Update: So You Want to be a Furniture Maker?

One of our most popular blogs ever was the 2009 entry titled “So You Want to be a Furniture Maker?” by Richard Bissell. The article has garnered thousands of views, so we thought we would check in with Richard to see what he’s learned in the last 7 years for an update.

Below is the original piece with the updates inset.

So You Want to be a Furniture Maker?

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 and a lot of very cheap competition (China, Indonesia, etc.).

Update: “The furniture market  is very competitive, even for custom furniture, and as the cost of computer controlled machinery continues to decline more and more small shops will be using them. I think, in the end, what’s most important is the design of a piece of furniture.  My joinery has not changed at all. I still use predominantly mortise & tenon and dovetail joinery.  What has changed is how I cut those joints and how quickly and accurately they are cut.”

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.

Update: To improve his own work, and to be more competitive in the market, Richard is always on the lookout for advancements to his shop. He said, “I now have 2 computer controlled machines: a tenoner (bought in 2011 that has about a 5 minute learning curve) and a router (bought in 2015 and has about a 5 year learning curve). I’ve spent the last 9 months learning how to use the router and associated software and am now feeling relatively proficient for a beginner.  Many traditional small furniture makers view machines like these as “cheating” or “having a robot make your furniture,” but I don’t agree with that sentiment at all.  They are no more cheating than using a table saw as opposed to a hand saw is cheating. I find they give me the ability to focus on the design of a piece without having to concern myself so much with the limitations of what can be competitively made with more limited machinery.

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.

Update. Richard invests his time by learning these skills himself. Richard said: “I’ve done a major upgrade to my website (I do my own web design work) that updated the design and usability as well as added larger & more photos & customer reviews. I’ve also started adding videos into my marketing mix which are taken by a webcam in my shop and edited (by me).” If you have the time to develop these skills, learning to market your own work can be very rewarding and profitable.

There is also newspaper and magazine advertising, direct mailing of postcards and catalogs, radio advertising, social media, 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.

“Update: What I find most exciting about furniture making is solving a design problem (the customer needs a piece of furniture that does…), figuring out the joinery necessary to accomplish that design using solid wood construction (I don’t use veneers) and building the piece in the most efficient way possible.  With the aid of the technologies available now (computer aided design- CAD – and computer aided manufacturing – CAM) I’m able to do this better than ever before and I find that extremely exciting.”

Richard Bissell builds Shaker Furniture in Putney, Vermont


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