Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Lessons Learned The Hard Way

I recently completed a commissioned project that, much to my chagrin, taught me a few lessons when it comes to doing woodworking for pay.

A lady contacted me for an "L"-shaped desk for her craft room (video is here). After discussing the basics of what she was looking to do, I went over to her house, took some measurements, and discussed in more detail what the desk was going to be used for. This was so I could get an understanding of how it should be built and what it would have to withstand in its day-to-day use (and abuse).

I went home, priced some materials, did a few sketches, figured out the joinery, and so on, and then went back over to her house to present her with the plan and a couple of quotes based on different materials (I priced oak, maple, pine, hickory, and even plywood). She decided on the pine option, as she was going to have me paint it anyway. We looked over the sketches, and I got her final approval (and a deposit), so I went home and got to work.

It didn't take long before the messages started coming in, asking for changes to the design. At first, it was a concern about the height of the desk. She had initially said she wanted it at 27 inches, but after thinking it over for a bit, she decided that perhaps that wouldn't give her enough leg room, so she asked for it to be 30 inches tall, instead. Since I hadn't started on the legs yet, I said it would be no problem, and that was my first mistake. By agreeing to the late change, I opened the floodgates to further design changes down the road that would, unlike this change, delay the completion of the project, set my schedule back (which interfered with other projects I had lined up), and ate into my time.

By the second day, she had contacted me asking for that the corner piece be a stand-alone unit, also. When I showed her the plans, I offered her the option of having it a table in and of itself, or it could just be a top that dropped into place and bolted to the other two portions of the desk. She opted originally for the dropped in unit, but now she had decided that she wanted it to be its own table, as well. So that meant making more legs and adapting the already-constructed top to take them. That wasted another day of my schedule.

On the fourth day (remember, if I had been able to stick to the plan, this would have been the final day and would be ready for delivery) she contacted me yet again. She had asked me to send pictures as the build progressed, and I did that. When I presented the plans to her, there were rails/stretchers under the table tops, but she decided against those, citing the leg room concern. I had told her that without them, the drawer runners would be exposed and there would be a certain loss of sturdiness and stability to the overall tops. She said she understood. Now, having seen the pictures, she decided I was right, and asked that I at least put a rail/stretcher on the portion with the smaller drawers. Since the runners were already glued and screwed in place, I couldn't remove them without damaging what I had already built, so I had to come up with a workaround plan, which I did. It took me another day, basically, to complete this simple task. Had I been allowed to just do it from the start, it wouldn't have taken any time at all.

On the fifth day, she decided she wanted a special kind of paint, instead of the semi-gloss white I told her I had on hand, so I had to go get it. And this is where I decided it was time to stop this endless changing of the plan. I told her, as politely as I could, that after I had the paint, I would do no more alterations to the plan. Once I started the painting, I was not going to cut back into the wood to add or remove something from the desk. That, as they say, was that, and I finished it up five days after I started, and delivered it the next day.

The entire project was supposed to take me three days, four at the very most, but by allowing her to make changes to the plan, I ended up extending the build time to five days, plus an extra day for painting and allowing it to dry. It set me back in my schedule, as I have other projects lined up for people that I was supposed to start on after this was complete. So I learned my lesson: once the plan is finalized and the deposit paid, make it abundantly clear that once that first cut is made, no more changes will be allowed to the project from that point on. In doing so, you allow the customer to eat into your precious time and your costs could very well rise. If you have set the price in stone, that means your profit will fall as a result. I was fortunate in that I did tell her early on that this was merely a quote, that the final price could be higher (it was, but that was due to her changes, not due to my actual figuring the cost of materials).

Your time is probably your most valuable commodity. I spent about 60, perhaps even 70, hours on this project, and even though I made a decent profit on it, it certainly wasn't enough to pay me for the amout of time I spent on it. It's just me in my shop, and in order to make it worth my while, I either have to charge more or crank out projects as fast and as efficiently as I can, or a certain combination of both. By allowing her to dominate my time, it seriously impacted my bottom line when I did my week-ending analysis. My original plan, as I said, was to do her project and immediately move on to a less-involved project, thus completing two in one week. Those two combined would have paid enough to make it worth my time, but spending the entire week on one project, and only getting paid for one project, made it not really worth the effort.


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