The Gateway Guy

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.

“That was a refreshing change of pace!pic 1My shopMe busting butt in my shop:

7 thoughts on “The Gateway Guy”

  1. I recently had a project where we had to determine what our hourly rate would be. Then we figured out the material costs and consumables. Add them together and there you go. I figured out to survive and eat I need to make 35.00 an hour. But I plan to charge more than that.

    With that said, I quickly found out that I am not building furniture for people like me. I could never afford what I make. I am catering to people who appreciate and can afford hand crafted furniture. I just hope I can find those people and not the one you described who expected to you make it hand made but less that IKEA.

  2. Good read TT. I can’t wait until I am good enough to be approached by people who want furniture for pennies.
    In all seriousness, I am hoping to see what the interior Alaskan market will be like someday. I am about one step closer today I hope.
    Keep writing about the interesting happening of us weekend warrior and wood-murdering hobbyists.


  3. Tom – Wow. You hit the dovetail on the head. I’m am surprised by how many people say “But I could get the same thing at IKEA for less.” That’s when I realize that I’m not talking to a person that wants custom made furniture, they want cheap furniture. Of course there is typically some wiggle-room in my pricing, but I have my threshold. If the client wants it for less, then I say thank you maybe you need someone else. The thing that has helped me price my work the most was an article by Richard Jones “Estimating for Furniture Makers. Is the Price Right?” It is a great read for those who sell their work, and want to make money doing it.

  4. Tom,

    You have raised a number of intersting points…

    I too can recall swiping milk crates from the backs of grocery stores every time we needed to expand our bookshelves while I was in school. Not only were they colorful and sturdy, but they also served as handy moving boxes (already packed, I might add) when it came time to change abodes each semester.

    As generations have moved from “blue collar” to “white collar” occupations, I find that there is a dwindling appreciation for just what it takes to produce finely crafted goods, no matter what they are! People just don’t have the understanding of what goes into manufacturing. This is one reason that Wal-Mart does so well, and “off-shoring” continues to grow in popularity. Common folks have no idea what materials cost. When it comes to wood, the closest that most folks come to it is 2 x 4s at the home center. So, all of their judgments are based on that. People need to understand that custom made furniture, carefully constructed with quality materials, will outlast them.

    Figure that most folks will spend several hundred dollars for a dining table at the local furniture store. With care, this table might last them ten or so years. After that, they’ll get bored of it or have used it to the point where it falls apart. The price per year is probably close to $100. Now compare this with a custom constructed table made to the customer’s specifications. Its lifetime is at least double that of its store-bought counterpart. Even if it costs double the mass-produced table, it’s still a bargain even though it has the same price per year cost. The difference is that the custom table was made for the customer to their specifications. It fits in their setting perfectly, by design. Not to mention that it’s unique, and its value _could_ actually increase with time…
    Now of course, I’m exaggerating the lifetime of the custom table. Most likely any piece from a contentious maker will last much longer than its mass-produced counterpart, making the cost per year figure even more economical. The point is that our society has (almost completely) degraded to the point where price is the only thing that matters, and everything is disposable!

    Hopefully, more folks will obtain an appreciation for just what it takes to create quality goods as they tire of “termite barf” furniture. BTW, did that “office” lady ever approach you about building something again?

  5. Buck-up Tom:

    I feel it in my bones. Someday you’ll become a “celebrity woodworker” just like Marc & Gail. Then and only then my bumbling wood butcher friend can you charge the big $$$$ Yes, you’ll be sinking your teeth into wheelbarrow’s full of money. Just like they do….(only kidding Marc and Gail)

    In the meantime, all things considered, getting paid beer money isn’t sooooo bad.


    Keep the great articles coming.


  6. Ace –

    Thanks! I’m waiting for that wheelbarrow to show up on my front porch…

    Actually, I keep hoarding my pennies to buy more planes. You can go BROKE buying those babies.

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