On a recent flight to and from Denver Colorado for the Open Source Hardware/Maker Summit I finally had some time to myself to sit down and read “Making Things Work: Tales From a Cabinetmaker’s Life” by my friend Nancy R. Hiller.
The book had a great buzz from a lot of my woodworking friends and I bought it as soon as it came out, but with two toddlers and a crazy work schedule it took me a while to find time to read it.
The book was a quick read and provides an unvarnished view of what life is like for a full time cabinetmaker. The highs, the lows, and the brutal realities of making a living as a craftsmen in a world that seems bent on mechanization and disposable goods. Nancy’s stories are touching, personal and entertaining. I feel like I know her as a close friend when in reality I’ve only talked to her a few times online.
If you’ve spent time making money from your craft work, or even just day dreamed about it, it’s a solid dose of reality. The book provides some keen insights and reinforced some feelings I had as well when pricing work and trying to build a business. A living can be made, but it’s not easy and you can’t live on the good feelings you get by owning the process of making. It takes thick skin, determination, luck, business skills and many other traits Nancy has.
After reading Nancy’s book I felt compelled to share a story from my time as a student at NBSS learning some of the life lessons of being a craftsmen — I hope Nancy would approve.
Back when I was a student at NBSS, they would have a student works exhibit at reasonably public location which culminated in an annual giving/alumni/supporter event where donors and art enthusiasts could middle with students, see some of their work and help support the craftsmen and craftswomen associated with the school. The works are usually on display for a couple of weeks and we all had to take turns watching over the displays during the hours it was open.
It was a coordinated volunteer effort and neat to have work on public display in downtown Boston. The vast majority of the folks coming through the store would poke around, compliment the student work and ask a few questions here and there.
Lots of folks expressed the common longing for hand made work, talked about family heirlooms and/or woodworking hobbies.
There were a few outliers that passed through the store and left me with some memorable stories/interactions.
On a busy Saturday afternoon an heavy set middle aged guy came through and was poking around making excessive huff and puff and snort sorts of noises. I knew from a distance he had an agenda.
He poked around at the wares shown in the photos from this post. He motioned for me to come over as he paused in front of this exquisite demilune cabinet. The wood, stone and veneer work was excellent, the inside of the cambered doors have even more details that rewarded anyone who had the chance to see the interior.
He asked me “How much is it?”
I went over to read the card as not all items on display were for sale or some were already sold, but in this case there was a price listed along with details about all the work, materials and finish that went into the piece. The student who made it spent well over 100 hours on this piece and for the effort and result the price was quite reasonable for what it was. (I don’t recall the exact price anymore but it was a few thousand dollars) I know if I were to contract someone doing this longer for a living it would cost twice as much.
I talked to this man about the hand work that went into it, what the school is doing to teach the next generation of craftsperson, the longevity and value of such a piece and how relative to the amount of work and skill that went into it, it’s priced quite fairly. I highlighted the intricate details and selection of wood and hand many hardware etc.
He wasn’t having any of it. He laughed and said “Why would anyone buy this when I could buy something at Ikea for under $500 to do the same thing?”
It was clear this guy had nothing better to do than mess around in this fashion and I wasn’t going to let this joker bait me any further. I tactfully explained how this display was geared toward folks that love and value craft work and moved on to the next customer — thankfully someone with a smiling face who loved traditional hand work.
On a different evening of minding the display a gentleman in his late 30s came in to look around.
He examined many pieces in close detail and seemed to appreciate the work that went into them. He was friendly enough and said he dabbled a bit in woodworking as a hobby and got to talking about the sorts of work I did at the time.
He said he was looking for a couple of solid bookcases. I explained how working with a cabinetmaker or joiner you could really tailor a piece to the style, taste and budget of the customer. He affirmed all the things we talked about with respect to hand work, materials etc. It was looking like this might result in a commissioned piece for me or one of my fellow students…
Then with a straight face he said “If you can do it for cheaper than Ikea, then I’m happy to throw the work your way.” It took a moment to process that and stay composed.
I did my best to explain how the materials alone (and far superior to the pressboard of many Ikea pieces) would cost more than that, let alone the labor and finish work. It seemed odd to me at the time to meet someone who seemed to understand and admire quality yet assign so little monetary value to it.
Not all the memorable interactions at the display were negative either. One afternoon a young guy came in off the street, sat down at a beautifully restored piano and started to play it. Normally they had us politely asking folks not to touch or sit on the pieces but this guy walked in like he owned the place and was an exceptional pianist. I wondered if we were being pranked. The event coordinator from the school talked to him a bit, I didn’t get to hear the conversation but she let him stay and he played for an hour or two and the music helped draw even more folks into the storefront.
What’s the moral of this story? (Or at least my unsolicited advice on similar topics that I felt compelled to share after reading Nancy’s book )
Publicity and exposure are certainly good things to have though I’ve found far more work via word of mouth than I have from any of these sorts of open gallery events. My mentors at the school often said the same thing. There are good people out there who appreciate and are willing to pay for craft work but you have to know how to find them and network with them. The gallery experience allowed me to apply some of what I learned in high school working in retail to deal with the public and applied many of the lessons from my instructors at the school . “Trust your gut” If you get a bad read from someone trying to solicit work from you, its perfectly acceptable to pass on them as well. I know thats hard to do when there are bills to pay and mouths to feed. When you find a great patron or customer ask if they have friends or family who might be interested in similar work.
People skills also help. A little time spent educating the consumer on what hand work really is, the process, the textures, the output, etc all can help as well.
The other hard lesson I can recall from this sort of experience is with how much information you put into a bid. Not related to a gallery event, more from people cold calling/emailing me via the website, I had a few experiences where I went into too much detail itemizing costs, materials, construction details etc (I think I felt like I had to justify it to myself back then) to have them take it to someone else and be undercut — and frankly as someone doing this as an avocation I was not charging as much as I should have and after taxes would have been losing money on the deal.
CYA — Cover Your Ass — make sure any contract templates you use cover you for things like change orders, what you are delivering, payment terms and all that sort of fun business oriented stuff. NBSS overs a very good course on starting and running a small business which covers a lot of that in detail and if it doesn’t sell out I think folks outside of the school can pay for a slot.
In Nancy’s book she does a far better job explaining this sort of thing and in a more entertaining way, so if you read this far into this post I highly encourage you to read “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life” by Nancy Hiller which you can find on her website here or on Lost Art Press’ website here.
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5 thoughts on “Making Things Work: Tales from a Cabinetmaker’s Life”
Bill, what a great recitation of the actual environment in which craft people work. I have heard these stories over and over. Fortunately there are those who realize the worth of the craft. Keep up the good work. rpc
Thank you 🙂
Your every piece is a master example of carpentry. Be it the triangular corner table or the chairs and the best part is your depiction of how the craftsmen shape each piece from scrap to master. The real life incidents and their elaboration as a craftsman in the notes are truly marvelous.
Thank you for the good read. I am just getting into Making Things Work:… and thoroughly enjoying it. Speaking of new books, hows your book about Tage Frid coming along?
sw – Newfoundland
Thank you for the note. The book has been making progress but has been slower going than I would have liked but having two kids in diapers will slow anyone down.