Canadian Woodworking

Custom woodworking

Author: Clive Smith
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: December January 2007
Custom Woodworking
Custom Woodworking

The leap from being a hobbyist or beginner to a self-employed woodworker is a large one, but not an impossible one.


I’m sure that most hobbyist woodworkers have, at one time or another, imagined making a living from woodworking. After all, if you find a craft that you enjoy doing, why not do it full time, and make money doing it?

There are several factors that can influence the level of success of a woodworking business, including ability, facilities, the operational process, and marketing. Of the four, ability is the key ingredient, because the assumption is that you will be doing the woodworking yourself in the beginning. Your level of training and expertise (or lack thereof) will govern the diversity of your product, and therefore your market place.

Let’s look at an example. Maybe your experience has been in making elaborate bird houses or garden furniture. You may be very skilled in producing these items, but there may be limitations with that item. The product you choose to make might be easily made by other beginners using relatively simple machinery. That would mean your competition will be greater. The easier the product is to make, the greater the number of people who can make it. Therefore, the level of availability will affect the market price. On the other hand, you may have become proficient in making more complicated items, such as furniture and millwork. Now this work requires more expertise, equipment and manpower, but has a very diverse market. Furniture and millwork are always in demand and command a high price.

To approach custom woodworking at this level, in addition to skills, you will need suitable facilities. I struggled at first, working in a shed and then a basement area. I wasted so much time, moving things around to accomplish the work, that it wasn’t very long before I realized the benefit of a high ceiling work space.

I had gone through an old-world apprenticeship as a cabinetmaker/joiner, so training was not an issue, but buying the most versatile and appropriate machinery took some trial and error. Your particular skill level, work space, and machinery situation may suggest the appropriate direction for you.

A good understanding of the operational process is also important. You can have the customers, the skills, the workspace, the machinery, and the manpower, but if you do not understand the process of bringing your product to market, you will still have a difficult time. This starts with knowing what it costs you to produce a product. For this you will need to be able to accurately estimate how long it will take you to perform a series of work processes. You might break down your processes into rough milling, machining, assembly and finishing. If you know what the material costs are and the amount of labour that is involved, you have arrived at the first level. Next, look at your fixed overhead: rent, taxes, telephone, advertising, insurance, heat, light, bookkeeping, legal, electricity, vehicle and payments on machinery. Then, consider what you would like to see as an hourly wage and add to that a figure for profit. Remember that not all of your time is going to be spent actually doing the woodworking. You will spend a lot of time talking to customers, preparing estimates, and ordering materials and supplies. Therefore, an overall profit is required for you to be compensated for the time that you are working, but not specifically on the project. When you have arrived at all of the input cost variables for each job, and the fixed costs on a monthly basis, you can calculate a selling price for your product. You will know how much flexibility exists in your price, which will enable you to accurately quote on a project.

Armed with your estimating information, you can confidently market your products to customers. In other words, you are well on your way to becoming a successful, self-employed woodworker, knowing that you have established a fair price.

Finally, marketing will determine the success of any woodworking venture. It might sound strange, but the custom nature of the work is truly challenging hurdle to overcome because a custom made item, by definition, is one of a kind. If the item is one of a kind, is the customer also one of a kind? How does a business prosper without a continuity of customers and their requirements? My solution to this problem was to search out regular purchasers of custom woodwork. Interior designers and architects were the best source for me. They were in constant need of custom furniture, built-in units and kitchens. That way, even though the custom items changed with each order, the customer stayed the same. That provided a level of continuity to an otherwise sporadic market.

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