I often discuss with friends and colleagues in the woodworking community how we choose to price our work. It’s an interesting debate that never results in an answer. The reality is that there is no one universal answer for: What is my work worth?
We live in a high consumption society, IKEA is nearly the norm. The likes of Crate and Barrel or West Elm make fairly good mass produced furniture, and they set the people’s expectations for what a piece of furniture costs. But what about one-of-a-kind craftsmanship-level furniture?
Unique furniture made of high-quality hardwood, and sometimes exotic wood, created with hand tools only or a mixed approach of power tools and hand tools, take time to make. Handmade furniture always results in unique texture, wood grain, attention to detail, and fits your space perfectly. Why, then, do people associate the cost of those masterpieces to those at big high production store?
A good friend of mine approaches me and asks if I could build two heirloom quality blanket chests. I draw a couple of ideas of what I envision them to look like. She loves it and immediately discusses price. I quote her the cost of each without context. Not only was it out of the budget, but I unintentionally made her feel uncomfortable because she doesn’t expect the cost. I would not be surprised if she initially thought I was out of my mind.
I feel the need to explain myself, something like this: When I build a piece, I choose the wood myself at a lumberyard. I match the color of the wood, the flow of the grain, and look for defects. I then proceed to carefully mill the wood by hand, with a hand plane. I cut the pieces to size with a hand saw. Sometimes for longer cuts, I use my table saw to get through it faster and with more accuracy. The chests uses dovetails which I cut by hand. Rabbets for the bottom and I shape the feet by hand using chisels, rasps, and a spokeshave. Once glued, I painstakingly finish the wood with multiple coats of french polish and shellac, followed by paste wax to protect the whole thing; an extremely labor-intensive process.
My lesson here is: Explain how I work before discussing a price. When I do, the potential client won’t ask for a price because they realize this is not something they want to afford, and when they do it’s because they’re ready to.
The same thing applies to the tools I and others make. When you consider the quality of smaller production artisan shops like Blue Spruce Tools, Bad Axe Tool Works, Vesper Tools, Red Rose Productions, or even smaller like Caleb James all have incredibly fine tools, with quality beyond what you get from the top of the line larger productions from Lie-Nielsen or Veritas, and let’s not even mention big box stores.
We pay for those tools because they are made with such high attention to detail. Because someone, usually a one or two people shop, has looked at every tool that makes it out of their shop. The same is true with my tools. They’re not cheap, and there’s a good reason for that.
Take pride in your work and consider your work quality and value. If someone thinks it’s too expensive, then they don’t really understand the value you’re offering; and that’s totally OK. I don’t support starting out with low prices then raising them gradually as you gain popularity or skill. That sets the wrong expectations. If your price is low the expectation is that either your quality is low, or your price will always be low. Bringing the price up over time is tedious, and you slowly lose your original customer base because they can’t afford you.
So what is my work worth? I believe it’s: What won’t make me feel like crap because I didn’t charge enough for my hard work, regardless of whether I sell one or thousands of the things I make.