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Blog entry by J123 posted 05-12-2014 02:36 PM 2328 reads 0 times favorited 18 comments Add to Favorites Watch

I’m a frustrated engineer. I took what in my opinion was conservative advice when I graduated high school, and made the “smart” move into engineering. I have never liked it. It pays the bills. And, yes, I know many of you can/will quickly point out how difficult it is/can be to make a living building furniture and cabinetry, but I was talked out of heading down the “craft/trade” path almost 20 years ago and I have regretted it ever since.

I am aware that most professionals start their career when they are in their teens with apprenticeships, furniture trade schools, etc, and before they have families and more important responsibilities (like raising three children and paying a mortgage). I know that the smart move is to do this as a hobby. To not let my inspiration turn into a stressful day-to-day grind that kills all the love I have for this craft. I have spoken to a handful of well known pros, and they have told me that you can’t only be a skilled craftsman, you must also be a good business person, good at sales, and especially at marketing.

All that aside, I live in the Midwest where there are no schools. The idea of picking up the family and moving to a region where I could go to school is intoxicating, but not practical. I’ve spoken with local shops about providing free labor in exchange for training, but none seem interested (understandably). My wife and I have discussed downsizing our lives to try to accommodate an apprenticeship somewhere. That would be a very difficult decision.

So my first topic/question is to get your input. You pros. What would you do? Put yourself in my shoes. Think about the passion and desire you have, the work you have to put in to making a successful business. Help me on my path.

Feel free to be brutally honest, but also please try to be constructive and not dream crushing, which is all too easily done.

And thanks for reading.

18 comments so far

View waho6o9's profile


8941 posts in 3429 days

#1 posted 05-12-2014 03:37 PM


Your fine chisel case should sell well. Maybe make a couple of them
and figure in shipping, overhead, etc and follow your gut instinct and sell them.

I would keep my day job and work like crazy and pursue my dream. Don’t sell
yourself short as you do quality work and people will pay for quality after
their inexpensive mdf imports crumble.

Huff, a fellow LJer, has an excellent blog that would be of great help

May you have good fortune going forward Jeff.

All The Best

View ikillbugs's profile


44 posts in 2356 days

#2 posted 05-12-2014 04:52 PM

Brutally honest? OK Here I go.

Your social skills are lacking and you could stand to lose 20 pounds.

Oh, wait. Wrong topic! Silly me.


OK I was kidding.
I can’t offer much advice here except to pass on this quote that I am constantly reminded of: ”Love what you do, and you’ll never work a day in your life”

Good luck in whatever road you decide to take.

View DW833's profile


236 posts in 2734 days

#3 posted 05-12-2014 05:33 PM

I suggest this blog post and his about page.
Notice where he gets his income.

View Buckethead's profile


3196 posts in 2720 days

#4 posted 05-12-2014 05:41 PM

I will offer this: do not quit a job as an engineer to become an apprentice woodworker. That’s just crazy talk.


Passion? C’mon man! Make some stuff. Burn the midnight oil. Show dat stuff to others.

If you want to make the career change, earn it. Slog through the hours to produce work, both paying and pleasure, and if you find yourself with the opportunity to earn a living as a woodworker, get on it.

I’m thinking you might consider that you are good as an engineer, but dislike your current situation. Maybe you just don’t like the place you’re working now?

This topic sounds a bit like whining. Let’s move past that.

(I went with the tough love angle)

-- Support woodworking hand models. Buy me a sawstop.

View LJackson's profile


295 posts in 2446 days

#5 posted 05-12-2014 06:02 PM

Check out Izzy Swan’s $50 workshop. Start out small, doing this on nights and weekends. Set up an Etsy shop. Build your skills slowly by making things relatively easy for you at first, but find something appealing. The Drunken Woodworker also has tips on making things for sale.

It is quite possible you can find something that sells, and that you can make in production batches which will minimize time spent on the item, so that it becomes cost effective. Then, as you perfect that, you can grow slowly.

At some point you’ll have enough of a business to be able to maintain and quit your job. Hopefully.

That would be my approach, but I like my engineering job, and only do woodworking on nights and weekends when I can.

Good luck.

View J123's profile


361 posts in 3192 days

#6 posted 05-12-2014 07:38 PM

DW833: thanks for the link. Mark summed that up very well, and says what I would expect from any responsible person as part of their advice. It’s what I would tell any of my colleagues they should think about before making any decisions, drastic or not. A disclaimer of sorts. I hope that anyone looking to make a change would do their due diligence before taking any further steps. Jumping into the ocean without a knowing how to paddle is foolish, literally. Also, Mark’s comments are the easy way out in my opinion. It’s easy to critique, less easy to teach, and difficult to listen to the question and actually provide meaningful feedback. My guess is that his post was actually two fold. First, let blindly passionate people know that passion and talent alone are not enough, and second, get people to stop asking him that question over and over because he doesn’t want to answer it, or worse, feel responsible for someone making a mistake. Number two is the more likely.

Buckethead: no foolin. You definitely went for tough love. I appreciate your comments, similar to what my grandpa would have told me right before he smacked me upside the head and told me to pick up the shovel and get back to diggin. BUT, this is not whining, this is asking for input. You could have left that part out… just saying.

For anyone still reading this post, and considering responding, I appreciate the feedback, and I would also like to hear, from anyone, what possible paths could be recommended to someone in my position… just in case, you know, I do my due diligence and make a responsible decision.

View jim65's profile


1020 posts in 2785 days

#7 posted 05-12-2014 08:13 PM

I have had the same thoughts as you have, most of us do, but I would follow the “part time route” and try to make half a business before jumping in, but I am conservative and do not have the finances to go without income for extended periods. Build a client base, job one. you may find that the love is really more fun making what you want to make but not as much fun when you have to make what other people want and if you are in business, your desires matter less than the client. get used to nitpicking clients and see if you can accept that. If they pay three times the price as Ikea, they will feel as if they deserve much more and and request a lot more – your time is money. My mother loves everything I make and my wife is always praising the projects, but they are not paying customers. :-) add in the time for purchasing materials, shop costs, electricity, heating, taxes, rework. I know quite a few really good woodworkers here in italy that are installing windows and doing repair work in order to pay the bills. They still like their work, no doubt but you will need to be flexible. try it part time and if it goes, it goes. If not, it’s a great pastime, passion and some extra cash. just my thoughts. good luck and all the best!

-- Jim, Marostica Italy

View Craftsman on the lake's profile

Craftsman on the lake

3468 posts in 4289 days

#8 posted 05-12-2014 08:32 PM

As a teacher I always told the kids. There are three things to choosing a career. 1. Will it pay enough so that you can live with it. 2. Is it something you feel good about doing for 30+ years, or at least tolerate it. 3. Will you be able to find employment.

When you think about it any one of the three legs of this, if missing, would be either devastating or at least not much fun. Many people live with at least one or two of them missing. Very few attain all three at once.

Does your job pay enough? Are you employed and is that employment fairly secure? If so, you’ve attained more than most. And if so, sad to say, after 20 years if you’re the bread winner and particularly if you’ve got kids, you may have stay the course. Now, that sounds discouraging, but sometimes reality is the way to go.

-- The smell of wood, coffee in the cup, the wife let's me do my thing, the lake is peaceful.

View TimN's profile


12 posts in 4314 days

#9 posted 05-12-2014 09:21 PM

I have seen this type of post over and over again in several forums. I completely understand it. I went to college to get the career of my dreams. Instead I got married and had to get a job that paid the bills. I had an opportunity to learn a skill working for the State of California that not many people know how to do, consulting in the Worker’s Comp field. Then at my wife’s urging, I went private and started my own consulting firm.

Is it the job I dreamed of in college? No. But I like it enough to do it til I retire.
Does it pay the bills? Yes, it is very lucrative.
It is also in high demand.

Now would I rather be doing woodworking for a living? Yes and no. I would rather be retired and be able to do hobby woodworking all day, lol. My philosophy is to have a career that you either like or don’t mind doing that allows you the freedom to pursue your hobbies. My career allows me to have a 1300 square foot shop in the industrial park near my home. Everyone in the park asks me what I am selling. They can’t believe it is my hobby space. Everyone else in the park is running a business trying to make a living.

My shop is full of all the woodworking tools I want. I make what I want, when I want. I used to carve adult airgun stocks. I would carve what I liked and then sold it online. But then a client ordered a dozen of a particular design. I didn’t rally care for the design. I grew tired of carving the same stock over and over. I disliked being on his time table. That told me that I did not want to turn my hobby/passion into a business that would suck the enjoyment out of it for me.

So from my perspective, unless your day job is so bad that you literally dread going to work everyday, keep your day job and enjoy your passion in your spare time.

If you still decide to go down the road of professional woodworker, then study up on the business side. I run my consulting firm and the business side is key. Taking care of clients, billing , chasing down past due bills, etc. I have a staff that does the majority of this so that I can do what I do best. But it took time to get to the point where I could afford my staff. I have to make sure that enough work comes through the door to support my business. So I shmooze the heck out of my clients and give them world class customer service. You will have to do the same to separate yourself from the competition.

I wish you all the luck in the world. It is the fortunate few that can make a living out of what they are passionate about. The rest of us must be lucky enough to do what we don’t mind doing and hope it makes enough money to afford us our passions as hobbies. I am in the later boat, but I consider myself fortunate.

View ArtistryinWood's profile


107 posts in 4539 days

#10 posted 05-12-2014 10:24 PM

This was one of the fortunate few. Don’t know how much it will help, but it has sent a lot of people down the path you are considering.

Best of luck to you.

-- It seem's to me i could live my life, a lot better than i think i am. Andrew, Midland, Ont.

View Ocelot's profile


2585 posts in 3490 days

#11 posted 05-12-2014 10:40 PM

Hi Jeff,

I understand the impulse. I’m an engineer too. But I would like to suggest that maybe you just need a different engineering job. There are plenty of engineering jobs that are a blast. Most of my life, I worked computer graphics. Now I’m programming microcontrollers in industrial safety systems. For me, it’s a lot of fun. Yeah, here I am on LJ while still at work (a diversion to keep from having to do that hard thing that I need to finish before I go home, LOL). But still, I love my job – and I suspect you can find an engineering job you love too.

Meanwhile, have fun with woodworking. One thing I have seen : As soon as something is a job, it starts feeling like a job. You may love woodworking for fun, but once you are working to deadlines and dealing with the occasional unhappy customer – and the jointer breaks just as you need it and you’ve gotta pay $2000 to get back up and running and etc. etc. – it will be a job – and you may find that it feels just like your job feels now.

So, do your woodworking on the side, while at the same time finding ways to make your day job more fun – or finding a different day job. That’s my advice.

BTW. Engineering is a craft.


-- I intended to be a woodworker, but turned into a tool and lumber collector.

View Monte Pittman's profile

Monte Pittman

30566 posts in 3190 days

#12 posted 05-12-2014 11:27 PM

First thing I tell anyone, have another way to support yourself. I firmly believe that it’s possible to build a viable business from the woodworking just like any business. But, like other small business owners, many think that the customers rush in as soon as you start. It doesn’t happen. I do expect this to be my biggest year to date (I am 5 years in), but I don’t expect it to replace my regular job yet. I hope that in 3 years that it will. So my message, work hard, be unique and be patient.

-- Nature created it, I just assemble it.

View Buckethead's profile


3196 posts in 2720 days

#13 posted 05-12-2014 11:43 PM

Sorry about the whiney blast. I could have left that out. But I shouldn’t. It was for the shock value. I have been a framer as long as you’ve been an engineer. There has been some measure of freedom, but I assure you it becomes drudgery. This is not fine woodworking by a far stretch. Those who do fine woodworking and are prosperous have created a brand and a following. Often times, they don’t actually build what they sell. (Much like consulting) they did at first, and grew.

It’s a tough deal. Do you want to make cabinets? (Might become drudgery.) cracking into the handmade furniture design/build business is possible, but it isn’t as easy as taking an apprenticeship then having a lucrative, thriving business. I’m sure you know this, and as an engineer, you understand fundamental structures better than most.

But please allow me to offer once more: an engineers life is a good one. It reminds me of the Ben Franklin quote “A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush”.

So I hope no hard feelings. I looked at your work, and it is quality. Look around the web. There are thousands of savant woodworkers. (Hundreds of thousands? Millions?) If you’re really going to do it, focus on business model. Now you might already be independently wealthy, in which case, follow your heart!

You can make a small fortune from woodworking. Just be sure to start off with a large fortune.

-- Support woodworking hand models. Buy me a sawstop.

View a1Jim's profile


118136 posts in 4429 days

#14 posted 05-12-2014 11:49 PM

There are many post on LJs on this subject ,I suggest you read all of those first be for you make up your mind. In general if all of they stars align, meaning #1 you are talented enough to do good enough work that people want what you make #2 the market place for custom woodworking will support you and all of the other guys out there who want the same thing #3 you are a good enough business person to actually make a profit . #4 you have enough funds to buy what equipment you will need and survive for 2-5 years until you can gain a reputation and or develop products that will sell.
You have already mentioned this yourself and it’s what I always say to folks that want to make a living in woodworking,
Don’t wreck a great hobby by trying to make it a business.

Best of luck to you what ever you decide.


View jinkyjock's profile


488 posts in 2426 days

#15 posted 05-13-2014 12:21 AM

Hi Jeff, I am just home from my local bar after my usual Monday night playing darts with the guys (& gals) from our pub team.
I mention this as my thoughts may be influenced by my Lager intake.
Not substantial (intake), but sufficient for you to decide if any of my advice is coherent and beneficial.
I went back to college at 47 and graduated at 50 with a degree in furniture making and design.
I was fortunate to get a job immediately with pros for 6 yrs. and learned so much.
Sounds to me as if you need to do the same and expand your skillset.
If not with pros, are there like-minded craft people in your area, not necessarily woodworkers, you can get together with.
Share ideas, build networks, develop contacts.
Like-minded people tend to congregate in similar social circles and there is often a crossover of skills.
Word-of-mouth is THE most important factor in building your customer base so sometimes it is worthwhile taking a reduced margin for long-term gain.
SOME of my fellow graduates DID (and do) make a living from design/making, it can be done but is difficult.
Only you know your and your family’s needs so only you can make that call.
All the best whatever you decide.

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