I’ve had an incredible year in the shop. In fact, I’ve had too much of a year in the shop, so I have taken a couple of days off before I re-engage, finish the few projects remaining from 2015, and fully focus my attention on making 2016 bigger and better.
During my time off, I’ve had a chance to think about what I do, and what I’ve learned as I’ve made my hobby self-sustaining. (It’s not profitable yet, but I am at least paying my expenses!)
From every perspective, 2015 was a very, very good year. Here are 13 things I’ve learned:
1. Spreading glue is something I do a lot of … and I thought I was getting smart when I switched from traditional brushes to a silicon brush. After wearing out my forearms brushing for a couple of years, I switched to a rubber roller to spread glue … and it is SO much better. More even. Quicker. Easier. I’ve still got the silicon brush for unusual projects, but my 2″ roller is now my “go to” for glue spreading.
2. There are 3 ways to increase profits: increase volume, increase prices, and decrease expenses. Eventually, you have to do all 3 to be successful. This is simple … but not so easy when it’s just you selling stuff and it’s comfortable to change nothing. Not so easy when you’re selling to strangers, family and friends, from a different location every week. After a lifetime of selling everything from accordion lessons to signs on roller coasters to advertising to custom software, who knew I could sell retail?
3. Buying wood is essential to what I do, and I continue to develop new sources for good wood. In 2015, I used 18 different species of wood. I mainly buy from 4 lumber yards spread around LA, but I’ve bought from 3 others. I’ve ordered over the ‘net from one supplier, and called another directly, to order 3 specific species I can’t source locally. I have also bought wood from guys advertising stuff out of their garage. I have worked with local sawyers with portable mills. When you need a volume of wood at a reasonable price, you’ve got to work at it. Oh, and then you need to understand the cost of the wood you have on hand, so that when you use it, you charge a reasonable price for the end result of all of this shopping for wood. New species used in 2015:
- Caribbean Rosewood
4. There’s nothing like a good tool to make the work go faster and the end result better. I had resisted buying expensive sanders for years … even as I read the reviews telling me that Festool random orbital sanders (ROSs), and the companion “dust extractor” shop vacs were the best. With the constant, uh, observations from Mrs M that I was leaving dust everywhere when I went in the house, I finally decided that getting rid of my old ROSs and replacing them with the Festool sanders that everyone said were the best was the only way to solve the problem. The tools are not cheap, and the HEPA filter
shop vac Dust Extractor was also not cheap … but when used in combination, oh my. What took me so long to fix the problem? If you use an ROS a lot, and you are creating too much uncontained dust, you need to buy Festool. Just do it quicker than I did.
5. I talk about dirty jobs like I’m a Mike Rowe wanna-be (which I am, but I digress). Dust collection is essential in a woodshop, and I definitely reached a point of no return last year: fix the problem, or fill our house & my lungs with dust. I’m happy to report that after using one underpowered dust collection system for many years, I did retire it (well, it quit). I then bought a cheap, used but comparable system as a temporary solution. Finally, I bought a very good system in December that was installed in January. I have now fixed my dust collection problem. It took a lot of research, some expert help, and several nickels, but I got there.
6. You have to see it to work it. Shops are dark until they are properly lit. With the change in the dust collection system, I moved one flourescent strip that will improve light on my tool line, and I’ve added a magnetic-based flex light as well. I need to install one more focused light over the table saw, and then I’ll be able to see everything everywhere while I work, whether the garage woodshop door is open or not, whether it’s daylight or not. And that will be a vast improvement over the way it’s been.
7. In SoCal, most people use garages for things other than storing cars. Our garage hasn’t seen a car for a long time … but it has seen Webelos meetings. Backpack storage. It’s been a way station for the kids’ stuff when they moved. To optimize the space for the woodshop, I’ve had to (shudder) move stuff out of the way, and put long term storage items, or things used once a year, on the top shelf in order to clear space for the stuff I’m using regularly. Sounds simple … but if you keep not using things in the middle of the wall, or right under the workbench, then it’s time to move stuff. Which is now done.
8. Get small. Use cut offs. Part of my great stride in efficiency in 2015 was to standardize many of my approaches: I made most cutting boards using 24″ lengths, for example. That works great, but it does generate a significant amount of odd and ends that are cut off from the longer boards. Further, some 24″ lengths are found to have defects in the middle or the ends resulting in 18″ boards. Or 16″ boards. All of those shorter lengths must be used, or that crash you hear will be another wood cascade getting the better of me. In 2016, I’m going to use up all of my cut offs. Well, maybe not all. But I will use enough that small wooden end pieces under 24″ in length are no longer stored in every nook and cranny I can create or imagine.
9. It’s a big world out there. Think differently. If you only make designs that you like, or would want in your home, then you’ll miss a whole lot of people that want different things (People want different things. Who knew?). In 2014, I learned that people wanted cutting boards for their RVs, so I started making smaller cutting boards. This year, I learned that there’s a world of sizes, shapes & colors out there, and I need to explore them in order to help the most people. The reason I display 80 boards in my booth is that no matter what I do, people are always looking for something different! So … on a good day, I have 20 more boards under the table that may be what they’re looking for.
10. Study your craft. There’s a world of information available if you just look for it. People that only do what they know limit their potential. Do new things. As Morpheus taught us in The Matrix, you need to expand your mind.
11. I’m making several different things now, but people are always asking for different things (cribbage boards I have talked about, but I’ve also been asked to do bar stools, kitchen tables, picnic tables, chair refinishing, bar tops, a “Go” game board, backgammon boards, and more). I’m capable of doing what I’ll call oddball or one-off projects … but I shouldn’t do them. They are a giant time suck for me, and when I do take on a one-off, I seem to never charge enough. Sometimes, I need to be less helpful.
12. When you sell gifts, you’re going to be asked to do custom orders and then ship them. You need to know what shipping costs are up front, and make sure you charge them to people when they order their gifts. Sounds simple, I know, but until you’ve done it, you haven’t done it. Make sure that your sales forms are designed with shipping costs and deadlines prominently displayed, so that you won’t skip over those pesky little details when you’re accepting a custom order.
13. Throw things away. Woodworkers are by their nature packrats … I’ve saved some pieces of wood for years until I find “just the right thing” to make with it. That’s fine … but if the board has a knot, or a crack, or some other defect that means that it can’t be used for food-ready pieces, then get rid of the board now. You don’t have room to store things you can’t use.
I am surprised at how many ideas I have developed for sale in the last year. Here’s a sampling of the new ideas first seen from Mr M’s Woodshop in 2015:
- Engraved Boards
- Bread Boards
- Sous Chef Boards
- Juice Grooves
- Pig Cutting Boards
- Chess Boards
- Bear Cheese Boards
- Building Blocks
- Magic Bottle Opener
- Pizza Server
- Recipe Boards