don’t do it yourself. seriously. buy ikea furniture.
i know what you’re thinking. i’m a woodworker. for fuck’s sake, i’m a woodworking teacher with decades of experience. i can build anything. ok, i don’t do roofs and tend to avoid boats cause they’re a lot of effort and i don’t go to sea. but i can, in theory, build anything. but i don’t. and my suggestion is, if you are seriously about making your life about woodworking, you don’t either. especially at first. this doesn’t apply quite so much if you’re doing this as a hobby and that’s what you want it to remain. but even then i think we have, as a society, gotten the wrong approach to this — the maker movement has done amazing things for educating people but it’s made people proud and anal about doing everything themselves and that’s rarely the best solution to a problem.
i’ll give you an example. i’m competent with wiring and framing. not expert by any stretch but competent. i could wire a house or frame a room. i could plaster the walls and put up the trim and paint the thing. but i could spend that time in the shop building something. now, if that piece is for my house, it’s worth nothing to me except the opportunity-cost. let’s say it’s a bookcase. if i go to ikea and buy a cheap bookcase, it might cost me fifty bucks. great. it’ll fall apart in a few years but that’s not my concern. i can get it very cheaply now. so if i spend a week in the shop making it and choose to pay professionals to do the tasks in my house, my actual cost is the whole cost of the materials plus the cost of the workers in my house and my benefit is saving fifty bucks. if, however, i am making that same bookcase for a client and they’re paying me five-hundred dollars to build it from a hundred dollars worth of wood, there’s a good chance i’m far closer to breaking even or perhaps making profit — by the time i pay a professional to do the work in my house, it’s going to be some serious money but i’m making money, too. my opportunity cost is high (paying the worker) but my offset is high, too (being paid for my own time and effort, having swapped time doing stuff in the house to save on expert costs for time in the shop making the piece). i think this is a reasonable tradeoff. and the work in the shop is the same — just as rewarding, just as fun, just as relaxing. but instead of losing five hundred dollars, i’ve broken even. of course, this is just an example. i could tell you, based on this, to rethink the equation that’s turning your workshop into a money-sink and meaning you have to keep delaying working on projects around the house just because you’re “a diyer” — i’m not one of those. not at all. but i won’t do that.
i have reasons — five of them, which i believe makes a great title if you care about seo — though i write only for the enjoyment of my readers and enlightenment of my students so i don’t really care about strangers stumbling across my articles in their google searches and those are usually the ones who send me emails about enlarging parts of my anatomy i don’t actually possess. my five reasons…
- obsession and detail
- cost and reward
let’s think through them together.
pressure comes from all possible directions but there are really three — internal, partnership and temporal. not tempura. that’s deep-fried fish. there’s not much pressure there when you’re in the shop. temporal like “time”. i know. creating adjectives in english is weird. it’s why i’m a poet. cause working with english is like fitting a curved mortise-and-tenon while riding an elephant in a windstorm wearing a blindfold. it’s a pink elephant. but you don’t notice. why? have you already forgotten you’re wearing a blindfold? i hope you pay more attention when you’re in the shop. try not to cut off your fingers. if you don’t notice pink elephants and being blindfolded, this might be a bad hobby for you. i’d suggest something less involved. like competitive napping.
i have to get this done. i made a commitment. it has to be perfect and last forever. because this is an heirloom piece. i can’t use pocket-holes. it has to be done only with handtools. even a brace-and-bit cause electricity comes when you plug an extension cable from your soul into the devil’s asshole. and i’ll be horrendously disappointed in myself for not getting this perfect, on time. but every mistake i make is going to be pointed out to exactly a-hundred-and-seventy-three-percent of my guests in case they think i’m actually good at this. can’t have pride cause that comes before a fall. and that’s when the leaves show up…
you see the problem.
if you’re building for someone else, the pressure only comes from them. of course you want to get it right but they know what it looks like and how it works, not how it was built. they don’t honestly care how it was built. there being a gap in a mortise that’s covered by the mating-piece? they won’t see it and as long as you don’t mention it (don’t even fucking think of mentioning it — ever) they won’t know it’s there. you’ll know. if it’s your piece, you’ll never let yourself forget it. and you’ll know you didn’t take the inside-back-panel up to 400-grit when you were sanding. but they won’t even ask — and wouldn’t care if you told them. there’s pressure but it’s dramatically less.
you are the most critical audience for your skills. we all do it. we push ourselves to be better and throw limitless insults in our own direction regardless of how much progress or skill we manage to accumulate. as humans, we want to improve. and the best way to improve is to recognize our limitations. but the best way to feel good about ourselves is to see our accomplishments and recognize them as significant. you’re not going to get that if you’re the target audience. we’re programmed to be self-critical. build pieces for someone else. you’re a shitty client if you’re the one building it. you’ll never be satisfied.
know what else? you won’t pay yourself enough.
this isn’t really what it sounds like. most of what we think of “partnership pressure” actually comes from inside. the best way to explain this is to give a short example. i call this the stop-my-wife-from-going-to-ikea example.
you need a new dresser. your wife (or husband but i know most of my woodworking students and readers are dudes and most dudes have wives but i’m not being exclusive here — just pragmatic for comprehension and simplicity) says “we need a new dresser — i’m going down to ikea to pick one up and i’ll be about a hundred dollars, maybe a little more — want to come?” and you reply “i’m a woodworker — i’ll build us a new dresser”.
she’s skeptical. but you beat her down over an hour or two and convince her it will only cost a couple of hundred dollars in lumber and take a couple of weeks and you’ll have a new dresser. of course, she wants a new dresser this afternoon and wants to spend half that money. and, if you’re honest, you also want a new dresser this afternoon for a hundred dollars, don’t you? i mean, given the choice, you’d be finished and it would have cost you far less. but that’s not realistic and you’re building an heirloom piece by hand with handtools and no devil’s-ass-electrons and … anyway, three months go by and you’ve spent six-hundred bucks on lumber, nineteen-million hours in the shop, it’s not going well, you’ve ruined a bunch of boards and your day-job has had you working flat-out and your wife says to you “i think i’ll just go down to ikea and get a cheap dresser so we have somewhere to put the clothes that’s not a suitcase until you get that thing finished, ok?” and you say… well, what do you say? if it was me, i’d say “great! fantastic! that’s a wonderful idea!” and there would be no sarcasm or irony in it. not even a little.
why? because she wasn’t the one putting pressure on you to do it in the first place. she didn’t care if it was handmade or heirloom or “done the right way” or traditional-ish or whatever. she doesn’t give two flying fucks about the joinery method or the new tooth-geometry of your backsaw you’ve been experimenting with. she just wants a place for her clothes. and yours. and i bet you want that, too.
so i hear people say things like this all the time — “you want to be a woodworker so look around your house and find the thing you need and make that”. it’s shitty advice. look around your friends and see what they might want. make that. don’t make stuff for yourself. definitely don’t make stuff your wife wants. that’s what shopping is for. if it’s for your house, buy it and you’ll have it today. if it’s for someone else, give a reasonable estimate of cost and time — don’t say “this will take me a thousand hours but i’ll tell her it’ll be two weeks cause that’s the only way she’ll let me build it”. be honest with yourself and everyone else about what’s likely to happen. it’s the only way you’ll ever actually be able to be calm. and working under pressure is unsafe and destroys all the fun of the thing — and it’s supposed to be fun, isn’t it?
your projects don’t have to be for-profit. if your friends want some furniture, make sure they already have some. if they have a dresser they’re not satisfied with, even if it takes you six months to build it, it’s not a problem. if their house has no furniture, don’t go there unless this is your actual legit job and you’ll have it all ready quickly. you don’t necessarily have to make them pay two grand for their new dining-table. maybe you just make it and they pay for the wood and you give them your time for free because you love being in the shop. but if they’ve already got a table that works and they’re looking to upgrade, they’ll be happy, you’ll be happy and your wife? well, she’ll be happy all the way home from ikea because — guess what! — you’ve got a dresser and there’s no pressure.
this is the root (yes, i know, trees and roots — it’s not a very creative pun but i know someone’s going to point it out) of most of the pressure. you set a deadline and you try to stick to it. but you’ve been unreasonable about it. let’s say you get to spend ten hours in the shop every week. cause you work all the time and that’s an hour or so after work then maybe a few hours here and there on weekends. totally reasonable. but if you’re building serious furniture ten hours doesn’t go very far. i mean, it might take you two of those hours just to set up your new chisels and get your planes sharpened. you’ll probably take the better part of a week to even get the design mocked up on cardboard to make sure you’re heading in the right direction. if the project is going to take you six months to get finished, you have to be up-front about that.
but you probably weren’t. so you have a project that’s actually going to take three-hundred hours, which is thirty weeks at ten hours a week, but you’ve told someone (probably someone in your family) it’s going to be done in two months (like nine weeks or ninety hours) and that’s not practical. unless instead of working properly you cut all the corners and throw out the safety and start making something that’s so half-assed you’re starting to do more fractional arithmetic and you’re now measuring your finished projects rounded to the nearest sixteenth-of-an-ass.
so, much like partnership pressure, the issue here isn’t your working-speed. you don’t have to work faster. you just have to stop being stupid about overpromising. if it’s going to take a year, tell them it’ll be a year. they’ll either say “ok” or “no — that’s too long”. either way, it’s going to take a year and there’s nothing you can do about it. so there’s no need to cause yourself all the pressure. and this goes for all projects. it might be a victorian-style decorative chest. it might be a sheet-of-paper-sized kumiko panel for your bedroom wall. not all projects take the same amount of time. but be reasonable with your time-estimates. if you’re just beginning, take the time you think it’ll take, the time other people tell you it took them, add them together, triple it, round up and you’ll probably at least be in the ballpark. and approximate is fine. but when you say it’ll take a week and it takes six months people start to really whine at you. and again that destroys all your shop enjoyment. ain’t no pretty-little-woodcurls going to make you smile if you’re six months behind schedule on a one-week project, are they?
obsession and detail
mistakes are inevitable. you’ll make them. cut a board a few centimeters too short? we’ve all done it. cut the mortise on the wrong side? definitely been there. i’m not going to tell you you shouldn’t pay attention to detail. pay attention. always. pay serious, complete and undivided attention. while you’re at it, stop listening to loud music in the shop. it’s distracting and you can’t hear it when the machines start to strain under load or something is getting worn. i know. i’m guilty of this, too. chopping mortises while listening to the marriage of figaro isn’t an unusual sunday-morning pastime for me. but i have learned to turn down the volume and pay attention to my auditory surroundings.
that being said, though, there are details that matter and details that don’t.
if you’re building a piece for yourself, you want it to be perfect. actually, you’re going to be so obsessive about it being perfect you won’t let yourself get away with anything other than absolute perfection.
let’s take an example. you’re making a table with standard mortise-and-tenon leg-and-apron construction. i love these projects. they’re simple to design and build and so rewarding. and people love them cause they think tables are so impressive cause they’re so big. (it’s the big-friendly-giant effect — small things are cute. normal things are boring. big things are amazing.) so you have to cut tenons on the ends of your stretchers and mortises on two sides of each leg. you can do this. but here’s the thing. the tenons are completely hidden in the mortises and the mortises are completely hidden in the legs. if this piece is for you, i can see exactly what you’re planning to do. mark the whole thing on the boards precisely (this is a good step) then start cutting your tenons. you cut the tenons 5cm wide, 5cm long and 1cm thick. now you cut your mortises 5cm wide, 5cm long and 1cm thick. and they don’t fit together because (shock of shocks) they’re not perfect. now i’m all for perfection but this is a situation where perfect is unnecessary. let’s say you’re going to cut your tenons 5x5x1. only one of these dimensions matters — the long-grain face of the tenon. the 1cm dimension is too small to get any significant bonding strength (it’s not because of the grain type) and the floor of the mortise/end of the tenon is irrelevant because that’s never going to be smooth enough to get pressure and again it’s not enough surface area to be significant (don’t tell me endgrain glue is fine — it could be face-to-face glue here but it’s a tiny surface area so it doesn’t matter — the type of grain is irrelevant to whether you need contact). so what we’re ignoring is all the sides that are 1cm x 5cm (5 square centimeters of glue surface) and only focusing on the sides that are 5cm x 5cm (25 square centimeters of glue surface) because that’s where the strength of the bond comes from. so instead of cutting your mortise at 5x5x1, cut it at 5.5x5x1.5. now you can save the vast majority of your perfect-fitting time. and if you have to do eight mortises this means you have just saved two-thirds of your time (at least) on sixteen components being sized properly to fit. it’s way more than two-thirds because if you have three dimensions to correct you’re spending a lot of time trying to figure out which one is off. if only one can be off you just keep smoothing those surfaces until they mate smoothly and it’s done in seconds.
so be obsessive. focus on the details. but focus on the ones that matter. if you’re making stuff for your house, you’ll spend the rest of your life thinking about the things that are hidden, secret, irrelevant but not quite perfect. make it for someone else and they’ll never know, you’ll never remember and happiness will be the dominant feature in your woodworking life. remember why they call it a blind mortise? much like the mice in the story…
cost and reward
this is the other piece of the equation we looked at in the first example. if you’re making a piece for yourself, there’s no financial advantage.
i know what you’re thinking. “if i make this myself, i’m sticking it to the man and not buying their shitty factory-made bullshit disposable furniture.” yup. you can keep saying that. and i bet i’m still more of a communist, anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist than you. maybe not. but i make marx look positively-right-wing and i believe very strongly that profit and greed are the greatest sins in human existence. i’m not going to be arguing for making money any more than i’m going to be arguing for child-sacrifice on altars this weekend. here’s what really happens when you build stuff for yourself…
you think you’re going to build a bookcase that’ll last forever. you don’t want the $100 ikea one. cause it’s a waste of money and i’ll fall apart. so you go to the store and buy $300 of lumber, $500 of tools, $200 of glue, hardware, whatever, stuff you forgot you needed for your shop, etc. and you build it. and you think “yes i spent $1000 but it’s a bookcase i’ll keep for the rest of my life and it’s awesome and i love it”. and two years later you move and you need a different bookcase and that was one you made two years earlier and your woodworking skills have moved on and you see all the flaws and inaccuracies and you gave it to your neighbor for nothing. and yes you still have the $500 worth of tools but you’ve been meaning to replace a few of those planes with nicer ones and … oh, wait, you need a new bookcase so you’ll go down to the store and get some lumber but this time you’re going to do it right so you need better lumber and you need that new backsaw and … and … and … exactly. you’re not really sticking it to anyone. and consumer culture is alive and well. your sales-tax has just funded the building of a new casino and three new lanes on the interstate.
not that you shouldn’t buy nice lumber or good-quality tools. but please don’t think it makes you an anarchist. building your own stuff in our world isn’t going to change the way culture works. we still value things in our society by their novelty, how well they fit the trends of the moment and their aesthetic properties, not their usefulness. a perfectly-functional table that doesn’t look very good will be consigned to the dump but a poorly-made one that’s beautiful will sell in an instant. while all that glitters is certainly not gold, people aren’t looking for gold. they’re looking for gold-plated and we live in that world. you might be happy with your homemade furniture. but you’ll move and have to get rid of it. or you’ll get tired of it — i know you think it’ll make you happy forever but that’s only true if you don’t get better at woodworking and start to think “i should have done that better — i could do it so much better now — i’m so tired of looking at all these mistakes i made!” … and we all do that. i look at things from even a few years ago and think “i know what i’d have done differently that would make that piece awesome af” and … i give it away and make it again.
so what’s a better model? be reasonable about your prices. make stuff for friends. give them good deals. even just do it for free and have them buy the materials. your cost is nothing. your time is enjoyable. now you’re not paying to woodwork. you’re offloading all the cost on someone else and they’re happy cause they get beautiful furniture for a fraction of the price of actually paying for it at a custom shop. maybe they want a nice slab table. ok, they can go and get one for two-grand at the shop down in the artisans’ district. or you can take them to your local hardwood dealer and pick up a beautiful piece of 100mm-thick walnut for four-hundred. you ask them for a few hundred to pick up a better router and a flattening bit and another couple for the wood for the legs and construction lumber for a flattening jig. you might end up spending a little on consumables but look at what you’ve just done — you’ve provided your friend a beautiful piece of furniture, guaranteed yourself weeks of shop-time without the pressure of having to make something for yourself or your family that has a firm time-commitment attached and you’ve built up your tool inventory that you’ll be able to use for the next project. you’re happy. your family’s happy. your friend’s happy. and you’ve just accomplished a beautiful project and learned some valuable new skills you can probably charge real money for next time you use them. this is a better model. you’ve gone from t to gt in a single step. (if you don’t drive, this joke is lost on you. i’m sad for you.)
these last two reasons mostly work out to be the answer to simple questions — why are you woodworking? and what do you want to get out of your shop-time in return for what you put in? we’ll quickly tackle the first here. don’t worry. these aren’t afterthoughts but they’re not huge discussions.
you’re probably woodworking for one of three reasons…
- you love making things with wood
- you love designing and completing projects
- you want to make a career building things from wood and selling them
there are other potential reasons but i suspect, even if it’s another reason, at least one (and possibly more than one) applies.
if you love making things with wood, you need a continuous supply of projects. we’ve already seen why you, your wife and your immediate family are the worst possible clients you could be building for. you might still think it’s ok to make stuff for yourself but your house really only needs so many beds, bookcases and dining-tables. probably three or four, six or eight and one, maybe two, in that order. this won’t take you the next three or four decades to build. you’ll run out of stuff to make. so you’ll start making new versions and get rid of the old ones. and the cost will continue to be something you absorb. woodworking is only an expensive hobby if you’re the one paying for it.
if you love designing and completing projects, much the same thing will happen. this is the area i most-solidly fit in. i don’t actually like the process much — practically-speaking, it’s the teaching i enjoy more than the doing — but i love designing, prototyping, refining and finally seeing my designs in-real-life. it makes me smile every time. even if it takes me a month to get there — and i likely have more shop-time than most hobbyists for obvious reasons. i also don’t have children. thank fuck. or, as the case may be, thank no-fuck. but that’s a subject for another day. the upshot is you’ll have the same problem. you’ll run out of pieces to build and there are only so many times you can replace your dining-table before it starts to feel gratuitous.
if you want a career in woodworking, this is even more obviously a problem. make stuff for yourself?
well, the answer is word-of-mouth. whether you want to build things because you love the process, design and build because you love the outcome or make things for a living, you need a source of audience (clients). the only way you’re going to get this is by having people recognize that you’re a woodworker — not a hobbyist they come to when they break their chairs and footstools but someone who actually builds serious furniture they custom-request. you might do it on-the-cheap. you might do it on-the-free. or you might gradually start charging industry prices. whatever your financial model, this is a more sustainable way to do it. and if you start by making things for others you give them plenty of time to talk about it. their friends will notice their new furniture. they’ll ask.
you’ll start getting inquiries — a few at first but as you get hundreds of things out there in your local market i promise you’ll start hearing from more and more people. nobody’s more excited than to share their new, beautiful things. they’ll stick your work on instagram and facebook and talk about you on whatever platform that stupid bird is singing on this year. they’ll do your marketing. and marketing, even if you’re not trying to sell anything, is important. build for other people and it’ll probably cost them at least the value of the materials and you’ll get to do your hobby without all the overhead. it’s a win for everyone. make shit for yourself and it’s a loss for you, your bank-account and your stress-level.
from a practicality perspective, the question is what do you want to get from your shop-time? you know what you’re putting in. time, money, effort, practice, experience. the other side of the equation might just be enjoyment. it could be profit. it could be fame. maybe many things. but you need to have an answer to this question. you’re investing a lot — potentially, if you’re building for yourself, a shitload of money in tools and materials, possibly tuition and training, too. once you have an answer, you can try to figure out what the most sensible way to achieve it is with a reasonable amount of input.
let’s say you want enjoyment. does it matter to you who the piece is for? probably not. well, build it for someone else and let them shoulder the majority of the cost. same enjoyment, fraction of the financial commitment and the added benefit of helping someone else get something beautiful in their life.
what if you want profit? well, you’re going to have to build something to sell. that’s an easy one.
if you want fame, again you need lots of practice. that means more time in the shop. and the only way you’re going to be able to afford that is by making sure the financial outlay for each new tool purchase or trip to the hardwood-dealer or lumberyard doesn’t empty your bank-account.
i think the equation is pretty clear here. you want to minimize the financial side of the investment for the maximum possible outcome — enjoyment, money, whatever else you’re looking to get.
woodworking as a hobby is a zero-sum game. you put in an investment of time, effort and money and get something else back. usually enjoyment. you might get profit but the really-important thing for most of us in the community here is to enjoy it. the problem is that we’ve been told it’s not just inherently-dangerous but unavoidably-expensive. and that’s simply not true. woodworking for most of us can be done relatively cheaply, even with nice, new tools and high-quality lumber. we’ve just been told we should treat this as an extension of the diy/maker movement and that’s a silly, unsustainable approach. we need to offload the expense on others and reward them for their support with our best work, producing the furniture they want for what should be a reasonable level of financial commitment from them. you might never charge anything more than the cost of materials for your projects — and that’s totally reasonable. but the cost of materials is often far more than you can afford to spend without them and far less than what they’d have spent going to anyone who’s charging them enough to put in time and make profit.
so you might never have thought about this equation of cost-to-enjoyment before. and now you have. my work here is done. may your woodcurls be happy, your bench be flat and your blades be screaming-sharp. thanks for reading!