Canadian Woodworking

Market mayhem

Author: James Jackson
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: November 2023
Market Mayhem
Market Mayhem

The highs and lows of trying to sell my woodworking at local craft shows and festivals.

Over the past year I’ve been selling some of my woodwork­ing projects to the public. My most popular item is custom laser-engraved charcuterie boards, but I’ve also sold coast­ers, keychains, soap dishes and live edge slab coffee tables.

The results have been pretty good so far, and the laser-engraved boards are a popular gift for housewarmings, weddings and anni­versaries, but I’ve also been keen to try to find a wider audience after mostly advertising online on sites like Instagram and Kijiji.

To that end, I attended some maker markets and other events this spring and summer to get my name out there. Some of the wood­workers I follow online attend these kinds of shows and they seem to do pretty well at them, with some claiming they can rake in as much as $1,000 a day.

But so far, my experience at these events is a lot of standing around and smiling at passersby, handing out cards and chatting with people who admire the look and feel of the wood – but there hasn’t been a ton of sales. The first was a craft show in Guelph, Ontario, in May at a local golf club and it featured dozens of other makers, includ­ing several woodworkers. I was hit with a little bit of bad luck from the get-go, however, when I and about six other vendors were placed in the “overflow” area of the building, away from the main vendor room and most of the action. I had a clear view of the parking lot through one of the windows and I’d say more than half of the people I saw coming into the sale that day didn’t even make it to our little room. It cost me about $200 to have a table at the show and I didn’t even break even, selling about $120 worth of items.

The next event was a three-day home show organized by a local service club, and I definitely had a little more luck. Over the three days I handed out hundreds of cards, chatted with a lot of inter­ested people and sold about $100 worth of items (against a $500 entry fee). But in the weeks and months that followed, I sold another $600 worth of woodworking, including the live edge ash table I wrote about in my previous column. I went into the show expecting to hand out cards and make connections, and I think I achieved both, although I barely broke even (not counting the cost of materials or labour).

By August I was ready for another event that I was most excited about – an outdoor market at a sunflower festival on a farm about an hour north of Toronto. It typically attracts thousands of people each day from across the Greater Toronto Area and other nearby communities. I paid the $90 entry fee to have a stand at the mar­ket and shelled out another $100 to buy an outdoor market tent, but the show ended up being another dud. I barely handed out any cards and I sold only $25 worth of items ($24.68 to be exact, after processing fees for credit card payments).

Before the festival I optimistically posted on Instagram that I was attending, and I shared photos of my booth and the items I had for sale. A day later I posted an honest follow-up, sharing exactly how much I’d made and how frustrating it was. Far too often we see the “before” posts and not the “after” ones. I received a few messages of encouragement from friends and a few notes from other mak­ers acknowledging how tough markets can be. I even received a message from the son of the family who hosted the sunflower festi­val apologizing that it didn’t go better. (I’ve known him since high school and we’re buddies, so I assured him it wasn’t a big deal.)

It might sound like I’m complaining about the markets and the organizers, griping about the public and their unwillingness to buy the stuff I’d made, or that I’m simply mad at the universe. I’m not.

I’m trying to take this market season as a learning opportunity to gauge what people like, what they don’t like, what price points work best at craft shows and how I can do better in the future. I just want to be open about my experience as a vendor. Too often we see the sani­tized version of these things online, only hearing about the success stories. Yet the truth is sometimes you struggle, and the key is not to give up, especially if what you make adds value and meaning to your life, puts a smile on your face and is something you enjoy.


James Jackson - [email protected]

James is a woodworker, a freelance writer, a former newspaper reporter and father to two amazing girls.

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