Saturday, February 13, 2016

An Open Letter To People Who Want To Hire Others To Build Stuff For Them

An honest question, here: Why is it that if someone wants to have some work done around the house and can't do it themselves (whether it's a case of not enough time or that they don't know how to do it or simply don't have the tools), they are comfortable having contractors give them a bid/quote and don't go off the deep end when that bid/quote is presented to them, yet when they want something custom built by a woodworker they raise a tremendous fuss when the price is quoted to them?

Both situations are very similar in a lot of ways. With both the contractor and the custom woodworker, the potential client checks the references, past work, weighs the time-frame he says he'll have it done in, the price quoted, etc., and then make their decision based on that. However, with a contractor, it is understood that not only is there the price of materials involved in such a bid, but that the cost of labor, time, craftsmanship, and experience play as much, if not more, of a role in the final price as anything. Yet with a custom woodworker, people don't take any of those things into account, as if it doesn't matter or is totally irrelevant to their situation. I think it has as much a role as anything else, if not more so.

Think about it. The custom woodworker is approached to build something nice, usually out of solid wood. and usually with the prospective client only having a vague idea of what they want it to look like or what they want it made out of. Making it usually takes time, sometimes hours, sometimes days, sometimes even weeks or months. There is a lot of skill involved in turning a chunk of wood into something nice. There's also the tools involved and the dangers that go along with them, the delivery of the finished product, the cost of finishing, and a host of other miscellaneous expenses involved. Yet if you don't quote them a price that falls right at the amount the wood costs, they go crazy and start lecturing you on how they can get it cheaper at one of the Big Box stores (more on that later).

Not only does the custom woodworker have to build something, they have to sand the wood to get a nice surface for finishing. They have to clean off any glue that has squeezed out so as not to ruin that finish. They have to account for wood movement. They have to be certain that any joints go together nicely and that they will hold together for a long, long time. They have to clean up any tearout of the woodgrain. They have to make sure their work area is climate controlled (to a large degree) so that the finish cures properly. They have to go pick up materials for the project, bring them to their shop, cut and shape them, and dispose of any leftover pieces that can't be used in the future. They have to sharpen and maintain their tools, purchase screws, nails, glue, sandpaper, and heaven knows what else. The list goes on and on.

I know people are in what I call the Big Box Store mindset, and I certainly don't begrudge anyone from shopping around for the best deal or price. If there's anything distinctly American, it's the penchant for finding the best deal possible. But that's not what this is about. What it is about is people who think, for whatever reason, that unless the cost that is quoted to them is just a few pennies above the cost of materials, then somehow they're getting screwed over and taken advantage of.

If you're one of those people, let me explain something to you. Wood is not cheap. Neither are the tools it takes to turn that wood into something useful. And how can you put a price on skill, craftsmanship, and experience? You can't.

Yes, more often than not you can go to one of the chain stores and buy that same bookshelf or entertainment center for a lot less. But look at what you're getting. It's cheaply made, out of cheap materials (usually compressed cardboard, cheap plywood, or MDF), and it's not designed to withstand the test of time. It usually is something that you have to put together yourself, held together by screws and other various kinds of hardware. It's meant to be built, put in its place, and then never, ever moved. If you take exceptional care of it, it could last you a few years, certainly. But is it something you can pass down to your children, or their children? Most likely, no. It's massed produced, usually overseas, and when the time comes that it needs disposed of (and that time will come, you can count on it), it goes to your landfill and sits there, slowly rotting and releasing who knows what kind of chemicals and pollutants into the environment.

That same bookshelf or entertainment center, when built by a custom woodworker with experience and skill, will almost always be made personally by him alone, and out of solid wood. There are exceptions, don't get me wrong, where a customer will ask for plywood with a veneer or something like that, and that's fine, but usually that is the exception, not the rule. This craftsman will devote many hours, days, weeks, maybe even months, to your project. He will design something and work with you to make certain it's what you want, help you pick the materials and the finish, and usually load it up and deliver it to you once it's complete. He'll build something for you that you can proudly display in your home, knowing that it will be there long after you and he are both gone, and that your children will enjoy it and pass it down to their children, and maybe even their children.

He does all of this not out of the goodness of his own heart, he does it for the financial reasons (we're talking not about the hobbyist, but the serious woodworker, the people who do this for a living or, at the very least, to make some extra money to buy new tools and stuff). Yet people behave as if some sort of crime has been committed because the craftsman had the nerve to make a profit.

It's a curious situation in that you rarely see or even hear of others in similar lines of work getting this type of response. You shop around for the best price, naturally, but when you are hiring someone to make something for you that you can't make yourself (whether it's that you don't have the time, the tools, or the skills), of course it could get expensive. Believe me, the custom woodworker wants your business. He wants to build something nice for you, and he doesn't take any great joy in quoting you a price that you cringe at. He does, however, take great joy in that he has made something that you are happy with. He loves the fact that he's made something for you that will be enjoyed for years -- maybe even decades! -- to come by you and your posterity.

Yes, there are some scam artists out there who will slap some wood together with some nails or screws, call it a coffee table, and take you to the cleaners, but that's why you check references and stuff like that. If he's good and his creations are worth it, you will never regret paying for it.


Unknown on February 13, 2016 at 10:06 PM said...

Brian. I am not a "custom woodworker" I am a wood artist, I don't claim to have a ton of experience and I often understate my skill level. Like you I face this kind of problem frequently. My solution is to happily explain that the potential "customer" is welcome to shop around, and, on occasion, when a particularly trying individual comes back I simply refuse to do the project. I retain the right to refuse service. This does not happen often, thankfully. My point is if you don't like my price then you probably didn't want my work in the first place. There will always be other customers.

Brian's Workshop on February 13, 2016 at 11:24 PM said...

I don't claim to have a bunch, either, and I do try and explain to them that there are costs involved besides the price of the wood, and that what I'm building will be made to last, etc. I try, basically, to give them reasons why they should pick me over the big box stores or places like that.

If you follow me on Facebook, you'll see that a few weeks ago a lady contacted me about a simple pot rack for her kitchen. Basically just a dowel rod, with colored tape and some s-hooks. Nothing seriously involved, and anybody could easily do it in an afternoon. Materials would have been about $20, so I quoted her $30, because I would have to spend my time getting the materials, driving over to her house, taking an hour (if that) to make and install it, and so on. I don't think a $10 profit was too much to expect (in fact, I thought I was giving her a very good deal in the hopes she liked my services and would either hire me again or recommend me to others). What happened? She freaked out about it. Probably just as well, haha.

Brian's Workshop on February 13, 2016 at 11:26 PM said...

The entire point of the article, though, was wondering why we (as woodworkers) get this so often. I can't figure it out, to be honest....people accept that when they hire someone to, say, build a garage or an addition to their home, there's going to be a lot more than the expense of the materials, so why do they flip out over having someone build, say, a dresser or a table?

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