Canadian Woodworking

Hobby to business – what will I build?

Author: Hendrik Varju
Illustration: Mike Del Rizzo
Published: August September 2004
hobby to business
hobby to business

If you are considering the idea of starting your own woodworking business, the first question you have to ask yourself is: “What will I build?”

When someone says that they work as a “woodworker”, it can mean any number of things. A woodworker can be anyone from a person who fires brads into planks to make wooden pallets, to someone who builds fine reproduction furniture. A woodworker can be a person who builds on-site commercial display cases, or someone who builds docks on a seasonal basis. In all of these areas, woodworkers face different opportunities and challenges as they seek to turn their hobby into a rewarding and fulfilling business.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which of these, or other areas of woodworking you choose to work in, as long as it allows you to make a living. Otherwise, your business will soon turn back into a hobby.

Not all of these choices will appeal to you. Some might appear interesting, challenging and rewarding, while others would not inspire you in the least. Before deciding which one(s) to base your business on, you may want to answer the following questions.

Contact with Public

Are you good at dealing with the public? If not, then providing mass produced items for wholesale buyers might appeal to you. You could work away in your workshop, day after day, never having to deal with more than a dozen or so buyers. After working for two weeks or so, you would deliver a large shipment and get paid. Then you would move on to the next batch. Another option, if dealing with the public doesn’t interest you, then you may like the idea of building or installing kitchen cabinetry for large builders. By doing that, it would be the builder who would take orders from the home buyers. You would be free to build the cabinets in your own workshop and install on-site, without having to deal with the end user.

Selling to Public

Are you a good salesperson? If so, you might enjoy selling mass produced items to retail buyers. You might even want to consider producing hundreds (or thousands) of small crafts and selling them at craft shows throughout the province/country. You may even get more pleasure from the direct sales than you do from producing the actual products in your workshop!

Details, Details!

Are you a detail-oriented person? If so, creating one-of-a-kind fine custom furniture might be more your style. But keep in mind that you also need good “people skills” if you’re going to meet with clients and help them design a fine piece of furniture.

If you’re not a detail-oriented person, and prefer the “serves the purpose” method, you might want to focus on “rougher” outdoor projects, where being off by 1/16″ is called “charm” instead of error!

Some Considerations

Some Considerations On-site woodwork and architectural millwork are specialized areas and are quite different from building specific “products” that you sell.

If you have your heart set on building products that you will either sell directly to the public, or wholesale to various stores/galleries, there are only two main ways to make a living at it. Interestingly, these two ways are totally opposite approaches.

One way is to build products that are finer work, and take a long time to build. For these, seek out the clientele that can afford them. Remember, you have to get paid for your work at a high enough hourly rate to make a living at it. I will explain more about setting your shop rate in my next article.

The other way is to build simple things quickly and efficiently, and sell them to those who can’t afford finer work.

Think about the product(s) you want to make, and the clientele that you want to deal with, and decide carefully. Certain products will not command a high price, no matter how much the buyer can afford. For example, you would have difficulty finding buyers for a super expensive paper towel holder made of rare exotic woods. No matter how beautiful and how many hours it may have taken you to build it, not a lot of people value a paper towel holder enough to pay a lot of money for it.

On the other hand, an expensive humidor for a person who already buys very expensive cigars is in a whole other class. Also, items that are presented and sold as gifts for special occasions, such as weddings and anniversaries, command a higher price for sentimental reasons.

Supply and Demand

Another factor to consider is how much competition you will have in your chosen market. For example, if there are already a lot of kitchen cabinet builders in your area, and they all have large production shops with the latest technology, then building one kitchen at a time out of your basement workshop may not be your way to success.

On the other hand, you may be able to discover a niche market that isn’t currently being served. Perhaps you could build custom kitchens for people with various disabilities. The companies that are mass producing kitchen cabinets are unable to respond to such niche markets in a way that you could.

When considering the competition, be careful. When there is no competition for a specific idea or product you might have, it may be because there is no demand! Test the market slowly and carefully before you turn a niche concept into the main basis of your business.

Don't Be (Too) Stubborn

Usually, the people who survive the first few tough years of a new business are people who never give up. However, there’s a fine line between being tenacious in a positive way and being downright pig-headed when your plans don’t yield results.

One of the best pieces of advice that I can give you is this: remain flexible about the kind of work you do.

New opportunities come up all the time. If you ignore them because they don’t quite fit into your business plan, you might be ignoring areas that could offer your business diversity and growth.

If you find yourself routinely turning down a particular type of work, you may want to reconsider. Instead of turning down work you don’t currently offer, start offering the skills and projects that are being asked of you. While not part of my original business plan, I now take on all sorts of “other” work, including: repair, refinishing antiques, on-site finishing, teaching, tool testing, etc.

There may not be enough work in any one of these areas to base a business on, but by combining them all there may be enough work to keep you busy and profitable.

Pay attention to the type of work that people around you are looking for, and see if you are able to provide it.

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