Making a living at woodworking #1: Professional woodworking

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Blog entry by Ron Messersmith posted 02-24-2012 09:13 PM 4293 reads 1 time favorited 15 comments Add to Favorites Watch
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I am writing about what it’s like trying to make a living as a woodworker. I have to consider myself a professional woodworker since it’s all I do since retiring from the Navy and then from the Nuclear Power Utility industry about 12 years ago. I have never blogged before so it will take me some time to get over the learning curve. I really don’t know how this works so I’ll just start writing and hope I get some help along the way. Will be back soon.

I’ve made of few entries to my blog and I have had several responses about better ways of continuing my blog. I appreciate all the good suggestions, especially from Todd Clippinger. I am attempting a test of his suggestion here about adding content and images. Bear with me as I try to improve my method of continuing my blog. I am adding a picture of a slant top desk that I built 28 years ago from an issue of the Woodworker’s Journal just to see how to do it!

I am going to continue my blog by taking up the suggestion by Todd to use the edit button at the top of the page. The addition of an image seemed to work so I’ll continue and welcome any help with my blog screwups!!

My last post talked about my shop setup in Ohio after I took a job as a Foreman at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Unit soon after retiring from the Navy. I had started building up a fairly decent inventory of machinery and I had started attending week long Minuteman Restoration workshops in Waterloo, Wisconsin when I could fit in a vacation from my day job. As I began fitting the furniture repair and antique restoration into my woodworking business, I immediately saw my income and workload increase dramatically! Most of my additional work involved simple tightening of loose chairs and replacing broken or missing parts like stretchers, legs, ect. I would occassiionally get a nice antique piece of furniture that I would have to dismantle and put back together. This process taught me a lot about construction methods over the years. The surprising fact I learned was that so many high valued pieces were constructed so poorly!! Examples: no thought given to wood movement, use of dowels, vice mortise and tenon, heavy use of nails when not really needed, ect.

Another important factor in my business was the ability to attend Woodworking Shows. My first was a Detroit
Woodworker Show in 1988. I was like a kid in a candy store. I bought my first woodworking jig at that show. This was after 22 years of playing with my Shopsmith. That jig was the “kreg jig” for pocket screw joinery. I had several conversations with Marc Somerfield and still consider it one of my favorite tools and I have added many (some that I have never even used)! A couple examples of jigs I’ve purchased but haven’t used yet: The Leigh Frame and Mortise Jig ($1,000.00), all of the Keller dovetail templates, all of Woodline’s Router table dovetail and box joint jigs, ect. They’re all great jigs. It’s just that I accomplish the tasks they’re designed for by other methods. Most of my dovetailing is done by hand or with the Leigh 24D Dovetail jig. My mortise and tenon work is also done by hand or with my Powermatic Mortising Machine.

Have to get to the shop. I hope I’m not messing up this blog. I’m sure you’ll let me know and give me some more suggestions. I welcome the help. One more image as a test.

I’m back!! There are so many things I could write about concerning the wrong way to run a business. I got into the business side of woodworking gradually and without a lot of thought of maintaining a profit. My full time job kept me financially stable and even after I retired and started woodwork full time, I still rely on my small retirement pension and social security to keep my 400 pounds of dogs fed. I would be much more concerned about running my business more efficiently if I had no retirement funds coming in. Another major goal of mine for the past several years has been to minimize stress. Many of my friends have health issues directly attributed to high stress. Life is too short to let that become a major factor.

Back to the shop—

When I switched my woodworking efforts from creating objects made from wood to essentially a furniture repair service the business changed dramatically. My shop needed to be equipped with machinery that would enable me to accomplish any repairs or restorations I thought might come to me. This included the ability to produce barley twists and roping for antique restorations. In Ohio, my shop grew from 1500 sq ft to 5000 sq ft. My machinery inventory included all the standard machines you would expect to find in a shop but also an ornamental milling machine (the Legacy Model 1800 Ornamental Mill), a great resaw bandsaw (the Hitachi 75F) and a WoodMaster Model 725 which I had set up for high volume moulding production. When I return I will talk about these 3 great machines.

I will take a short break from the woodworking side of a business. You should put some thought into why you would want to establish a woodworking business. For me, I was a typical woodworker for the first few years of building an inventory of hand tools and slowly gaining knowledge. I had access to lots of machinery thru the wood hobby shop so I didn’t have a lot of money invested in machines except for my Shopsmith. Most of my work was for me. After I started to make a little bit of money from my hobby, there was a point where I had to decide if I needed to minimize my tax consequences by being able to write off the expenses of creating that additional income. For me and for many other hobbyists, the decision to start a woodworking business was made solely for the tax breaks that came with it. These tax breaks included: supplies, machinery and equipment depreciation write off, utility costs (heat, electric, ect), advertising, car and truck expenses and more. Once I started making additional income with woodworking, that income had to be reported as taxable income and it became a problem. When I set up my business, this problem changed to an asset because the expense write offs made it manageable and occasionally, I was even able to write off the income as a loss of income against my regular day job because of the expenses. One example of a ligitimate expense was the ability to write off all the mileage costs of going to and coming back from woodworking workshops (if they were 3 days or longer). To understand this business side of the woodworking business, I take several night courses in accounting at a local junior college. I also do all by record keeping using the software “QuickBooks”. To really understand the software, I thought it was really important that I take the courses. Record keeping is a vital part of your woodworking business. If you don’t want to tackle it, I highly recommend that you find somebody (a bookkeeper) to handle the records. It only makes sense to turn your hobby into a business if the income it creates is enough to require tax write offs. One good example: I buy a table saw and pay $3000.00 for it. That gives me the ability to write off that business expense as a fully depreciated item (Section 179 deduction) in one year. When combined with all expenses, It’s not too unreasonable to expect to be able to write off a loss on my income from my business. This is not bad, it’s good.

Back later.

In my last posting, I touched a little bit on the business side of woodworking. The importance of maintaining good bookkeeping records for tax purposes: both to pay taxes if required and to take advantage of the expensing to save taxes if possible. Woodworking changes greatly when you switch from it just being a hobby to it being a business.

I briefly mentioned earlier the incorporation of 3 machines into my business. Each one had a real impact on my woodworking experience. The first machine I am going to mention was the Hitachi 75F Resaw Bandsaw. While in Ohio, I was visited by the owner of Northern Manufacturing Company out of Oak Harbor, Ohio. They created the Versa Guage, which was a measuring device used to measure very accurate distances between variable sized holes. They could be hooked up to computerized welding machines and cutting machines. An example would be the auto industry’s plants cutting out holes in door panels for new cars. Anyway, these gauges cost several thousand dollars each and they would ship them to customers in burlap bags packed inside pvc pipes. They were looking for something nicer to package the gauges in so I started making pine boxes in 6 different lengths with brass hardware. I was making them out of knotty pine, staining them walnut and finishing with polyurethane. The lids were 3/8” thick as were the bottoms. I was planing a lot of waste wood which added to the cost of each box. I attended a woodworker’s show in Cleveland and saw the resaw bandsaw demonstration and purchased one. I think I paid $1700 for it. It had a 3 inch stellite blade. It enabled me to resaw the lids and bottoms of the boxes in seconds. I doubled my profit margin. In 5 years from the boxes alone, I was able to pay off the mortgage of my home. It paid for itself in one month. (I made approximately 1100 of the boxes that ranged in sizes of 3 feet long to 9 feet long.
This photo is one week’s order of boxes. To keep up to date with the requests, I would work on the boxes every day from the time I left my day job at the plant (4 pm) until 1 and 2 am each morning. I am hoping for another customer like that!!
The same customer hired me to do all the woodwork on the Ben & Jerry Ice Cream Kiosks you would find along Interstate 90 east of Cleveland and in some college campuses. They insisted, for environmental reasons, that I only use Ipe (Pau Lope) for the wood. I hated it because it caused a skin reaction and I was miserable all the time I was milling it! A couple more snapshots of my box making days.

A few pictures of my early woodworking days. The picture of me with the cradle was taken while I was stationed in Hawaii and had my own woodworking business in Waikiki. The bed was made while I was running by business in Ohio and the scale model house was built from a set of blueprints and balsa wood. It was my dream house 40 years ago. I don’t know what ever happened to it. I had to leave it at the wood hobby shop at the Kittery, Maine shipyard when I was transferred.

3 Mar.

Back to the 3 machines I mentioned earlier. The Model 1800 Legacy Ornamental Mill could have been a wonderful machine. For many reasons I could go into, I wasn’t able to put it to the potential I know it had. I owned it for almost 5 years and then sold it on Craig’s List. I just wasn’t able to put it to use and it took up a lot of floor space in my shop. I did use it a few times for duplicating barley twists on antiques. I’m getting away from furniture now that I’m turning 65 and concentrating on boxes and wood toys. I have some ideas about how to use the mill in my box constructions so I will be ordering a new mill but a smaller model, the Model 900. It’s only around $1500 for the machine. Of course, all the accessories and cutter bits will drive the price up considerably buy it’s a real fun machine. It takes the woodworking craft in a different direction. The company has several CNC models out now but they’re extremely expensive and I think the CNC capabilities takes a lot of fun out of woodworking. It takes all the enjoyment away for me to just set back and watch a machine mill an object by punching in a lot of data using some computer software.

When I return, I will talk about the WoodMaster.


I’m back and I have to say it’s amazing how fast things can change!! I have decided to shut down my woodworking business. The reasons vary. I could list health issues as the major reason but that’s not true even though my wife and I have discussed many times the closing down the stripping and finishing portion of our business. Dealing with Methylene Chloride and all the chemicals associated with finishing posed many health concerns. In addition, the Health Department was a real pain. The additional cost of inspecting our septic system 3 times a year was always frustrating!! The major reason is financial. We do not have children and we would like to take advantage of the equity in our home by taking out a reverse mortgage. Banks will not provide a reverse mortgage for home base businesses if the business use percentage exceeds 25%. Ours is around 75%. The major advantage of turning my hobby into a business was for tax write offs. That is not too important any more so we decided to just continue our woodworking as a hobby. Will still have to report the income and any expenses can still be written off if we itemize our taxes.

The only business assets I plan on selling right now are my strip tanks. Maybe a farmer will want them. Don’t expect to find too many locals wanting to start a furniture stripping business!!

-- Jupiter

15 comments so far

View DIYaholic's profile


19861 posts in 3182 days

#1 posted 02-24-2012 10:12 PM

Looking forward to hearing (reading) what you have to say.

The only suggestion I could give, would be; Pictures say a thousand words when you feel your words fail to adequately describe a process!

Good luck & jump right in, there’s no better way to learn!

-- Randy-- I may not be good...but I am slow! If good things come to those who wait.... Why is procrastination a bad thing?

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Ron Messersmith

96 posts in 2792 days

#2 posted 02-24-2012 10:38 PM
I started my interest in woodorking in 1967. I was stationed in Hawaii at the Submarine Base. I was single and living in the barracks. I wandered into the wood hobby shop one day and was intrigued by a large slab (boule) table made out of monkey pod. It was cast in a resin and looked awful. But I was intrigued by the process and thought a table could be a unique gift for my folks. Anyway, I purchased a slab of monkey pod and started asking questions and attempting to tackle the process. I did the table over and over (6 tiimes) until I was satisfied. I spent over $3,000 making the table. I ended up selling it for $6500 and bought 2 more slabs of monkey pod and started over. After a few tables, the hobby shop asked me to work at the shop and teach the process. That got me into the woodshop on a regular basis and I gradually started learning about working wood. Wish I had a picture of some of the tables but it’s been almost 50 years ago. Have to get back to the shop. Will continue a little later.

-- Jupiter

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3312 posts in 3069 days

#3 posted 02-25-2012 12:02 AM

Ron – looking forward to more of your blog.

Just a Zoomie poking fun at a Squid – I was born the year you started woodworking. So while I may not be the oldest LJ I’m not the youngest either! (I guess that’s why they call it middle aged).

Since you were a submariner I don’t know if you ever know a guy by the name of Steve Bell? He is a former submariner as well. I go to church with him, he is easily 20 years older than me so should be about the same era though.

-- Shameless - Winner of two Stumpy Nubs Awards

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Ron Messersmith

96 posts in 2792 days

#4 posted 02-25-2012 12:43 AM

I don’t recall a Steve Bell. I served on 5 submarines: Stonewall Jackson, John C. Calhoun, Kamehameha, Plunger and Tunny. Ask Steve if he crossed paths with any of them.

When I worked at the wood hobby shop, I had access to all the woodworking machinery and tools I needed. I had no reason to buy any tools. However, when I left the shop, I needed some machinery so I invested in my first Shopsmith. I was transferred every 3 years to a different part of the world. During those 22 years, all my woodworking was done with the Shopsmith. I tell beginning woodworkers that a good way to get into the hobby is with the Shopsmith and its support system. Even with the Shopsmith, it is an expensive hobby to undertake unless you find yourself a niche such as Windsor Chairs which can be produced with mostly hand tools and just a couple pieces of machinery (table saw, bandsaw).

As I began to pick up woodworking knowledge in my days in Hawaii, I was asked to run a shop in the middle of
Waikiki. We had a small bowl making shop in the rear of a mumu factory. We produced about 130 monkey pod and koa bowls and lazy susans a day. We made them with overhead routers and pneumatic drum sanders. Eventually, we were forced to shutdown because bowls from the Philipines were much less costly to build and we lost too much business. It was just another learning experience.

Back to the shop. Will see you later

-- Jupiter

View Bagtown's profile


1739 posts in 4238 days

#5 posted 02-25-2012 02:40 AM

Hey Ron,

Looking forward to reading more.
I was in the Canadian Navy. We used to visit Pearl regularly. We always went to the sub base because it had a great bowling alley.


-- Mike - In Fort McMurray Alberta

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Ron Messersmith

96 posts in 2792 days

#6 posted 02-25-2012 04:29 AM

Hi Mike,

What years were you in Hawaii. I spent 6 years on the Radiological Controls Barge. Remember many Canadian Ships in port while I was there. I also spent many hours at the Bowling Alley. I remember Canadians loved Beamans’ Center!! I was there on and off from 1967 to 1987.

Back to my early woodworking experience. As with most woodworkers, I learned gradually by making the effort to learn skills and not allowing my mistakes to lessen my enthusiasm. As I said before, just do it!! Many skills are developed during each project and I was able to increase the range of project skill levels as I slowly increased my tool inventory and shop facility. The wood hobby shop was a great teaching experience. I would be running the shop with 50 and more hobbyists. I observed many bad practices; the most common being impatience!! I observed woodworkers too proud to ask for help while attempting to run wood thru the table saw backwards! I took many fingers to the hospital in zip lock bags of ice. I was amazed that the shop facility was not shut down by OSHA but there always seemed to be an Admiral who was a woodworker and used the shop occassionally. I’m not trying to scare you away from woodworking: just want to emphasize the importance of shop safety. I have never cut myself in almost 50 years of woodwork!! (Did break a rib from kick back!).

I’ll talk about it more in the future but I want to encourage anybody new to the hobby to consider joining a guild in your area. Although there are no woodworking guilds in my local area, I do belong to a local woodturners guild and I see so many turners willing to help mentor new members. I also encourage you to visit other shops to get an idea of how you may want to set up your own shop. In my next blog posting, I’ll talk about inexpensive ways I used to increase my woodworking experience.


-- Jupiter

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3105 posts in 2794 days

#7 posted 02-25-2012 04:37 AM

Blogging is the easy part, just pretend that everyone is waiting to hear what you have to say, :) The hard part is making a living.

-- A positive attitude will take you much further than positive thinking ever will.

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Ron Messersmith

96 posts in 2792 days

#8 posted 02-25-2012 05:34 PM

I’m back.
As I was saying, there are so many ways to gain experience and learn the woodworkiing craft. Because I was active Navy and couldn’t attend workshops, I gained knowledge by reading. I subscribe to many magazines. I have every issue of Fine Woodworking, American Woodworker, Woodworker’s Journal, Woodsmith and Wood Magazine. Shopsmith had a pretty good support system and I learned a lot by building simple projects described in their magazine, “Hands On”. I liked their machine so much, I applied for a Shopsmith Francise in Tukwilla, Washington. I was close to retiring from the Navy and had to make one more Westpac. I didn’t get the francise. I’m glad that I didn’t because they closed all their retail stores and went back to just demonstrating at Malls and Woodworking shows.
Soon after I retired from the Navy on New Years Day, 1987, I got a job as a Chemistry Department Foreman at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Unit in Oak Harbork Ohio. Up until that time, I was a typical hobbyist woodworker: building small projects and slowly building up an inventory of tools. I still only had the Shopsmith but I new I was not going to be moving again in a couple years so I immediately started thinking about a permanent shop with individual machines. Even though the Shopsmith was 5 machines in one package, it still was a pain to have to plan each project around switching from one machine setup to another. Individual machines would be so much nicer. In my next posting, I’ll talk about the events that allowed me to gradually move from hobby to business.

Back shortly!

-- Jupiter

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Ron Messersmith

96 posts in 2792 days

#9 posted 02-26-2012 03:28 AM

When I settled into my new home in Oak Harbor, Ohio, I set up my shop in a 1200 sq ft building and eventually added onto the building and ended up with a 1500 sq ft woodshop with a 3500 sq ft show room attached. Most of the stationary machines were Powermatic. I kept the Shopsmith because it has so many features that are unique to other machines. One of these was the horizontal drilling capabilities. Another is the ability to set up the table on a tilt and angle and switch from the table saw for compound joinery to a sanding disc for cleaning up and bringing dimensions in to exact settings. Most of my woodworking projects were furniture for employees at the plant I worked at and pieces I placed in my showroom for sale. I realized that the income I was bringing in from my woodworking would not support me and my wife without the income from my day job. I would spend a month handcrafting a chest of drawers and it would take me several years to sell it for what I thought it was worth. It would sell fairly quickly if I dropped the price to where it wasn’t worth the time and effort to build. I know I would have to find a way to generate additional income if I ever wanted to work wood full time. At the time I also had a saw sharpening business (Foley-Belsaw) that I inherited from my father. My heart wasn’t really into the sharpening business and I sold it and decided to take 2 weeks vacation and attend the Minuteman Institute in Waterloo, Wisconsin. It was a furniture and antique restoration workshop that stressed a complete line of restoration areas including, stripping, refinishing, repair, duplication, chair caning, veneering, ect. It was a great program especially for a retired person who wanted to start up a business to suppliment social security. It was great for me because it complimented a woodworking business so well.
I know many professional woodworkers who were not able to make a decent income with their woodwork alone. Many would suppliment their work with teaching or writing articles or even books in some cases. The few studio furniture makers I know create beautiful work but their turnover rate is not very good. I found out very quickly that once I was set up and did a bit of advertising, my business increased dramatically. If all I did was to chemically strip furniture, I could easily make between $1,0000 and $2,000 a day. To do that, however, I would have had to hire a couple people and be willing to deal with the chemical (Methylene Chloride), every day. Didn’t want to do that but the additional restoration income made me feel confident about going at woodworking full time.

Back Later—-

-- Jupiter

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Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4607 days

#10 posted 02-28-2012 01:43 PM

Hey Ron -Welcome to LJ and congrats on starting a blog covering the business of woodworking. The guys will eat up information like that for sure.

I recommend that you hit the edit button in the upper right corner of the panel and put your woodworking article there. You can copy & paste it from the thread, that is OK.

Most people will not read all of the thread that follows. They want to read the article then respond themselves at the end of the thread. I can see you have a lot of solid information but it is lost in the thread compared to being placed where most want to read the article.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

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Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4607 days

#11 posted 02-28-2012 01:55 PM

The LJ members LOVE photos! But you are only giving the link. You need to use the embed code from the host site. Just be careful not to grab a size too large or it will be too big for the panel and get cut off on the right side.

An easy way to install pictures is to use the “img” button. Click on it and a drop down menu will appear. Then you can choose an image from your computer. It will upload and host the the image and install the code where ever your cursor is located. This is the location your picture will appear.

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

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274 posts in 3033 days

#12 posted 02-28-2012 03:10 PM

Thanks for the good info Ron! I’m currently trying to build up my own woodworking business, so your story is much appreciated!

-- Jesse --

View a1Jim's profile


117722 posts in 4084 days

#13 posted 02-28-2012 04:24 PM

Hey Ron
Very interesting bio .Like Todd said most folks expect a blog to be at the top of the page or in several post ,posted in a series. It’s great of you to share your experience with all of the Lj gang.

you talk about monkey pod since I’d never used it or heard of it I checked it out on my faveriote wood I.D site
I thought others might be interested too.

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Todd A. Clippinger

8901 posts in 4607 days

#14 posted 02-29-2012 04:27 AM

Now You’ve Got It Going:)

-- Todd A. Clippinger, Montana,

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Ron Messersmith

96 posts in 2792 days

#15 posted 02-12-2018 05:48 PM

~Boy have I been gone a long time, almost 3 years!! I,m going to try to get back to lumberjacks. It’s such a great site. I would like someone to tell me why there are no Woodworking shows on the West Coast. I’ve e-mailed the Woodworking Show website with no response.

-- Jupiter

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