Material cost vs. labor time: How much to spend?

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Forum topic by RogerBean posted 02-06-2011 05:21 PM 3171 views 0 times favorited 29 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1605 posts in 4245 days

02-06-2011 05:21 PM

Topic tags/keywords: question

How do you decide how much to spend on the materials for a project. I’m not really speaking of “for sale” projects here, but rather those things we build primarily because we want to, or for our own use. Professional decisions are of course determined by selling price, profit targets, and the like. LJ offers such a wide diversity of members, that we obviously use a range of criteria; some using pallet wood and others like the recent Matt Garcia curly maple chest.

In the past, I’ve often begun a project with less than optimal materials for any number of reasons, then when the project turned out well, felt really disheartened that I didn’t spend a few more dollars for the best materials. I see some LJ’s spend many hours on a project out of firewood or pallet wood. Why? At the other end of the spectrum, it’s not much of a stretch to invest $200 or even more in a 8” x 11” box for veneer, locks, hinges, lining, and the like. Why? Obviously, we may not choose to make our shop cabinets out of walnut and ebony, but how about our “projects” that are not purely utilitarian? Or, is there even a difference? How do YOU decide how much to spend?

-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

29 replies so far

View Steven H's profile

Steven H

1117 posts in 4352 days

#1 posted 02-06-2011 06:41 PM

One way to approach this is to focus on how much you can get for it. For the moment, don’t think at all about what it costs to build or what the development costs were. Just focus on how much you can sell it for, through whatever sales channel you’re going to use. That’s really all that’s important. How much can I get for it?

After you set a sales price, you can think about your costs. If your costs are higher than the sales income, you don’t have a business.

View Dragonsrite's profile


136 posts in 4688 days

#2 posted 02-06-2011 07:01 PM

Having been unemployed for a while now makes this question quite easy for me. What little cash is available I’d rather spend on tools … garage sales, antique shops, craigslist, etc. As for materials, I’m one of the pallet wood guys. Craigslist ZIP is also a good source of wood, paints & finishes and hardware also. Since I tend to like the rustic or distressed look, these sources fit my needs perfectly and cost nothing more than gas & time.

-- Dragonsrite, Minnesota

View miles125's profile


2180 posts in 5297 days

#3 posted 02-06-2011 07:02 PM

Remember that one fellows exotic is another fellows commonplace. So it’s really a misnomer to think that expense in any way reflects a material’s worthiness of being used.

-- "The way to make a small fortune in woodworking- start with a large one"

View Scott Bryan's profile

Scott Bryan

27249 posts in 5113 days

#4 posted 02-06-2011 07:08 PM

Roger, I just do what the boss tells me. If she wants a project out of cherry then I make it out of cherry. My wife is a firm believer that you “can’t take it with you” so she just says do it and don’t worry about the how much the wood/hardware is going to cost.

This works pretty well when I want to buy a new tool but she uses the same philosophy when she buys clothes, purses and shoes. Even after 34 years I still can’t understand why a woman needs 30+ purses and a closet full of shoes.

-- Challenges are what make life interesting; overcoming them is what makes life meaningful- Joshua Marine

View Jeff's profile


553 posts in 4486 days

#5 posted 02-06-2011 07:21 PM

I think it develops over time as your skill improves and your knowledge of woods improves. I’d hate to spend a lot of money on an exotic if I’m trying out a new technique. Too much room for error. If you make something and you really like how it turned out you can always build another the way you want and donate the other to a friend, relative or charity or keep it to compare. The second time around you might even improve something to make it even better.

View bigike's profile


4059 posts in 4580 days

#6 posted 02-06-2011 07:48 PM

Me I just have allot of stuff in my shop and as I’m doing a project this is when i decide to in corp something into it. When I go shopping at rockler or any other woodworking store this is when i figure out what to get or what I want to get never having a project in mind. It’s like I stock things and if I think it will look good on a project I throw it in and try to restock it later. I have a big box of ebony I got real cheap, about 50 1”x 3/4” brass hinges different shape mirrors like oval, round, square, 20 different song playing music movements. I need to stock up on lid stays ( brass chain ) right now I have a few feet of the brass chain used for like a drain plug with some ends to hold it on the box. So I guess you can say I have it in stock as far as wood goes I get allot from work off the pallets cherry,white/red oak,maple,sycamore,walnut and some of these woods are either spalted, or just have a very exotic looking grain pattern to it so it looks very expensive. i also get MDF and multi ply and regular plywood all for free. If I sell one of my boxes it’s all profit for me to go and buy more stock. Sorry for rambling on hope this clears things up a bit. ;)

-- Ike, Big Daddies Woodshop, http://[email protected]

View Jim Finn's profile

Jim Finn

2906 posts in 4213 days

#7 posted 02-06-2011 08:43 PM

I started making small (24” long) trunks a few years ago. I designed them myself and have made many changes,over time,on them. I started making them of 2”x4”s and stained them in different ways. I have made, and sold, over 40 of them now. The first 20 or so of this fir and pine but now make them of better woods. Eastern red cedar mostly. I started out working with pallet wood years ago, but now buy all of my wood. I learned a lot from pine and pallets.

-- No PHD just a DD214 Lubbock Texas

View Dez's profile


1176 posts in 5369 days

#8 posted 02-06-2011 09:15 PM

If I understand your question correctly I would have to say;

I do not really made a decision based on labor vs. material costs.
I make a decision on materials and labor based on the type of project - i.e. - shop fixture, decorative, gift, commission OR personal and longevity (temp or permanent) as well as the look desired etc.

I’ve never gotten very big pieces from “pallet wood” or found materials but I have found some very beautiful stuff that was used in some very high end projects.
Pallet wood and found materials doesn’t always equate to low quality only low initial cost in my book, the Kauri wood from New Zealand being one example of found wood. I have seen pallets made of Oak, Purple Heart and various other exotics.

Some of the things I’ve made and the materials I used were based solely on what I had on hand – case in point, the pistol case I recently finished. The spalted Alder, Cherry and Bloodwood I already had on the “rack”.

-- Folly ever comes cloaked in opportunity!

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


22871 posts in 4967 days

#9 posted 02-06-2011 09:55 PM

Depends on what I am making. I used soft wood for my grandson’s swords out of respect for my dau-in-law’s furniture :-)) I use top quality walnut or maple for gunstocks. It is not really an issue of labor vs cost, but I do understand that you are geting at. Many of the scrap or pallet conversions are by LJs with limited resources. Do you have more time than money or more money that time?

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

View Gregn's profile


1642 posts in 4275 days

#10 posted 02-06-2011 10:28 PM

As a hobbyist I don’t think in terms of cost in labor, as its time spent in the shop enjoying something I love to do.
Since the majority of my lumber has been free. I tend to use what I have on hand. Most of my learning came from pine and southern yellow pine. I’ve just begun using hardwoods and learning the difference between species in working and finishing them. I do think about material cost when it comes to hardware and lumber I don’t have on hand for a particular project I want to make.
I do have a pet project that I’m designing using oak and walnut as the primary woods with some exotic woods for some inlay work that I want to try doing. For this project there is no cost consideration because its a pet project.
If I were considering selling a project I would have to see what the market was willing to bear for the project and decide what materials I would use and how much labor was involved. If its a quick project I might spend more for materials, or if it was more time consuming go with less expensive materials.

-- I don't make mistakes, I have great learning lessons, Greg

View RogerBean's profile


1605 posts in 4245 days

#11 posted 02-06-2011 10:55 PM

Thanks all for your thoughts.

It’s not so much that I “calculate” the labor cost of a project, but I am aware of the amount of time a project will probably involve. Last year, talking to Andrew Crawford, the great box maker, I asked him about the cost of materials he used. His reply is something I have thought about frequently since. He said: “If you consider the amount of time you spend, the cost of the materials is a very small part of the total”. Admittedly, the cost of his boxes is really high, but his comment got me to thinking. I am attracted to projects that tend to involve a lot of time. Is he right?... even if I’m not selling the product?

I find myself going more and more in his direction, which is, I guess, what prompted this thread. Your comments above are representative of our differing goals in the projects we undertake. And that’s as it should be. I find that as I reach for more and more complex projects, that materials cost becomes less a factor. Perhaps Topamax has it on the mark… it’s a matter of what your’re building. But, I do still, ponder the question.


-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

View cabs4less's profile


235 posts in 4054 days

#12 posted 02-07-2011 01:30 AM

I just ran into that issue myself when designing my new book case. I wanted to use cherry and i had a very simple contemporay design but the more i looked at the sketch-up model i got bored whith and started adding raised panels and glass door etc. Then i realized i could nt afford to build it lol so whiched to poplar and mdf and then started playing around with distressed paint samples. So In my mind I want to have furniture built out of nice hardwoods but i also want interesting designs and molding so i opt for decent quality wood and extrvagant designs Plus I have more fun building fancy stuff than looking at fancy wood lol

-- As Best I Can

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile


22871 posts in 4967 days

#13 posted 02-07-2011 03:03 AM

The price of hardwood is what kept me form building our furniture when we were young and didn’t have any. Plus LOML didn’t want to wait for eons for it ;-))

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

View fernandoindia's profile


1081 posts in 4235 days

#14 posted 02-07-2011 04:44 AM

Hi all there,

I am a hobbyist as Greg, so time spent in the shop is my payment.
Also I am a newcomer. I cut my first piece of wood back in Feb 2009.

A lot of times I find myself choosing cheaper wood, since any project I would start, is a beginner´s one, and is part of my learnig curve. My thought was in the same line that Jeff stated: “If everything comes out great, I can make a second one with nicer wood”. (This proved to be wrong in my case).

But when time came to spend on hardware, hinges, stays, etc, I found that such were pretty much more expensive than the lumber used. So, even I bought a lot of such hardware, as Ike said. But I am prevented to use it, since the wood of the project is not good enough.

That is why I also bought some quite good pieces of wood, for starting to use the hardware. Some 6 kilos of ebony @ US$50/k, walnut, maple, teak, between US$18 and US$ 30 bf.

Now the problem is still too many mistakes in my projects, that do not merit using such kind of woods. So neither the brass hardware.

And more specifically to Roger´s point, I do also find myself involved in projects that require a lot of time, not because the complexity of them, but of my lack of knowledge. I don´t only measure twice, but also cut twice, glue twice, finish twice….

Thank you for your beatiful boxes.

Take care

I hope to start soon using my nicer woods.

-- Back home. Fernando

View CiscoKid's profile


362 posts in 4165 days

#15 posted 02-08-2011 07:09 PM

I spend what I can afford at the time. If I see a really spectacular piece of timber I will buy it regardless of cost – even if I have no idea what I will do with it. Some of these pieces rest in my basement for years before being taken out to the shop for resawing or planing. I still have some old 8/4 live edge slabs of walnut and cherry down there that I just had to have at the time. One day I will figure out what to do with them. I made friends with a local lumber dealer and even work for him for free occassionally. For this, he lets me look through his “shorts” pile and I get some bargains on stuff that he felt wasn’t good enough for the racks. This is a hobby. It is for my personal enjoyment. How much do others spend on their hobbies? I try to keep it in perspective.

-- Al, Culpeper VA

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