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Gain cash, personal rewards as a teacher

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Making a living at woodworking has always been a struggle for custom furniture makers. We’re all looking for a way to improve our cash flow, especially during times of economic downturn, and teaching is one such possibility.

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But before one adjusts a business plan to include teaching, there are a variety of things to consider. The two most important questions are: 1) Do you have the personality and organizational skills to teach? and 2) Do you have the time, energy and ability to prepare a proper woodworking curriculum?

My route
After graduating from East Carolina University in 1974, I took an entry-level job with This End Up Furniture Co. in Raleigh, N.C. As one of the company’s more productive workers, well-respected by my peers and employers, I was often chosen to train new workers. Those workers often went on to become some of the most productive and quality-conscious workers in the company.

I started my own woodworking business in 1995. But with no desire to do large production runs or make a variety of items, it has been a struggle to make ends meet.

In 2002, a Woodcraft Store opened in our area and sent out a letter looking for potential instructors. I made a quick decision to meet with the owner, who offered to set up a few classes on a trial basis. Teaching has since become an ever-growing portion of my business income. Currently, close to 45 percent of my gross income is derived from teaching and demonstrating. Most of what I teach is related to woodturning, but I believe there is a definite need for good woodworking instructors.

The necessary skills
Here are the most important things to consider if you plan on teaching:

  • A good teacher must have patience.
  • A good teacher also has the ability to break instructions into easy-to-follow steps and is adept at a variety of teaching methods.
  • The best instructors are capable of clearly demonstrating techniques or skills, communicating well and providing informational handouts.
  • They have the ability to deal with different types of students, including the overachiever, perfectionist, and those who need help to learn.
  • With a class of several students, the teacher must be able to keep the pace of the class moving, so as not to bore anyone or leave anyone behind.
  • It’s a real plus to have the ability to recognize a student’s lack of understanding and know how to deal with it.
  • It’s critical that you’re up to date on all the safety rules for the equipment, and that you emphasize and practice safe techniques at all times.
  • Students benefit from words of encouragement and positive comments as their work progresses. Are you a cheerleader or a critic?
  • Be aware that almost as much time is spent preparing to teach a class as is spent teaching. The good news: The longer you teach, the shorter the preparation time.

Covering the basics
There are a number of factors that affect the financial aspects of teaching. The fee for the class and the number of students needs to be set at a rate that will provide enough income to cover expenses and provide some profit. The more students you have in a class, the easier it will be to keep the costs down and make a profit, but you will need more space and equipment.

When setting the fee for a class, factor in the value of your time for machine setup and maintenance, preparing a curriculum and handouts, moving shop work out of harm’s way, and lost work hours. As a classroom, your shop must be clean, well-maintained, and well-lit.

If teaching outside of your shop, be prepared for problems such as poorly maintained equipment, inadequate space and missing project parts. You won’t have much — or any — input regarding the price of the class, and the payment schedule is often erratic.

The cost of insurance and the risks involved in teaching in your studio must also be taken into consideration. If your studio is on the same property as your home, then all of your assets, including your home, may be at risk. It would be a good idea to speak with an insurance agent or an attorney to help evaluate the legal and financial risks.

Blending teaching into a production shop requires the ability to juggle work with students’ schedules. Most students, including retirees, surprisingly only want to take classes in the evenings or on weekends.

It’s not for the money
One should go into teaching for the same reason one loves woodworking. We make furniture and teach because in some ways we are compelled to do it. For the most part, there is not a good deal of money to be made teaching, any more than there is a lot of money to be made in woodworking.

Keep in mind it takes a good deal of time to talk with potential students and arrange schedules. You also will need to keep track of and contact past and potential students for mass mailings about future classes. The easiest way is to set up classes through a local store or school and let them handle the details.

If you are going to teach in your studio, I would suggest you develop a brochure. The brochure should list a variety of classes with a well-written description, specific class dates and a brief biography. Bear in mind that some classes may end up being canceled because of a lack of students.

On the road
When traveling to teach or demonstrate, there are a number of expenses that should be considered. I can usually ask for and receive some compensation for traveling expenses, but the sum rarely covers all of my costs.

If you’re flying, you will need to consider how to get your tools and materials to the site. It is best to ship well in advance so if anything is lost or damaged, arrangements can be made for replacement. If shipping dyes, paints, CA glue or other chemicals, it’s possible they’ll be confiscated en route.

Always get specifics on the type of machinery available for your class or demonstration. Be prepared for the unknown because sometimes the information on the type of machinery is wrong or a bit misleading.

The rewards of teaching
I enjoy helping others learn, and I get a kick out of their feeling of accomplishment over minor successes. I especially enjoy the pride I feel when my students’ work is technically better and more creative than mine. It is one of the best ways I know to pull me away from the solitude of my studio. I also enjoy the social interaction of meeting people from all walks of life.

Do I make enough to justify the extra work and the loss of my free time? I think if I charged more and spent more time coordinating several demonstrations or workshops in the same trip, my bottom line would improve. Teaching also affects my business in subtle ways such as better name recognition.

My woodworking skills improve every time I teach. My students expose me to a whole new set of ideas and designs. The money I earn is a pleasant addition to my bottom line, and I doubt I could give it up, any more than I could stop working with wood. The personal satisfaction and the emotional rewards are just too great to pass up.

Alan Leland is the owner of Leland Studios in Durham, N.C.

This article originally appeared in the October 2008 issue.

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