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There is no level playing field


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Adrien Morin, potato grower and barrel maker, Saint David, Maine. (Image from Library of Congress.)

I was talking with a well-known furniture maker at a national event a few years back while another craftsman gave a talk that I’d decided to skip. He’s loaded, said my conversation partner about the presenter – or something along those lines. (I’m paraphrasing based on memory.) Then he shared what he knew about the source of the other woodworker’s wealth, which had come through his parents.

“How am I supposed to compete with that?” my conversation partner asked.

Answer: You’re not.

First of all, the work of these two craftsmen is completely different. I cannot imagine anyone who collects the work of one even being in the market for work by the other. Their genres are so distinct that the only basis for collecting work by both would be that both are widely respected furniture makers who do excellent work – and that’s a category with quite a few members. Yes, there are people who hope to acquire pieces made by more than one craftsperson they admire, but most people don’t aspire to furnish their homes with a variety of completely unrelated styles; to do so would be like living in a museum dedicated to showing off your wealth and good taste. There may be people who wish to live this way, but I daresay there’s a greater market for those who don’t.

Second, furniture makers bring their own character to the process involved in commissioning a piece. We all develop our own ways of working, from our first contact with a potential buyer by email, phone, or in person, through our preferred modes of communication, our willingness to answer questions or engage in conversation on topics beyond work, and our priorities and values, many of which matter greatly to prospective customers. Not to mention our own style and the caliber of our execution.

That said, contrary to widespread belief, not everyone wants The Very Best, which comes with a higher price (notwithstanding some makers’ promotional claims to the contrary). Some customers and collectors embrace imperfection and appreciate the historically informed attention to detail shown by makers of period-style furniture who intentionally leave the underside of a dining table less refined than the top, to cite one example typical of most work made before the widespread use of machinery. In short, any comparison is destined to be apples to oranges.

Beyond this, money is not the only significant variable among professional furniture makers. Others include education – not just formal training in the craft, training through occasional classes, or private sessions with others in the field, but in academic terms as well; just having a college degree and the ability to articulate a grammatically correct proposal or description of your business for your website can be an advantage. On the other hand, there are customers for whom none of this matters one whit. Gender, race, and other factors can also move some would-be buyers to choose a piece made by Person A over one by Person B; some customers and patrons make a point of seeking out work by non-gender-conforming craftspeople or those of color.

At work this January on a bookcase that I really did not feel like building, as I had started chemotherapy a month before and was seriously concerned about cuts and scrapes that could cause dangerous bleeding (thanks to a blood thinner I’m taking because my condition can cause blood clots) or infection (due to chemo-induced immunosuppression). I know…many woodworkers (especially those whose livelihood does not depend on the craft) have thought they were cheering me up by sending chipper notes about the supposedly therapeutic powers of “making sawdust.” But me? I do what I need to do, then do my best to enjoy it. (The bookcase is now long-finished. It was for people I like a lot, and also admire. But really, the last thing I wanted to do—well, other than hang out at the infusion center for another day—was work in the shop at that time.)

Sure, financial wealth can offer the luxury of choosing between prospective clients instead of feeling compelled to take every job you’re offered. It can allow you to charge less than you know you should for a piece you really want the creative satisfaction of making, not to mention adding to your portfolio in the hope that someone else will want something like it and pay for that piece at your full rate. Money can tide you over slow times such as recessions, which typically force many craftspeople whose livelihoods genuinely depend on their work to shut down their businesses. A generous gift of money from family can allow you to buy acreage in a desirable location close to your ideal market and build a shop that’s more spacious and better equipped than those of makers who’ve been practicing their craft for decades. All of these are significant advantages that make it easier to do what you love for a living than it tends to be for those without such wealth.

But none of this can guarantee success, let alone happiness. Money is no substitute for many of the qualities important to both of these: grit, patience, resilience, gratitude, and the ability to persevere through the kinds of challenges that drive others to quit the craft. There are plenty of people whose wealth has left them all but paralyzed because they don’t have to do much of anything to get by; they can simply live on the money they already have. I have known a few such people, and knowing them has made me appreciate the value of having to earn my living. I thrive on challenge and constraints.

When people who don’t have to work express amazement at my productivity, or envy at the creative satisfaction I take in my work, I do my best to explain that whatever they see as my success is itself the product of work: the work to make peace with the less-lovable dimensions of running a business, doing almost everything by myself, and learning to be happy with less than what many consider desirable in terms of income, leisure, or opportunities to travel. Necessity truly is the mother of invention, if you’re sufficiently creative.

Nancy Hiller is a professional cabinetmaker who has operated NR Hiller Design, Inc. since 1995. Her most recent books are English Arts & Crafts Furniture and Making Things Work, both available at Nancy’s website.

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