I frequently get emails from people who are interested in becoming a furniture maker or have recently started a furniture making business and are wondering if I would be willing to give them some advice. Usually they ask a very broad question along the lines of “What do I need to know to become a successful a furniture maker?”
My first thought is always a joke my father used to tell.
Question: How do you end up with a million dollars in the dairy farming business?
Answer: Start out with 2 million dollars.
Furniture making is tough way to make a living. The start up costs are high (tools, shop space, materials) and there is a lot of very good competition (see https://www.vermontfurnituremakers.com/ for some of the competition in Vermont alone) and a lot of very cheap competition (China, Indonesia, etc.).
When someone dreams of becoming a furniture maker they are probably dreaming of working in their own shop making their own furniture designs out of beautiful lumber with all the tools they need. Certainly there is that aspect to it (which is very satisfying) but there are a lot of other aspects that are often overlooked.
I think the most important skill needed to become a successful furniture maker is the ability to sell your furniture. After all, if you can’t sell it you’ll very quickly run out money and have to get a “real job”. Don’t think that just because you’re making really nice furniture it will sell itself. When you’ve finished that really nice dining table it will just be a really nice dining table sitting on the floor of your shop. It will not sell itself.
There are many approaches to selling your furniture. Many furniture makers get started by making pieces for family and friends and letting word of mouth sell their furniture. This is certainly the least expensive method but can take quite a while to build up.
You can sell through galleries. If you can find a gallery that will display your furniture and they manage to eventually sell it the gallery will typically take at least 40% of the sale price as their commission. That adds a lot to the cost of your furniture. A piece that you need to get $1000 for will need to be priced at $1700.
If your shop is in a good location you may be able to get enough traffic to be able to sell through your own showroom at the shop. Usually if this is the case then shop rent will be much higher than it would be in a less desirable location.
Since the advent of the internet most furniture makers now have a website that they use to help sell their furniture. This can be extremely effective but building a good website takes a lot of time and knowledge if you do it yourself and can get very expensive if you hire someone to do it for you.
There is also newspaper and magazine advertising, direct mailing of postcards and catalogs, radio advertising and craft shows.
None of these approaches is a silver bullet that will solve your marketing problems so that you can forget about it and just make furniture. Selling is a fact of life if you’re a furniture maker. And in addition to selling you’ll need to learn about taking photos of your work (or pay to have them taken), accounting, doing drawings (most drawing is done with CAD these days), writing effective copy for ads, websites, brochures etc.. The number of different skills that a successful furniture maker needs is almost limitless but, for me, that is what keeps things interesting. There is always something new to learn.
Richard Bissell builds Shaker Furniture in Putney, Vermont