Advice Column

I had an enquiry recently about the unfairness of the difference between what a craftsperson would like to be able to charge for their 'one of a kind' creations, taking all their time, materials, creative energy &c. &c. into account, and what they might actually expect to receive in the real world of a small business. It can particularly galling to some to see their immaculate joinery (no screws!), exotic materials and elegant designs apparently worth about the same as (or less than)  a run-of-the-mill piece of reno work - perhaps with a couple of new windows, a bit of drywalling, a new outlet or two and maybe a new carpet.

I was tempted to reply as follows:

I'd say that the feeling that one is not being adequately rewarded (in $$) for one's work is fairly universal among studio/art furniture makers, certainly in the earlier stages of a newly established business. Woodworking talent is a not-very-hard-to-acquire skill, (design talent is another matter, and hard to measure), so there's always competition for commissions.  Custom-made studio furniture is a luxury - I don't think that I've ever made a dining table for someone who didn't already own a perfectly serviceable table. 

Ernest Joyce, in a classic book on furniture making, analyses the business side of the art in a wholly practical way: you add your own & your employees' wages to your overheads, add a "normal" profit margin, and that's what you charge.  Otherwise, he points out, you will not be in business for long. 

Realistically, of course, we don't do this. We work out of our homes, ignore (when possible) overheads like tool maintenance, truck repairs, workshop fire and liability insurance, pension plans, dental plans, holiday pay, Workers' Compensation, training  and professional development, and the divers other standard perks of regular employment. Then we  put our heads firmly into the sand when it comes to honestly performing the simple arithmetic of adding up ALL the hours worked on a project, and dividing that into whatever is left after paying the immediately pressing bills, in order to calculate our own (true) hourly wage. Joyce was right: relatively few craftspeople persist in this folly. If they stay with the craft at all, they move to more lucrative woodworking endeavours - kitchens, architectural joinery on luxury homes, commercial furniture design & production &c., or else they depend upon a consenting partner (as I have) to subsidize their business by working in the regular world for a predictable pay-cheque and benefits.

The romance of the self-employed artist-craftsperson is strong, though; it's a very fine thing to stroll down to one's workshop on a Summer's morning, and plan one's working day with no reference to any outside constraints; to enjoy confidential chats with agreeable clients, work long hours when enthused, take a break and ride your bike to town for a coffee when it's all a bit too much; to look critically but rather proudly at a finished piece, one of those which "came out well", and realize that it was all down to you - the idea, the design, the execution, the finishing — and even the rudimentary business skills which brought a stranger to the point of being happy to pay some money for it.   Not that these privileges are free, though. The less than minimum wage, the dodgy teeth and the rusting vehicle are the price.

All I can really say is that I'd do the same all over again; but then many things have conspired to make it possible. I've always had total support from J.; I've been fortunate enough to work on Saltspring during a long period of growth, with a steady flow of moderately affluent clients moving onto the island, needing furniture for their new homes. In other places, in other economic times, it may well not have worked out.

The easy answer to the question though, is to say that if one wants to make as much as a drywaller, a carpet-layer or a window installer, then perhaps one ought to learn to  mud walls, hammer tacks or install windows. But I doubt that would be in any way a useful reply.