The Business Of Handmade Furniture, Part III

It’s Not About Me

Bubinga and Curly Maple Dresser Detail
Curly Maple and Bubinga Dresser With Wenge Pull

Most all of the furniture makers I know who want to make a living at their craft are ambitious individuals, not in the entrepreneurial sense, perhaps,
but certainly in their desire to do high quality work and leave some kind of significant mark with their creations. We have worked hard to gain our skills, we want to do fine work, we want to be recognized as creatives, we want to sell our work to appreciative customers. If we could only get published, if we could only get representation with some high end gallery, if we could just connect with those multi-millionaire clients, we would be on our way. After all, the originality and artistry of our work is obvious, right? Uh, hold on.

settee6When I was starting out I read profiles on well known makers who were part of the Studio Furniture Movement. Their furniture got published in books, they had showings in art museums and I was envious. I thought there must be some world of collectors and appreciative patrons out there who paid a lot of money to acquire their work. I didn’t understand that many of these makers were academically trained and made their real livings as teachers. I didn’t realize that if this world of collectors exists, it is so small that there are probably more makers than there are patrons. If this world existed it was far from where I lived, yet I got the impression that university craft programs, design schools, private furniture making schools all perpetuated the idea that it did exist. But if it is there I have never been able to tap into it. Perhaps my furniture is too prosaic and not worthy.

But it’s ok because I have found that there is a real world of buyers out there. I just had to learn who they are and how to relate to them, and I am happy to share what I know. It all begins with an attitude and understanding on the part of the maker. The professional furniture maker has to have a number of skills- the problem solving skills of an engineer, the vision of a designer, the passion of an artist, and the woodworking knowledge of a craftsman. Wow, I must be somebody! Here I am, come and get me! Not!

Writing Desk Under Construction
Writing Desk Upside Down And Under Construction

The first rule for business success as a furniture maker is that it is not primarily about me. It is not about me impressing people with my talent, my creativity, or how good I am. It is not about me expressing my delicate emotions through the things I make. It is not about the satisfaction I get out of building a beautiful piece of furniture. It is about me using whatever talent I have, whatever skills I have developed to connect with other people and serve them. Almost all of what I build is commissioned, that is, it is first ordered by a customer and then I build it. I have the opportunity to listen and then give my clients something they will love and enjoy, something that will fulfill an intended purpose and still be seen as a beautiful object. If I do it right, I have a chance to give my customer something they will see as very special. If I am able to do that, it is a much better way to measure my skills. This kind of approach takes the pressure off me. It allows me to be myself and focus on someone else.

Texas Pecan Conference Table Top Under Construction
Texas Pecan Conference Table Top Under Construction

The pure artist may say I am compromising myself and just catering to the the desires of my client, but when someone is giving me their money, I have an obligation to cater to them. Again, it is not about me. What I have actually found in reality is that once I have won the trust of the buyer, and they know I understand what they want, they are very happy to give me creative license to fill in the details and exceed their expectations. They often allow me to try to new techniques and design ideas. It works out well for both of us.

So, it’s all about building a connection with other people through serving them rather than trying to impress them with how fabulous I am. And, hey, my work has made it into quite a few publications over the years, but no client has ever asked me about that. Too bad!

Pecan Conference Table Top With Finish
Pecan Conference Table Top With Finish

What could be coming in future posts- What Customers Really Want, Pricing Work, Marketing Through A Website, Designing Furniture.
Let me know if you would like to hear more by leaving a comment.

You can see more of my work on my website. Thanks!

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6 thoughts on “The Business Of Handmade Furniture, Part III

  1. Yes, I absolutely want to know more. The title of each future blog you mentioned is of great interest to me. Did you see Paul Sellers’ blog today on a related theme?

    1. Thank you for commenting and I did go to Paul’s blog to read his latest post. What a sweet man he is and I agree with most everything he said. He used to live in Texas before his return to the UK and we were not far from one another. We were aware of one another’s presence but I don’t think we ever met, something I regret. My own experience has caused me to take a tough, unblinking look at making a living as a craftsman. I have a wife and six children. My three oldest are out of the house and doing well. My three younger (one is adopted) all have involved special needs and live at home under our care. Being the primary breadwinner as a furniture maker as been far more challenging than building the furniture itself. By the grace of God, I am still here doing it. I have wonderful clients and good projects ahead. I am thankful.

  2. Just found out about your blog and can’t wait to read more! I am currently in college woodworking program with the hope of doing professionally in a few years when I take early retirement from my current job. Having recently passed the half-century mark, I have accumulated a fair bit of life experience and view the world through the harsh glare of reality with a healthy dose of hard-won experience thrown in, so I am especially interested in the “reality” of being a woodworker and supporting your family so that I can plan/prepare accordingly. Your work is amazing! I hope I can someday achieve your level of craftsmanship.

    1. Steve, wishing you all the best, and thank you for your compliment on my work. I think the reality of it is that you have to make things that people really want and will spend money on, and then you have to charge a lot for your work. That’s two pretty intimidating challenges! I’m still working hard at both of them!

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