When I was living off campus at college, my roommates and I weren’t particularly picky about our furnishings. The first two weeks I was in the apartment, we had very little in the way of furniture; an old couch left by former tenants, a TV up on concrete blocks and a pine plank, our beds and a kick butt stereo system. Yes, we had our priorities in order.
When my parents came to visit me the first time, things started to improve. We got some really ugly couches that looked like they came out of some old lady’s parlor, an old dining table that must have been trendy when Kennedy was in office and a coffee table that had seen its share of coffee spills. This was good, but whenever we had a chance to upgrade (read: diving the dumpster), we went for it. Eventually, the majority of our furniture was lovingly plucked from the refuse bin.
Boy, was I in for a shock when my wife and I got married. We had to have some decent (read: NOT obtained by diving the dumpster) furniture to fill our apartment, and eventually our house. Believe it or not, I was shocked by the prices charged for low-quality, mass produced junk. I could forget any sort of custom made furniture – that was way out of my price range! That’s part of the reason why I got into woodworking – I knew there had to be a better way to get good stuff that was custom for my home. And, as I built for my home and showed off my pictures, a strange thing started to happen. Suddenly, I was approached by lots of folks who wanted things built for THEIR homes.
Now, I am a hobby woodworker. I don’t feed my family based on how much I earn building things. And, I don’t have the overhead a business would have, so my expenses are pretty low. And, I have no problem building gifts for my family and friends and giving those away – I know the folks I’m building for will truly appreciate my efforts. And, when I build, it’s kinda like I’m going out to play tennis or golf – it’s what I do for fun.
But, some folks who want things built see me as their gateway to inexpensive custom-built furniture. Now, people like our Woodtalk Online Editors Marc Spagnulo and Gail O’Rourke are professionals at this stuff. They have their expenses calculated out and know exactly how much the market will bear for their hand-crafted custom projects. Their customers don’t balk, because they know they are buying custom pieces from talented craftspeople. Folks like me are at a little disadvantage, because weekend warrior types like me are often not sure exactly what our work is truly worth – or we have difficulty making others see the value of our work.
A few years back, this one lady in my office approached me about building an entertainment center. She had a drawing of what she wanted, and she was very particular with her requirements. “I want it made out of cherry with dovetailed drawers and those doors that open then slide back into the case.”
As I started wrapping my mind around this massive piece of furniture she wanted, she said something that made my jaw hit the floor. “Oh, I saw something like that at Ikea and they wanted $600 for it. ” Pause. “You can build it for less, can’t you?”
I was kind of stunned by what she said, and I told her that I’d have to price out the materials and determine how long it would take to build before I could give her a final cost. When I found that the special door hardware she wanted ran no less than $200, and I visited my hardwood supplier to find cherry ply and stock at a premium here in Florida, I came back and told her she’d be better off buying from Ikea. It was going to cost me money out of my pocket to just buy the materials for the project. And, forget about buying some saw blades or bits with any profit from this challenging job.
Now, this is the exception, not the rule. My neighbors, a couple from the World War II generation, needed some cabinet pull outs made. After a few days of knocking around in the shop and cobbling together some workable units, I built and installed the pieces to their satisfaction and delight. I wasn’t expecting anything in the way of payment, but the lady of the house handed me a tidy sum of money for my efforts. When I said I couldn’t accept any payment, she told me, “You know, if I get this for free, I’m not going to be sure that I got the job done right. Besides, custom cabinetmakers like you deserve the money they earn.