Woodworking Skills In The Real World

Woodworkers Want To Know

Woodworkers often ask me how to make a living out of the shop. This is a short question that requires a long answer. Here, I will give some context of how woodworking skills apply to the real world using my experience as one example. 

In my case, I get projects because of my remodel business. In 1997 I started out as a handy man with no training or skills in the trades and no tools. I had a contractor that guided me and gave me a lot of work for my first year and a half. I read everything that I could get my hands on about remodeling and how-to. I was as passionate and obsessed about remodeling back then, as I am about woodworking now. I soaked in everything and the guys that knew me called me "Sponge Todd."

At the time, I was not even aware of fine woodworking or custom furniture. The highest thing on the skill level chart that I knew of was a trim carpenter. The natural progression in carpentry was to start out as a framer, and then over the years as your skills grew and your body broke down, you became a trim carpenter.

By retirement, you became the legendary trim carpenter that only worked on the high-end homes, showed up and left when you wanted, and was cantankerous. This would frustrate everybody, but you were "the guy," so the clients would never say anything because if they pissed you off enough, it would be time to walk and that would show them because nobody hung crown moulding like you - HA! Well, that is not exactly how it works, but I do know some characters that just about fullfill that scenario.

OK Get To The Point

Replace handrail, bench, and bookcase. Today I looked at a project that is a perfect example of what I want to share. It includes replacing the stair rail, balusters, bench, and bookcase. The challenge is to make them more appropriate for the 1920's style of the house. The floors will also be refinished and that work includes going up the stairs and down the hall. 

This job is perfect for what I do. I don't like new construction, I don't even like doing additions. Most often smaller jobs like this get relegated to the handyman that does not have any sense of design. Typically, they will inflict tasteless work on the house. This type of work can be seen in the photo which was done during a previous remodel. I took this photo for bidding purposes and it is the "Before" image.

The projects I favor are homes from the early 1900's that had some horrible remodel design inflicted on them in the 70's or 80's. I create a remodel that is considerate of the period when the house was first built. My goal is to make the work look more like it was part of the original design.

How Does This All Apply? 

My work relies upon applying the skills that are part of the woodworker's repertoire. Not only that, but I am continually challenged with a variety of situations that require good problem solving skills combined with an eye for design. I have been in the field long enough to know that it is tough to find a contractor that possess both trade skills and design sensibilities. This is my competitive edge as opposed to trying to be cheaper.

I have my own small business because I like having control of the design and building process. I can pick and choose what part of the project that I want to do, but I am not trapped in any single compartment such as framer, sheetrocker, cabinet maker, painter, and so on.

My favorite part of the project is the design process. I don't care if it is designing furniture, a built in, or a remodel, I love the design process. I love hashing out ideas with clients and they enjoy it too. They may or may not have any idea of what they want, but when I get them involved they get excited about the project. If I was just the cabinet maker, a sub contractor, I would never get to partake in the design process as I do now. I would always be building someone else's design.

After the design process the hand skills are applied. I enjoy the mix of cerebral stimulation balanced with the physical aspect. Remodeling is where I first developed my hand skills that I carried into the shop. Granted, using power tools in a remodel is not the same as hand cutting dovetails or carving for a highboy, but don't discount the skills that an individual will develop in my line of work.

Define What You Really Like To Do

Do you like variety and being creative? If you start making furniture how much variety will you have? Not much if you have only a few pieces to offer. Your need for creativity may even feel stifled if you are a slave to making a certain product. My business provides me a continual variety of challenges.

If you have a business that produces cutting boards but want to design a line of Shaker influenced furniture, you will feel like a slave as you churn out cutting boards to fill orders. The point is to be aware of which direction you take your business. 

If you want to build furniture but start doing home repairs, now you become known as a handyman. That is a tough one to get away from.

In many ways I am fortunate, I have enough time behind me that I have built a reputation and I have done various things so I have figured out what I specifically like doing. I enjoy a blend of working in the shop and in the field but I don't like heavy remodels anymore. I enjoy being creative, building with my hands, and providing something that people can use and enjoy for years in their home. This is very satisfying to my mind, body, and spirit.

This is my experience for how woodworking applies to the real world.

The goal of this entry was to provide a context for how woodworking skills can be applied to make a living. I hope this information helps others that may be thinking about moving their career to the shop and are wondering how they will get work or what they will build. It is a very romantic notion that can be disappointing or rewarding if the right decisions are made. 

That is all for now.

Your friend in the shop - Todd A. Clippinger

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