turning a profit, but as you say it is very challenging! Word of mouth seems to be the best marketing for me as people see my work, but social media helps get the word out there, too. Your work is more advanced than mine, so I look forward to learning from a woodworking guru like you! Jerry

  2. (sorry if this is a repost, my acccount was not logged on)

    Hello Mr Fry – I would LOOVE to hear more notes on this topic from an experienced professional maker like yourself. From my reading and poking around the internet, I’ve found a large amount of conflicting advice on internet forums. A lot of cynicism, too. It would be great to hear a personal expository from you to get a consistent datapoint.

    I recently read Nancy Hiller’s book _Making Things Work_ which was OK in places. I appreciated her stories of how she has had to work with clients’ sometimes unrealistic expectations…I’m sure you have plenty to say about that as well. It seems like a matter of having the right clients who you can develop, who understand the detail you work at and that this takes time and effort…

    anyway, I found your blog somewhere and have it on my . feedly aggregator. Always nice to hear from you. I really love your classic buffet on your gallery(http://louisfryfurniture.com/classicalbuffet.html) very tasteful design, wonderfully finished!

    -Adam of Oakland, CA

    1. Hi Adam and thanks for commenting. One of the points I am trying to make in this first post is that most people in out post industrial world have only the haziest idea of what it means to be a working craftsman and what it is we have to offer. On the maker’s side, many want to become craftsmen (and craftswomen) base on unfounded romantic notions and naivete. There are some hard realities that have to be recognized and embraced if someone wants to make a living at it. There are few historical models that will work for doing it today. I will take this up in my next post.

      As far as dealing with my clients, I carefully interview my clients to find out what their desires & expectations are. I then tell them what they can expect to receive from me. I provide scaled drawings before I begin any project; then I give them my very best within the agreed upon budget. I inspire confidence by being friendly, professional, & taking charge of the project. For the most part, I have really wonderful clients. Thanks again, Adam!

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