Canadian Woodworking

Learning when to say no

Blog by Rob Brown
Secretary desk

I went to Conestoga College in Kitchener, Ontario, right after high school, taking their three-year Woodworking Engineering Technology course. After working in a few small shops making kitchens and built-ins, I got a job engineering furniture for a medium-sized office furniture company, and spent a few years sitting behind a computer, drawing and making cut lists. It eventually became so mind-numbing that I had to quit. I started my own woodworking business making custom furniture and refinishing furniture for customers. Taking a decent cut in pay, losing any long-term stability I had and forcing me to work much longer hours were in the “con” column, but loving Mondays and truly enjoying my work motivated me quite a bit.

A lot of older pieces of furniture came through my shop to be fixed and refinished. I quickly learned there was often a door of an old china cabinet or a leg of a favourite chair that needed to be repaired. It was a lot of work picking up and delivering pieces of furniture all over town, not to mention doing the actual repair jobs, but I was actually making a small amount of money, and (barely) paying my bills on my own watch.

Finally, a good paying job

Neighbours of mine approached me about making a kitchen for them. They had just moved around the corner and needed a nice set of cabinets to complete their house. This was great, as it meant less driving around town scrambling for work, as well as a larger financial reward. People will pay more for kitchens than for the equivalent hourly wage to fix old pieces of furniture. I told them I’d be happy to help them out.

A bit of foreshadowing here. I knew very well that this couple was very picky, and keen on perfecting every detail that went into their house. But optimistic me thought this was great, as “custom” was what I was good at, and this meant a decent wage would be paid.

Sort the details

I got to work on drawing the kitchen in AutoCAD, then pricing it out. This was a big jump for me, as I was always the builder, not the behind-the-scenes person. There were two parts to this kitchen: one small pantry wall with a few pull-out drawers and adjustable shelves; and the main part of the kitchen. Because they wanted storage quickly, we decided to tackle the small pantry area first, then do the other 90% of the job afterwards. Drawings were made, then adjusted, then re-adjusted, all while trying to keep the customers happy. It started to take up a lot of my time, and because we didn’t have a final design for the pantry wall, I couldn’t actually start to build anything.

A small detail I remember was when we were talking about the ballpark price, and what I could do for them in general. “Why would we hire you if we could get the kitchen somewhere else for cheaper?” they asked. Looking back, I should have known this job was doomed, but I really needed the money.

Days went by before we finally came to a design they liked. I immediately got to work making all the pull-outs and shelves, as well as the pair of white melamine cabinets to house them.

A few days later I was onsite to install everything. It went well. The cabinets fit in place, pull-outs and shelves fit nicely, and trim was installed to complete the look. I hadn’t made the doors yet, as I wanted to do that aspect of the pantry wall at the same time I made the doors for the rest of the kitchen. This was to ensure the finish and the construction details were exactly the same.

That pantry took about five times more work to compete than it should have. The customers were very picky, and flip-flopped on virtually every detail possible. It was a bit frustrating, but I figured this was all part of the process.

Next, the kitchen

It was at this point we started to talk about the kitchen design. They wanted this, that and the other, then changed their minds. New drawings were made, new changes were made, then drawings were adjusted again and re-sent. This only brought on more changes, of course. The cycle continued. A few of the changes made sense, but the vast majority made no sense whatsoever, or were so tiny and useless they shouldn’t even have been worried about.

It was at this stage we started talking about the finish. The doors and trim were going to be red oak, and the clients had floors they wanted me to match. The floors were a rich, medium-dark brown. The clients told me this was their absolute favourite colour, and the kitchen needed to match this colour perfectly. To add some clarity to the discussion, they also showed me a sample board they had that they described as their very least favourite colour. They really disliked this colour, and wanted me to stay very far from it. I looked at the sample board beside the finished floor colour and paused. My blood pressure surely rose. The “ugly” sample board and the “beautiful” floor were virtually the same colour. Sure, the wood grain caused one to be slightly different than the other, as wood isn’t homogeneous. I just nodded and retreated to the shop to continue working on the kitchen design and ponder how I was going to keep this couple happy.

During the next day I realized I might be crazy. Even if I were able to perfect the kitchen design and do the impossible with the finish colour, I was surely going to fail to meet the clients’ expectations in some other aspects of this large job. On the other hand, I really needed the money. It was a huge risk either way.

Over the next day I contemplated the pros and cons of this job. Impossible clients versus getting paid a decent amount of money. I eventually came to the realization this job was doomed. I would rather do nothing and earn nothing, than work like a dog on what was a doomed project for nightmare clients and earn little to no money in the end. I told them, and they weren’t impressed, but life goes on. Looking back on that job almost 20 years ago I think I made the right decision. I didn’t lose any more money to those clients, and I was able to go on to further my career in other ways. However, a big part of me would love to see the kitchen some poor cabinetmaker eventually installed, and talk to them about how the clients were to work for. But let’s be honest – I never want to set foot in that house again.

Standard Boxes

All kitchens I built were custom, but the differences between them were few and far between. Kitchen cabinets are essentially boxes of standard sizes, with doors, drawers, shelves and some trim to finish them off. I found customers will pay a higher hourly wage for a kitchen than they will for most other pieces of furniture.

Rob's kitchen cabinets

A Different Approach

Once I stopped working on the nightmare kitchen, I was able to promote my custom furniture pieces. I really enjoyed it and was very motivated to succeed in that field. This secretary desk was one of the first commissions I received once focusing on furniture. It even ended up in the Apr/May 2007 issue of CW&HI.

Secretary desk
Last modified: May 15, 2022

Rob Brown - [email protected]

Rob is a studio furniture maker and the editor at Canadian Woodworking & Home Improvement. Instagram at @RobBrownTeaches

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