Get a job.

Cambridge Union Society card

Prior to my most valuable education.

Every so often someone contacts me to ask for advice about quitting a day job and going into furniture making as a full-time endeavor. They’ve taken some classes and built some pieces — sometimes eye-poppingly impressive ones — on their own time. Some have had paid commissions and amassed a months’-long backlog for more paid work that leads them to think it’s time to take the plunge. Inundated by images of other woodworkers on social media — usually without any indication as to which ones are making furniture for a living, as distinct from in their spare time, or those who work at it full-time with support from a well-employed partner* — the people who contact me with this deeply existential inquiry seem to feel they’re missing out on the #selfemployedandlovingit lifestyle.

I invariably ask about their circumstances. Do they live alone? Have a family to support? Is there a partner with a regular source of income and benefits such as health insurance (which, depending on your age and other factors, can easily cost more per month than a mortgage)? I also point out that the good times can’t be relied upon to last; when your household income depends entirely on making furniture — a product that most people consider desirable, rather than necessary — economic downturns can be devastating.**

But self-employment is not the only option. In the past month I’ve heard from three furniture makers who are looking to hire.

Running my own furniture business was my dream, too, when I completed the basic City & Guilds furniture training in 1980. Luckily for me, I was disabused of that dream by my first woodworking employer, Roy Griffiths, who paid me to learn what full-time professional woodworking might mean. (I say “might mean” by way of acknowledging that every woodworker’s situation is different.) I followed that experience with work in another English workshop, then came back to the States and learned a whole new set of techniques and lessons about the business side of furniture making at Wall-Goldfinger in the late 1980s. To be clear, at no time during those years did I view myself as jumping from one employer to another in order to learn; I’m portraying my employment experiences in terms of learning here because I now have a sense of the invaluable education I obtained by working for others.

If you’re contemplating going pro, consider the traditional route — that of working for an established woodworking business. You will learn a ton of new techniques (trust me; every shop I’ve worked in has done things differently) in addition to gaining insight into what making furniture or cabinets on a daily basis really entails. You will also learn about the business of woodworking in the most real-world way. And you will be paid for this learning!

— Nancy Hiller, author of Making Things Work

*Save your outraged comments. I mean no disparagement to anyone. I’m simply pointing out that curated images on social media lead to inferences that in many cases do not match the underlying reality.

**Stay tuned for my interview with Aimé Ontario Fraser, who speaks poignantly about her own experience during the Great Recession. Also check out Paul Downs’s book, which is an excellent read.

About nrhiller

cabinetmaker and author
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36 Responses to Get a job.

  1. SSteve says:

    I love that photo so very much.

  2. ikustwood says:

    This is a superb realistic portrait . I am not in that business and will never be because to old (50), to slow, and don’t think there is a market for somebody like me. I am just a passionate amateur. But in my other work, I am in the same situation : extremely hard to be on your own. I have a uge admiration for people going deeply (without counting on external extra$) into Woodworking like you did.

    Best regards and cheers

    • nrhiller says:

      Too old at 50? You’re killing me! (Note: I am 58.)

      • I think the point here is that he/she feels like he is too old to START a business. It is one thing to start working and learning at a young age and continue doing great work at 58. But to START this journey at 50 is a much more daunting idea.

        • nrhiller says:

          Yes, totally. I got that after posting my reply. By then I was in the garden so it just rolled around in my head instead of getting put in the comments section. Thank you for clarifying what the earlier comment meant!

    • Ditto…I’m the same age (58) and don’t see it as part of this equation…Other things may well be, for sure…but not age…

      Regards,

      j

  3. Anthony says:

    Great picture. I am so glad that I’m retired and only take jobs I want. It’s a immense freedom that I would never have if I was trying to make a living. Thanks for your great insights gained from “real” experience.

  4. Elga Kostet says:

    I am managing to make a living of making 1/12 scale museum quality furniture from the 17th, 18th and early 19th century. Using traditional joinery on a much smaller scale and hardwoods trying to stay as close to methods used in full scale. I had to learn how to make most of my hardware from brass and steel myself, think caster wheels, working locks and card table hinges. Teaching classes regularly to similar minded people helps a lot on the income side. I realize this isn’t the same as a full time business in normal scale but am very happy to have fallen down this specific rabbit hole as I love working with wood and antique furniture.

  5. Finn Koefoed-Nielsen says:

    Great article.
    I’d add that working for someone more experienced can also teach you how to deal with it when things go completely tits up, as they inevitably do. The ability to learn from other people’s mistakes, or have them calmly correct your own, is worth its weight in gold!

  6. ajgodet says:

    Great post! Love your work on this topic…have you ever thought of doing an in-person class on this topic? Or a webinar? I would love the opportunity to go in depth on this stuff, imagine others would too…

    • nrhiller says:

      I’m glad you find this useful. I must say it never occurred to me to do any sort of class on this stuff. I write reams about it here, in Making Things Work, and in my posts for the Pro’s Corner at Fine Woodworking. I’d be glad to learn more about your idea; feel free to contact me by email.

  7. The next time you come over PLEASE can we try to get served in the SU bar in Newham using your ID?
    The look on the porters’ faces!

  8. keith says:

    I’ve been self employed for last 15 years after corporate world for almost 30. I would add there is a lot more to it than just working on the furniture — taking care of books (income, expenses, taxes), talking to/quoting/bidding for dead-end customers, returning phone calls, driving around, trying to please that 1% of customers that no one can really please,

  9. Tim says:

    Nice to read Nancy. I found it can be a pretty lonely business too that requires a great amount of self belief and self will. I have to say you helped me to believe it is ok to fail at running your own business (something that happened to me) and not think I wasn’t just a useless tool. 😀

    • nrhiller says:

      You’re so right. It can be depressingly lonely, and it’s so important to have peers with whom you can talk openly and compare notes, especially during bad times. This kind of collegiality is critical to my sanity.

  10. ianschwandt says:

    “…curated images on social media lead to inferences that in many cases do not match the underlying reality.”

    Brilliantly put.

  11. Tony Zaffuto says:

    Dayam that’s a good photo-ya got the look of a 19th century craftsman/wman. I would post it to your website homepage “about me”, as it speaks volumes. Celebrate it
    ,

  12. Jeff Hanna says:

    I went a slightly different route and went through a 2 year program for cabinet making/furniture. I had great teachers and unlike a lot of other programs, my school really emphasized finding guys jobs (it’s an accredited trade school). I don’t regret the decision I made to enter this trade for a minute, but I’d be remissed if I didn’t mention that if you’re working for someone else in this field, you’re probably barely getting by. The pay is lousy and you don’t get much (if any) benefits. This depends on where you live (here in SE Pennsylvania you literally can’t throw a stone without hitting a wood shop). I’m not trying to discourage anyone, but I think it’s important people understand the reality of “doing what you love.” When I got into the trade (which wasn’t that long ago) there was not as much automation as there is now. I’ve been in several shops now that haven’t had a table saw for a decade. Chisels? Those are for scraping glue out of corners. The future for this industry looks pretty bleak. They don’t really need guys like me anymore. Still, I can’t imagine doing anything else!

    • nrhiller says:

      Wow, that is dire. It’s all about finding or creating a market for the kind of work you would like to do, though that is more easily said than done. Can you at least enjoy your skills in your spare time? I hope so!

      • Jeff Hanna says:

        Oh I do immensely. I have my own furniture business (so I don’t have spare time 🙂 ). I am simply saying that unless you’re young and don’t have mouths to feed or a mortgage to pay, learning the craft by working for someone else probably isn’t an option. Furthermore, if you’re reading this blog and you’re a fan of this kind of woodworking, you’re unlikely to glean much from the majority of cabinet/furniture shops out there (due to automation). Production definitely does have some valuable lessons to teach in terms of efficiency and business, but that doesn’t offer much if you’re looking to make it as an artisan maker. So I guess I’d say I disagree that if you want to go pro you should look for a job working at an established company. The perfect job is one that you want to do so bad, you’d do it for nothing, and then learn to do it well enough somebody will pay you.

        • nrhiller says:

          Thanks for the clarification. I thought you meant that you worked for one of the factories you mentioned. In no way was I suggesting that someone wishing to get into professional woodworking go to work for that kind of factory. There are lots of small shops in the Midwest, many of them looking to hire right now because the economy is good. These are the kinds of shops where I worked early in my career: they make a variety of furniture and built-ins, some custom and some made to order from a basic catalog. Each shop has its own ways of doing things. There are certainly factories out there; Kimball is one in our region (it’s farther south in Indiana). CNC city. You really don’t need that much (if any) knowledge of woodworking to work in that kind of place. But that kind of place is the exception in our area. Some smaller shops also use CNC equipment now, but those I’m aware of also rely on a basic variety of traditional skills with hand-tools and machines.

  13. Judith Katz says:

    it is a true but shameful fact that most artists must suffer for their art. A craftsperson is an artist in the truest sense of the word. Woodworking requires an apprenticeship no matter how much reads or sees. The hand and eye learn by doing. Very few can start any venture on their own without working for others first.Your advice was right to the point. If your young (he sounds young) friend takes your advice to heart. In the long run he/she will find the experience enriching ($ and education wise) and rewarding. Be interesting to know what you would tell that 19 yrs old from today’s view point. You just did, didn’t you.

  14. Dumont69 says:

    I just came here for the photo. If that photo doesn’t sum up the era and the prevailing punk attitude of the times i don’t know what does. Great portrait. God Save the Queen!

  15. Charles Poteat says:

    Great dose of reality, can this be posted on your IG page? My architectural woodworking/historical restoration company supports my “occasional” woodworking ventures adequately. The key for me is diversification of skills and services…

  16. David Justice says:

    You are spot on about social media “woodworkers” where editing helps in making it look like the build went perfectly with no mistakes. A real piece of furniture can’t be edited.

  17. I purchased an introductory woodworking book by Aime Fraser years ago before I knew woodworking was even a thing. I remember reading it and thinking, “wow, I didn’t know one could make furniture themselves!”. It turned me on to the craft and have been doing it ever since. Based on your reference in the blog, she hit tough times in the recession. What a shame.

    • nrhiller says:

      Many of us barely survived the recession. She’s fabulous. It was fascinating to interview her. As soon as I receive her corrections to the draft post, along with a couple of pictures, the post will go up.

  18. Deniseg says:

    Timely post to find today as I sit on an application to furniture school. If I listen to the replies here, I’m too old to start something new, 51. Mine will be a wandering and “many irons in the fire” path. I can do other work for income while I try to build a furniture and cabinet business. I’ve encountered endless discouragement and even blatant laughter when I talk to people about what I’m considering. It’s very interesting to discover what people consider acceptable or desirable work. It takes courage, commitment and a bit of blind faith in ones ability to survive to make a mid life career change. Corporate America to craft work is a big leap in the minds of many.

    • nrhiller says:

      When Corporate America pushes you off the ledge, it’s less a leap than a matter of learning to fly. You’re already well on the way. Your professionalism and work ethic will serve you well. You don’t even have to tell those naysayers to take a hike; just show them what’s possible by forging your own way.

    • Hello Denise,

      First…You can “DO IT!!!”

      I’m 58 and have worked professionally from Zookeeper to Bodyguard…and from being a Wilderness Education-Clinical Director to Timberwright…with many other little “tid-bits” in between…In this day in age having multiple and cross collateral skill sets is a must (plus some of us refuse to get old or get board…LOL!!!)

      Frankly, I think you have a much better chance of starting your own business in the world of woodworking at your age than many others may have. You have cross over skill sets and life experience that a younger person chronological just can’t possess most of the time.

      A positive attitude and a willing to be adaptable within the realm and professional spectrum of woodworking is also very helpful. Cabinet and/or furniture making isn’t the only world out there for you that is rewarding and deals with lots of wonderful sawdust!!! There is custom flooring design and installation, stair design and installation, upholstery work, wood specific landscape design features, timber framing…and the list just goes on and on…Heck there are folks making a decent little living just making rustic furniture while others just do “garden gates.” Finding your “fancy” and niche in all this doesn’t have to be limited to just furniture or cabinets…Being flexible and multifaceted gives you greater opportunity…I would also suggest that collaboration with other local Artisan Woodworkers is also quite often a quick way to get a foot in the door…

      Good Luck and Say Positive!!!

      j

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