WT261 – Where’s My Money!

Download Mp3

On today’s Wood Talk “Weekend Edition” we’re talking about the value of our work and how we determine it.

Email

Todays show was inspired by an email from Anthony:

I have a questions regarding the monetary value we place on craftsmanship today as opposed to that of earlier generations. Example George Washington paid $145.00 for an ornate secretary bookcase [Mt Vernon virtual tour] in 1797. Aside from the obvious historical value, if simply adjusted for inflation the same item would cost roughly $3,800.00 today[measuringworth.com]. Not an outrageous sum but in all honesty I doubt it could be replicated for 5 times that amount today. It would appear that this kind of hand built quality has become more out of reach than ever before. How do we put a price on the pieces we build that justifies the labor and material but also make them accessible to those that appreciate what we do? Marc how much for that sculpted rocker?

How Can You Support Us?

Use the links on the left and sign up for a recurring donation, kick it up a notch and wear a Wood Talk T-Shirt, or leave us an iTunes Review

16 replies on “WT261 – Where’s My Money!”

Howdy guys. I am as a beginner as it gets. I started making pens, then cutting boards. Now I really want to make things more useful. So, enough of my woodworking history.

I stumbled across your podcast. I have started at the newest podcast and am working my way down the list 8 hours at a time. As I listen to them while at work. And I want to say. I enjoy every 8 hours. It makes my night go by and I have learned a few things. And I get a few chuckles at that. I want to say thank you for your time before I ask any questions.

So, thank you guys for your time and effort to explain things to guys like me.

Bill Stock.

I do the Craft Fair circuit in Michigan.
And outside the fact that 98% of Michigan population are cheap wally world shoppers.
Most people are will look and admire see or ask about the price, then say it is very nice. Walk away as if I flung excrement into their mouths. People don’t get it. the cost of materials, the consumables, the electricity…
and you can’t really educate people who can smell the roasted Cinnamon candied pecans two booths down or get their attention taken away from the excessively zealous reseller hawking some damn pillow made out of bamboo saw dust.

Andrew,

I live in Michigan, I resemble your remark!

Seems it is easier to get people to pay more for food (read organic) they assume is better for them than goods that can be proven to be better. Couple that with a generation or two that was raised on disposable furniture no longer care about heirloom pieces.

Education goes a long way but I’m not so optimistic that society will care.

Pricing woodworking projects is a frequent topic on woodworking podcasts, and I appreciate the in-depth treatment of the subject in this episode. It brings to mind two historical figures. Adam Smith, author of “The Wealth of Nations” and the father of modern day economics, described the “invisible hand” of the marketplace, where a willing buyer and a willing seller find the price point and agree on the value of an object. The true value of a project may only be found in the marketplace, no matter what you feel the value may be. If you don’t agree with the value, don’t sell the project.

The other historical figure is P.T. Barnum, who purportedly said “There’s a sucker born every minute”.

One of the most hurtful insults I ever received was when showing someone a recent custom entertainment center I built to a friend and they said “You know, you can buy that in the store.” After I collected myself I responded with “no, you can’t buy THIS in a store!” You guys have addressed this issued very well. I think the real solution is to educate people on your cost and efforts in making the piece.

I have been woodworking as a hobby for at least 30 years. Many years ago a friend and neighbor ask me to make them a child’s table and chairs like I had made for my children and I thought great, I can do something I enjoy and make money at the same time. The problem was I really didn’t want to make another table and chairs and my friend didn’t understand what materials cost and I assume thought I should work for nothing.
When I was making it it wasn’t fun but felt like a job and I already had a job.
What I learned from that was that for me woodworking is a hobby that I enjoy and I have never sold anything since, however I have given many projects to friends and family and have enjoyed making every one of them .

I have been woodworking since 2002. I began building furniture and trinkets out of tree branches or whats called rustic furniture. It is a tough sell so I evolved into custom furniture. In my area of central Illinois is it the same sort of scenario as in Michigan. But the public is starting to turn the page and they are wanting furniture that will last more than a year like what is purchased at most furniture stores these days. I also have a tough time pricing furniture. I do not advertise other than word of mouth and I am now sooooo busy that I am starting to charge a little more and finally making a profit. What I usually do is take my material costs and up charge that cost by about 50 percent. Then I try to figure how many days that I will have involved with the build. This is easier to do with the more experience you have at building. I then take that time figure and add about 50 percent because I always think that I can get something done faster than I really can. Since I am so busy, if the customer thinks that the price is too high and doesn’t want to pay that amount then I really don’t care. I am done giving my quality away. General contractors in my area make about $40 per hour. Why should I only make $20 per hour?

Very interesting topic. I’ve dabbled in woodworking since I was a kid and first had to carve a pine wood derby car. I acquired tools slowly over time, as need arose. But I never got into serious interior cabinetmaking or furniture building until about 10 years ago. Prior to that I never lived close to any place that sold woods like cherry or walnut or maple, or nice plywood. 17 years ago we moved to where we are now, and we needed furniture. I went to all the furniture stores I could find within a 2 hour drive, and I couldn’t find anything I wanted to buy. There were certainly visually attractive pieces, but they were either poorly crafted solid wood, heavily made oak something or other, or particleboard veneered with something. I wanted attractive, well made, solid wood furniture in something other than red oak.

At one of the furniture stores that sold “kind of good” furniture I asked the proprietor why he didn’t carry anything really nice? We have a lot of professionals in the area, and I have to assume they could afford better quality. His response was “I can’t sell high price point furniture. People just won’t pay for it. Usually, best I can tell, it’s because they’re house-poor. They spent everything they could afford on their McMansion, and so they can’t afford high price furnishings. So, they get the mass produced crap that comes out of all the big North Carolina furniture makers, because it’s a name they recognize and it won’t break the bank. It doesn’t matter whether it will last or not.”

Ultimately I started searching online, and serendipitously discovered Thomas Moser. This was before they had multiple store fronts scattered around the country. Well, both our living room and dining room are filled with Moser stuff, much of it custom as things he had in his catalog were close, but not quite what I wanted. Here we are,many years later, and the furniture still looks like new. I love the warm satiny glow that comes off cherry.

Fast forward a bit. I tried to commission a local “woodworker/cabinet maker” to make some cabinets for me. I asked for quarter sawn white oak, smoked. He came back with a bid for red oak. I said, that’s not what I asked for. He said “Well, you know quarter sawn white oak is going to cost a lot more?” I said yes I was aware of this, and if I’m the one paying for it then what difference did it make? He left, with a promise to get back to me. He didn’t get back to me.

After that I started buying SERIOUS tools and said screw it. From now on, if I want it I’m going to build it. And I have. And occasionally people have asked if I’d build something for them, but I’ve always turned it down. I really have come to appreciate that on the whole people don’t have the first clue how much that nice, pretty tiger maple costs. Or the sapele, or padauk, or ziricote. And I know that they think that, because I’m not doing this professionally my labor charges would be minimum wage.

And yet, somewhere out there, there is a market. But I think you’ve got to somehow become “a NAME”. Now that Sam is passed, “Maloof” is collectible. But, while he was alive he was still just Sam Maloof. I saw an interview once where he talked about the fact that, yes, with the cost of woods going up the way they had, and the time it took to produce his pieces, the “average person” would be priced out of being able to own and enjoy his work. BUT, he said that if someone really wanted a piece of furniture from him, arrangements could always be made, and that he made furniture for some wealthy people, but he also made furniture for people of modest means. Maybe he was always that way. Maybe he came by his largess after he became famous.

But I think about being a “NAME”. Think of the Eames recliner. Bent plywood with a swivel base and some leather. 5000 dollars. It’s been in production how long? 50 years? The price has never come down. Likewise something like the Saarinen tulip table and chairs. Stone tabletop on cast aluminum, and formed fiberglass on cast aluminum. And a dining set for 4 will set you back what, 8-15 thousand dollars. Here again, it’s been in production 50 years or so. But it’s a design that’s attached to a NAME.

Honestly, I don’t know how real, honest-to-god, hardworking, talented, self employed woodworkers make a living. If you don’t have a name, people just don’t seem to be willing to part with the kind of money it takes to build really nice furniture.
There seems to be plenty of money for cars(that are going to break and be replaced), stainless steel kitchen appliances(that are going to break and be replaced), etc. I don’t understand it but I accept it for what it is: nincompoopery.

I’ll probably never sell my Moser furniture, and I’ll never sell any of the stuff I’ve made. I like it too much. It’s timeless in style, it’s beautiful to look at and comfortable to use or sit in. It’ll never break. It’ll never wear out.
I’ll sell my cars. I value my furniture a lot more. But I appear to be rather unusual in that respect.

Our houses are disposable, not multigenerational dwellings that used to be furnished, I gather, with next generations also in mind, stable styles, etc. The advantage to less expensive furniture is that it doesn’t take generations to acquire it and now, unlike say in WWII, when an invading army comes you can take to the road unencumbered by wagons of high value furniture you feel you have to drag along and end up getting bogged down on the road, overtaken or staffed.

Finally, a topic that I really know something about! I majored in economics and I want to pick a bone with the premise of the question.

I think that Shannon came closest to seeing this the way an economist would when saying that we live in a comparatively different world today. When studying wealth, income and inflation, my professor put up this chart on the wall showing comparative differences in price level from year to year (essentially, inflation). He then said that when he was young, he got treatment for a relatively minor respiratory condition. In the 1800s, one would die if he or she was born with that condition. “So,” he said, “for me, the price level is infinite until about 1940.” The point was that intertemporal comparisons are tricky.

To that point, if you actually look at the full measuringworth.com comparison see here:

http://www.measuringworth.com/uscompare/result.php?year_source=1797&amount=145&year_result=2015

You see that the unskilled wage comparison (basically, if that cost were pure labor, what that labor would cost today) price is: $43,800. From that perspective, we’re doing pretty well in modern times if we could get that piece made for $10,000. I’d imagine a bunch of that savings would come from being able to use a planer and table saw as well as the vastly reduced shipping costs for material.

So let’s have a little fun: Whiskey of that period cost $1/gallon which we can know, conveniently, due to the whiskey rebellion. Now, a modern but not great bourbon (I’m going to just go and use Jim Beam here) costs about $60 / gallon. 145 gallons of whiskey equate to a modern day price of $8700! The price level is an average of a huge number of goods. Many goods have gone WAY down in price over time (just look at what a computer with a similar amount of power as your iPhone 6 would have cost in 1980 (more than $100,000).

The idea that the world has stopped valuing craftsmanship is wrong. He’s looking at a piece owned by the wealthiest man in America at that time and something that could not have been owned by the vast majority of the population. While $10000 for Marc’s rocker would be a stretch for most, it is, at least, within the realm of the possible for a much larger swath of the population than washington’s $145 piece. Rejoice, we live in amazing times.

“I think that Shannon came closet to seeing this the way an economist would…”

Them’s fightin’ words! How dare you!

What I’m taking away from this lecture is that when the economy collapses the hand tool users will inherit the earth.

This is my favorite request from people who know I’m a woodworker: “Do you have enough scrap wood to make this?” (shows a picture of floor-to-wall built in bookcase with doors) My response: “Uh, no”

Irregardless, this was a great topic and something that all of us who want to do this for a living wrestle with every time we step into the shop. Thanks!

The problem of people not valuing a craft isn’t just limited to woodworking. As well as being an armchair woodworker, I’m a crocheter and we have the same problems selling things. Most customers see a blanket and want to pay $10 for it, but I see the materials, labor, booth or website fees, etc. that make it worth triple that, minimum. Perhaps our society is jaded by a view that you’re not getting value unless you pay less for something that’s worth more (e.g. using so many coupons an item’s free or almost free). Luckily it seems that there are still at least some of those fine souls who see the value in crafts of all sorts.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.