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Forum topic by JuniorJoiner posted 03-29-2010 02:17 AM 2549 views 2 times favorited 37 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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497 posts in 4412 days

03-29-2010 02:17 AM

Topic tags/keywords: question

I’m going on a bit of a rant here,

Why is it that masterful woodwork is so undervalued? Who can even make a living doing custom furniture without cutting corners? why is it like this?

As I near the end of my year of schooling in fine furniture, there has been much debate amongst classmates and alumni about making a living at the craft. The basic advice I see from everyone is to find a niche and exploit it.
So. to find something you like making, set up to make it cheap and quick, and sell like the rent is due.

This , of course, goes against everything we have learned in school, which is to slow down, work precisely, and add lots of fine detail. As a matter of record, that is what attracted most of us to the craft and to the school.

But then we see things like, Brian Newell perhaps the best artisan at the craft, had a show of his work at putnam and eames a few years ago. and everything sold. I am talking about some fantastic stuff too.
He had sequestered himself away for a year to make those pieces, tons of time, material costs, as well as shop costs. the culmination of years of devotion, training and masterful work. grossed him about 90k.

comparatively, new paint on canvas, routinely sells for more than that. heck, I have seen driftwood screwed together with drywall screws and called a table sell for prices that people blush at when looking at actual fine work. why is it that something that has a function, is beautiful and one of a kind, and well made. has no value?

What is the cause of this? are consumers uninformed? is it because retired men tend to create woodwork for family for free? or is it because our craft is fun and cool, and painting isn’t?

It is discouraging when you are looking at the setup costs for a new shop, working out what you have to sell things for , then realizing you still have to eat and live.

One of my classmates, Diasuke Tanaka( ) is a third year student, makes amazing stuff, and puts his all into it.( there are dozens of photos of him sleeping at his bench).
He will be having a show in Toronto in June. I have really high hopes for his success, as his craftsmanship is tremendous.

I wonder what it would take for pieces to sell for a price which accurately reflects the time and skill put into making them, while still doing the best work you know how?

If anyone has any insights on this, I would love to read them. Or secrets of getting home designers stamp of approval to make pieces valuable. I would particularly love to hear success stories of people making a living at furniture without writing books or teaching.

-- Junior -Quality is never an accident-it is the reward for the effort involved.

37 replies so far

View SnowyRiver's profile


51458 posts in 4452 days

#1 posted 03-29-2010 02:39 AM

I always felt the reason many wont spend the necessary dollars to buy a custom piece is because they can buy something similar at a furniture store that buys products that are mass produced and therefore can sell them at a reduced price. Although a piece that is built by a good craftsman as we all know, is much better, we also know that the piece at a local store looks about the same at a glance but it’s hundreds or thousands of dollars less. I think unless we are dealing with people that understand the quality, and can afford it, its hard to expect the average Joe to spend the money. We live in a throw away society. I guess it equates to buying an original Rembrandt for millions, or just buying a print of the same picture for just a few bucks. If you arent a collector but just enjoy the picture, then what difference would it make?

-- Wayne - Plymouth MN

View Mogebier's profile


170 posts in 4005 days

#2 posted 03-29-2010 02:39 AM

I think the answer is very easy, and not complicated at all.
Mass-market goods.
There ya go.
We now live in a disposable society. People want to buy cheap goods. They do not care if it’s going to last for 100 years because their tastes change so much, they will want to buy something new in 10 years anyway. So, you might make a superior Dinner Table. It might be worth $3000 in time, effort, supplies and skill. But people will buy the $499 table from Ikea because it’s cheaper and they know their kids will not want it because it will be out of style by then.
100 years ago it was different because you had to have an Artisan making things. Now you have a Robot making them for 1/100th the cost.
Automation isn’t all bad and evil, though. Think how much a shirt would cost if the cloth came from a person who used a manual loom. WOAH!

-- You can get more with a kind word and a 2 by 4, than you can with just a kind word.

View F Dudak's profile

F Dudak

342 posts in 4782 days

#3 posted 03-29-2010 03:26 AM

I believe that you have to hold on to not selling yourself short. If it is fine furniture that you want to make there are surely people willing to pay for it; always have been and always will be. Making a name for yourself and being able to break into that type of market is the challenge.

-- Fred.... Poconos, PA ---- Chairwright in the making ----

View canadianchips's profile


2632 posts in 3969 days

#4 posted 03-29-2010 03:39 AM

We live in a IKEA world. I have seen people throw EVEYTHING in there house to RE-decorate with what is in style that day ! These people do not want pieces that last. They don’t even want a house that lasts. Re-sell evey 5 years , realestate, make money.
Unfortunatly Artists go through same thing, no fame till they die ! A few have found niche market.
The people that make quilts——-Same thing.
Just continue your passion, keep at it !

-- "My mission in life - make everyone smile !"

View rhett's profile


743 posts in 4639 days

#5 posted 03-29-2010 03:48 AM

It is a disposable society. People do not understand what truely goes into a piece crafted by hand. Most are so trend driven that they don’t really know what they like, they just buy what is popular now and then throw it away when the new fad emerges. REAL craftsmanship is timeless.

The worst part of all is that we have brought this upon ourselves. If you stand under the guise of quality, you must take it past the shop door. Demand well made goods in all parts of your life and quit supporting the cheaply made imported crap that has become the norm. Its easy to complain about woodwork because that is what we do, but if we surround ourselves with other goods, imported and cheaply made, then we become part of the problem we so often complain about.

-- Doubt kills more dreams than failure.

View Dark_Lightning's profile


4319 posts in 4081 days

#6 posted 03-29-2010 03:54 AM

That style thing is something that puzzles me. Remember when green shag carpet was all the rage? I even bought a ‘56 Chevy with that carpet in it (not why I bought it), many years ago. It went out of style, for say, Berber. People will toss the whole lot and put all new carpeting in their house. Crazy. Same with clothes- now THAT’s a racket! Them wimminz (and a whole lot of men, for that matter), have to have the latest togs. We don’t understand those people, most of us here. I made my own glasses case out of red oak and bubinga (for example; I have some in delicious Brazilan rosewood cases, too) after I got tired of buying velcro closure and spring closure cheapo cases at $5- $10 a pop, only to have them last 3 to 6 weeks. My wood spectacles case has lasted a year, even though I have dropped it many times (glued-up mitered corners) and still works fine. All you (or I for that matter) have to do is convince your customers- of which I have none- that this product will outlast their spectacles. But then, they’ll buy the latest glasses with 4” diameter lenses, and get annoyed because the new ones don’t fit the case. People are crazy.

-- Steven.......Random Orbital Nailer

View sikrap's profile


1121 posts in 4331 days

#7 posted 03-29-2010 04:30 AM

Personally, I think its a combination of ignorance and economics. This is why Home Depot and Lowes thrive while small yards struggle. The vast majority of people out there have no clue as to how much work goes into a nice piece of furniture or how much it costs to make it. All they know is, its a table that look just like the one at (insert your local chain furniture store here) and it costs a lot more. I have a friend that needs/wants a small table so bad he’s willing to ask me to make it for him. I explained that the least expensive way to go was MDF with a laminate. Once he saw that the MDF and laminate were going to cost about $40 and then the lumber for the base would be another $25, he got mad because he thought he’d only have to spend $20-$25 for materials. Now he’s watching CL to see if he can find something that somebody else wants to get rid of.

-- Dave, Colonie, NY

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BigFoot Products Canada

711 posts in 4365 days

#8 posted 03-29-2010 04:31 AM

Well I’m no craftsman but my wife’s son from her first marriage is. He can sell his work no problem…BUT he has a very UPSCALE clientele for whom he contracts finish carpentry & also produces furniture pieces for. He’s only in his 30’s but his work is highly sought after. I guess the key is to get into the right niche of people, where money is no object.

View Luke's profile


546 posts in 4266 days

#9 posted 03-29-2010 04:54 AM

Fine woodworking is an art form. Have you never heard the term poor, out of work artist? It is not very often that one makes a good living doing something they really really love in the art world. Sure a lot of us love our jobs but there are very few people out there to pay you to inlay ebony and ivory into a dresser drawers for their bedroom. I do think there is a middle road where you can make money and not do such elaborate work. It’s fun to do all the fancy stuff but it sometimes does not put food on the table. I think everyone here has valid points but are missing the big picture. Sure you’re going to get undercut. Sure the big companies are going to keep making crap. There are people out there that will buy well made furniture. They are just further and fewer between at the moment. Once you find them, make them happy if you want to keep them coming.

-- LAS,

View Eli's profile


142 posts in 3978 days

#10 posted 03-29-2010 05:08 AM

I think there are a loft of misconceptions about this.

First, specializing is helpful. It’s very hard to market yourself as a maker of anything. Also, there’s the “jack of all trades, master of none” perception you have to deal with.

Second, setting up to produce a particular piece does not mean sacrificing quality. The shop I work in has jigged up all sorts of processes, but we still use mortices and tenons and dovetails, etc. Cutting corners is one of the worst ways to improve your business. Using machines appropriately increases productivity.

Third, people do undervalue our work, but keep in mind, those aren’t your clients. Even if you can convince them your price is justified, that doesn’t mean they’ll pay it.

Fourth, a piece built by hand is not inherently better than a piece built by a machine. Machines have the advantage of being much faster in the long haul. We have the advantage of being able to do custom work cheaper than machines. A single carving is not worth reprogramming a factory. “I want this piece, but taller” is the hole we fill in the market. “I just can’t find this anywhere.”

Fifth, a lot of makers overvalue their work. Look at the market. What we do is not in high demand. Your work is only worth as much as someone will pay. Try to determine who your market is and find a way to get your work in front of them. Or, you can find a hole in the market, and make furniture to fill it. You can make a living doing extremely high end work, but you are chasing a very small market.

Regarding the driftwood and paintings, that’s a little twist in the plot. Although many makers hate the term “artist,” it can be very beneficial. Art is not judged on it’s utility. It’s a completely subjective pricing. If you make something that people fall in love with, are you going to tell them it’s not worth that much?


View Dark_Lightning's profile


4319 posts in 4081 days

#11 posted 03-29-2010 05:34 AM

Sikrap, you are right, up to the point where the guys in the “small yard” tell you there is “no picking” in the outside lumber. I bought some “select pine” boards at Big Orange this morning to make a couple of totes for my “boutique” woods that I use for small boxes I make, and tools. It was only $1 more a foot than MDF trim! You get my point- you can’t cater to the Ikea crowd. They’re all Philistines to the woodworking world.

kunk, I work at a six-figure job (if I put in enough overtime), and believe it or not, between the chinks in the armor of Corporate America, there is a place for the artist to make tools. One of my proudest moments is designing a custom tool for a special use. There is nothing like it in the rest of the world, but I’ll be unlikely to patent it. Oh, well, I got a cheesy plaque and a small token of the company’s appreciation for it.

-- Steven.......Random Orbital Nailer

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20025 posts in 4648 days

#12 posted 03-29-2010 06:13 AM

All of that, plus the middle class is shrinking; therefore, a smaller market. And, most businesses are very competitive.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View JuniorJoiner's profile


497 posts in 4412 days

#13 posted 03-29-2010 06:50 AM

I appreciate your Hiaku and your additions to the rant. I am somewhat calmer now than when I wrote it. it still bums me out that great skill or even mastery at parts of this craft is in no way a guarantee that you can make a living doing it.
despite my frustration and gloom, it in no way sways me from my path of bettering myself and learning and doing all I can with wood. I am just more realized that my toils may go unpraised and unrewarded for a long time.

-- Junior -Quality is never an accident-it is the reward for the effort involved.

View LeeG's profile


40 posts in 3993 days

#14 posted 03-29-2010 06:56 AM

I read an article quite some time ago and the theme was ‘The New Royalty’. Basically it went like this. Back in the day of wealthy royalty and nobility, skilled craftsmen could spend months on a single item. There were people that were wealth enough to pay them basically a year’s wages for a single unique item. Wages went up (along with the standard of living) and there were fewer people now with large, disposable incomes who are looking to impress other people with large, disposable incomes. This in conjunction with the introduction of mass production led to a decline in the high quality craftsman.

Today, however, there is a segment that fits the same economic description as the royalty of old, namely movie stars and professional athletes. I recall one specific person interviewed for this article that had learned how to weave very fine cotton with very intricate patterns. She made a scarf that took nearly a year. Madonna bought it for some large amount of money (I don’t recall exactly bit it was a lot).

Moral to that story – find a target market for the stuff you want to produce and market it to them.

-- Lee in Phoenix

View 308Gap's profile


337 posts in 3975 days

#15 posted 03-29-2010 06:58 AM

quote ” I wonder what it would take for pieces to sell for a price which accurately reflects the time and skill put into making them, while still doing the best work you know how? ” most art goes up in value after the artist dies. As for your question, the furniture I think your talking about is out of reach for most people. You used the word “fine furniture” which means , I cant afford it. As a consumer I want the best value for my dollar. If I was rich then I would hire someone to make my dresser. But I shop at rc willey , since most things are real wood, but from over seas. If you could build my kitchen table and sell it for the same price I’d order one right now. Keep in mind I only drive american made cars, not just labeled that way, I buy american whenever it makes sense and I can find it. I’m still looking for american made plywood. If you can make a LIVING at what you love go for it and don’t look back…......... Did you buy your car based on build quality? was it assembled here and the profits went back to japan?

-- Thank You Veterans!

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