Personal woodworking will do double or even triple duty if you use it to promote your shop's unique craftsmanship
As a woodworking writer, I make money primarily with words, not finished items from my shop. But before making those words, I still have to get out in the shop and make finished items, which, admittedly, I sometimes also sell. How I make these items, which then leads to writing articles that are ultimately sold, is the key to continuing my career as a woodworking writer. Made the right way, these items can contribute to my bank account not once, but several times.
Ideally, I can propose a project article to a magazine for something we need for our home. As an example, we need a lamp table for our living room. A typical piece like this of the size we need, if made well with quality materials, would cost several hundred dollars. If I make it myself, it's far less expensive; further, if I make it as the basis of a published article, it doesn't cost me a penny. In fact, it's better than free, since I actually get paid for making something for myself. I might even be paid a bit extra for materials.
There are several benefits here: we get the needed lamp table without paying for it, thus lowering household expenses. What I get paid for the article goes into our bank account. The piece goes into our living room. By thoroughly documenting that table with professional-quality photos of the finished piece, it becomes a living advertisement for my work and thus can help me get more paying assignments.
But wait. You're not a writer, so how does this apply to you? Except for the writing part, everything is exactly the same and it can benefit your bank account as easily as mine. I can't think of any professional woodworker who doesn't cut home-furnishing and other costs by doing some personal woodworking from time to time. The trick is to find a way to merge personal woodworking with your professional offerings.
For the home
The next time you make something for yourself - and you know you will - give serious thought not only to what you need the piece to be for your personal use, but how it could potentially fit into your product line. It doesn't really matter what it is - a piece of furniture like my lamp table, new cabinets for your kitchen or a jewelry box for your daughter. Consider every piece you make to be a potential prototype and a sales tool for attracting potential customers.
Consider, too, making personal items that reflect your professional offerings. If you're thinking of adding a particular style or design to your product line, make something in that design or style for yourself first. Don't need new cabinets or a new piece of furniture? Sure you do. Our home is nicely furnished, but there's nothing in it that couldn't be replaced with something nicer and I'm betting your home is the same.
And if you want to try out a new design or offering for your product line, but you really don't need anything new for your home, consider letting one of your employees make the item as a prototype he can use in his home. Work on the design with him and let him do most of the work on shop time; set up whatever arrangements you want for the materials. You get many of the same benefits as making the item for your own home and a very happy employee.
Whatever the item is, make it very well. Don't cut corners just because it's something for yourself or a co-worker. Then, before you put it into service, have some excellent photography made of the finished piece. As a representation of your work, at the very least these personal items might pay for themselves; with luck, they may pay for themselves many times over.
Speaking of prototypes, do you make them? If you don't, you should. I frequently do a full- or partial-scale prototype of a piece to check feasibility and make final changes to a design, using junk wood that can be dismantled and reused. For a lot of prototypes, I don't bother with final details like finishing. However, sometimes I'll use good wood and include those final details - it really doesn't take that much longer - and even though I'll still go on to make the "real" piece, that prototype is nicely done and suitable for sale or other use.
If you make prototypes for new pieces, at the very least it's a business expense you can deduct. Make it nice enough in its own right to become an item for sale and it directly benefits your bottom line.
And if you've gone so far as to make a nice-looking prototype, even if you have no interest in selling it (it may not match your product line or you're not interested in selling a one-off item), it's a perfect item to give as a gift. You may not often give gifts as expensive as handmade furniture, but since your prototype has already served its original purpose, in a second life as a gift it costs essentially nothing. You've not only already paid for it, but it's already paid for itself.
Gifts that keep giving
And let's take another look at making personal woodworking items as gifts. Everything above still applies. No matter what it is, design and build it with an eye to being a potential product offering. It's a gift, so naturally you'll do your best work. But before you put on the wrapping paper, photograph it and add it to your catalog, Web site or portfolio, or put it in your free brochure. You were already going to make the gift, so why not make it pay?
Do you do charity work? Your first response to that might be no, but if you've ever donated something you've made to your local church, a fund drive, an auction or even to the children's section at your local library, you've made a charitable donation. Of course, you've made these donations for altruistic reasons, but they're still fully deductible at the price you would have charged if you had sold it. In most cases, you'll be credited publicly for your donation, which is better than free advertising for your business. In some cases, say building kitchen cabinets for your church or donating some small worktables to the children's room at the library, the recipient will frequently affix small brass plates to each piece stating something like, "This table is a gift of XYZ Custom Furniture." These items will be seen hundreds of times by potential customers and often constitute a permanent source of free advertising.
As discussed earlier, I can't stress enough that you should always have professional photography made of any finished item you give away, no matter who you give it to or what the purpose of the gift was. If the items reflect your usual offerings, they'll fit right in with your portfolio or the gallery section of your Web site. If they're quite different from what you usually make, even better: They show another aspect of custom work available from your shop, increasing your potential customer pool.
The key in all of these ideas is to make personal woodworking do double or even triple duty. You're going to make personal items anyway, right? The smart way is to make them as just another aspect of your professional work.
A.J. Hamler is a freelance writer and former editor of Woodshop News and lives in Williamstown, W.Va. He writes a twice-weekly blog at www.woodshopnews.com.
This article originally appeared in the March 2010 issue.