Tag Archives: woodworker

Working it…

3 Mar

The path of my woodworking career, one year in.

My foot in the door…

I got my first woodworking job in March of 2011. I found out about the job through my woodworking school. The company was an art studio that made high end corporate gifts, such as vases, bracelets and desktop organizers. I worked there for six months. I learnt how to use a sand blasting machine, a metal shear, and an old giant veneer press. I had many different products to make and manipulated many different materials. I even spent time in the spray booth and learnt how to mix lacquer, and use a spray gun properly.

The next step…

In October 2011 I moved on to a job in Aerospace, building cabinetry for private jets. I sought out the job specifically this time, applying to the company cold. Luckily they were hiring for many positions and I got in.The certificate I earned at woodworking school came in handy as it was a prerequisite for the job. It’s a funny thing, most of the equipment is all familiar but the materials used in Aerospace are SO alien, it took a while to get used to. I spent about a month at this company.

Fiberglass skins on either side of a honeycomb formed cardboard is a super light weight material used in aircrafts.

The upset…

After a month of working in Aerospace I was laid off. So were about 40 other people. I didn’t feel wonderful about it but I also wasn’t hit as hard as those who’d worked there longer.

The interim…

I knew that I wasn’t ready to start my woodworking business solo quite yet. I actively looked for a new job, and contacted possible employers. I kept my phone on me 24/7 with ears pricked.

As weeks went on I decided to work on my shop while I waited for word. I made shop fixtures, and moved all the wood from under my bed to my shop.

I received a couple of calls from the placement agency that I signed on with, neither of them panned out.

As more weeks went by and still no success at finding a new job, I started to build some tables out of scrap wood I’d found in the bins at school.

And then it happened…

After three months of being out of a job I got called back to the Aerospace company that laid me off. I go back Monday. I’m super pleased and yet I hope they keep me on for a while longer than last time! I’ll be working on those tables at my own shop when I can sneak them in. I’ll document the progress on those.

Coming up I’m going to review the Rockler DustRight dust collection system that I own. I’ll also be posting a little trick for measuring tapes, and *hanging head* I bought a few more tools that I’ll post photos of.

The thorn in this lion’s paw…

1 Mar

Safety first…

About nine months ago I was injured on the job. It was my first woodworking job. I’d only been there two months and a bit. I was eager to please and while I thought I was ever conscious of my own safety, I learnt otherwise. Most woodworking injuries you hear about are somewhat gory and have a dramatic tale to go along with it. This one includes none of the above. And I haven’t heard very many stories like mine, even though they must outnumber gory injuries in the trades.  So I thought I’d talk about it.

Yes, sir!

My injury was obtained through repeating a motion to excess. Since I worked at a studio that produced works of art as products, I often would work with sheet metal, cement board, and aluminum, and most often of course with wood. This particular day I was given a mountain of 1liter paper cups filled with dried epoxy. What was I to do with this mountain of dried epoxy you ask?

Picture 100 of the largest sized cup on the left with dried epoxy in them.

I was to peel the paper off each piece and chop the epoxy methodically until I had about 30 1″ cubes per cup. I had about 100 cups to process.  I soon found that the band saw I was to use had a dull blade. I mentioned this to my boss and he said that the other blades were out being sharpened. I accepted the challenge, thinking, “well, I’ll be sore tomorrow, but I’ll probably never have to do this again!”. I really wish I hadn’t accepted the challenge. After 7 hours of pushing hard and peeling super STUCK on paper, I felt my hands throbbing. I begged off early for the day.

Lesson learnt

I awoke the next morning and literally any movement I made with my right index finger was answered with searing and resonating pain . I took the day off work and the weekend to lay low. I realized I’d need to be more aware of my body’s limitations in the future and say no to my boss if his expectations were unreasonable. I felt thankful that my body usually recovered after a day or two of my overtaxing it.

The cold hard truth

But it didn’t recover. My index finger did thankfully, but a tendon in my thumb called a thumb flexor has yet to fully recover. I worked for months believing that surely time would cure what ailed me. Each month would pass and I would  believe in progress only to repeatedly trigger the injury. I never knew what would  inflame it, sometimes I’d just be watching tv and move my thumb slightly and it would be searing pain again.

This is not my hand. It is however, the brace that I used for many of the summer months. It limits a thumb's range of motion.

It’s been eight months, I’ve learned to adapt around the injury. The frequency and severity of inflammations have gone down, so I am feeling more optimistic. But I have come to terms with the possibility that I may have this injury for the long haul. I changed jobs so that my thumb would have more of a chance at recovery, and I believe it has helped.

I think the message I’d like to pass along to my fellow woodworkers is that we all feel the pressure to please at work, to be up for the task, to prove ourselves. But we need to listen to our bodies, think of our long term well being,  and stand up for our own safety. Another important message here is that there are many types of danger we need to protect our bodies from, not just the obvious or most immediate.

Next post will be a few words about my employment situation past and present.

A daunting task- time to start my job search.

9 Mar

A lot has happened in recent weeks. All very relevant to my woodworking career goals. I’m almost to the five week mark in my apprenticeship, with only one more week left after that! With such little time left, I’ve been hastily putting my efforts towards my job search.

It’s always shocking when a far off date finally rounds a bend in your reality and suddenly NOW is go time. Since I decided I’d like to build funds and experience before starting my own business, I need to find a woodworking related job. I’ve been a little disappointed thus far in my search. I was hoping to find something  related to my utlimate shop setup. I may need to compromise depending on what’s available right now. Timing is everything!

So far I’ve asked Tim if he knows of anybody that is hiring, and contacted my school for any juicy job leads. The school yielded one, which I’ve applied to. I found  and applied to another interesting position listed on a government job bank website.

Next I need to spread the word to my friends and family that I’m actively looking. The search continues!

I accidentally deleted a fully written post recently. I have yet to re-write it- but soon there will be a second installment of lessons from woodworking school. I’ll also no doubt relay the highlights of my apprenticeship, and check in with job search details.

I also have pretty substantial changes in plans for the shop as it turns out. A family meeting about the (family) shop space kind of put a kink in my plans. More on that soon!

Lessons… from woodworking school

11 Feb

So… what was woodworking school like? I thought I’d go into some detail on the topic. I know that not everyone that wants to take a woodworking course can do so, for whatever reasons. I was fortunate enough to live in a place where woodworking courses (cabinet making courses to be specific) are subsidized by the Government (as part of an initiative to create more jobs in the trades), and it cost me only $240 to register for a full 12 months of education. I’ve heard that equivalent courses cost up to $10,000 elsewhere.  So why not get a little insight- for free.

I’ll go into:

  • the projects we tackled and why they were useful learning vehicles (pictures included)
  • my personal learning curve as I experienced it
  • safety procedures we learned
  • notable techniques we used and were taught
  • the approximate time it took us to complete projects
  • AND more

My school

As a little precursor I’d like to give a brief description of my school. I went to a vocational school that had many different trades and professions to choose from. We would walk down halls and see electro-mechanics frowning over complex machinery, graphic designers chained to their computers and printers wearing aprons covered in cyan and magenta splotches. The cabinet making course was held in a shop right next to the machinist’s shops, and we shared the tool crib (all the tools were stored there, and lent out as per your request/needs) with them- always warring to beat them to the line for tools. We tried to stay on the good side of the tool crib manager.

The Cabinet making program itself was comprehensive yet we never had quite enough time to master any one thing. This was a program put together for individuals with absolutely no experience in woodworking. We weren’t there to refine skills we already had, or to learn master joinery and build fine furniture within a month of starting the course. We were there to learn from A-Z about anything a woodworker might find a job doing in industry (including cabinet making). In this sense it was no frills, we were not given a list of fine tools to purchase, in fact we only had a few marking and measuring tools to buy and the rest were provided by the school. More on that soon!

Let’s jump right into Lesson 1

So, what was the first thing we were asked to do? Well, it wasn’t what I had expected. I thought maybe we’d be thrust right into the thick of things and begin building. I feared that I wouldn’t be prepared and wouldn’t feel comfortable with the tools yet.

Lo’ and behold we didn’t pick up a single tool the first days. We were instead asked to assess whether woodworking was a career we really wished to pursue. Our fist assignment was to seek out and visit a minimum of three woodworking shops and gather basic information about them. What was the size of the shop, what did they specialize in/produce, what were the machines used, who were their clients and were they hiring or accepting apprentices? We were told to each go alone. This terrified me. But I did it, and so did most everyone in the class. Next we were asked to draw up reports on each visit and give an oral presentation on what we found. This terrified me…again. I hate public speaking. But I followed through yet again and felt a new confidence about my decision to become a woodworker. If I could be moved to do things that I normally would avoid at all costs, then obviously I’d found something that motivated me in a positive way. I also mostly liked what I saw and heard about the various shops.

What I learned

The first place I visited sobered me up, it was a small dimly lit shop dedicated to slapping together white melamine cabinet cases.  The work looked soulless.  I knew then that I’d have to be careful to choose the right job, or I might end up trapped and unhappy. I also was instantly aware of how inherently dangerous woodworking is as a trade. One man was missing two fingers.

The next shop cheered me up. They produced very high end solid wood furniture and had a product line. This made me realize that woodworking could be anything I wanted it to be, I didn’t have to work  in a bad environment, or produce stuff that I didn’t feel any connection to. AND I could make money. This shop had a front office that looked very sleek. The owner himself took me on a tour, he was in his thirties, also encouraging. I could envision myself being successful sooner rather than later looking at this shop.

The last shop I visited was very impressive. I think they had about twenty employees. Each was dedicated to a certain machine, working solid wood.  They made fine furniture AND had a very professional show room a block away that I visited. The most impressive part was visiting all of the different production stages, the furniture was made from start to finish on site- including upholstery, any other fancy detailing and finishing. They never bought pre-made turned legs or other furniture parts, it was all done in house. I realised these were huge selling points to their clients. I liked the thought of quality being much more important than cutting corners and producing a product the cheapest ways possible.

Needless to say I was convinced that there were all kinds of opportunities in the market place after hearing the presentations of my classmates. Together we had captured a mini picture of what the woodworking landscape was like in our own city. And the results were encouraging.

I had a sense of things falling into place. I was embarking on a path that felt right.

I’d encourage anyone who’s planning a new career to do their homework on what the work is really like, get an inside peek.

Stay tuned for more lessons from woodworking school!

Shop layout illustrated- Google Sketch-Up will blow your mind!

2 Feb

It’s a snow day here- a perfect time to obsess over google sketch-up and shop layouts! Picture an object in your mind, any object… now search sketch-up’s 3D warehouse and POOF(!) you’ve got a virtual 3D version of that object! Okay so that’s only useful if you are,  say, trying to arrange a layout for heavy objects without having to move them physically. I’ve been living in a virtual 3D warehouse for a couple of days figuring out my future shop layouts. Here are the fruits of my labour…

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

I originally was planning to rough out some boxes approximately the right size and move them around the floor plan- so if you’re about to create your own shop layout by all means do whatever is easiest or quickest for you. Sketching on a pad of paper works. I chose this route because A) I found it too cool B) I could get a realistic idea of spacial relations in the layout, and C) most of the ready-made models not only look awesome, but are the correct 1:1 sizes (the only dimensions I had to gather were those of the shop space).

As for layouts:

You can see I included the current layout and state the shop space I’m considering… it’s a mess!

Next I removed all of the items I hope to purge in the upcoming months (read: stash anywhere else)

Then I arranged the tools that I currently have into some semblance of a functional shop (which I hope to have “running” in May 2011).

And finally I couldn’t resist having a motivational foray into my dream shop layout. (including upgraded machinery)

I found this to be an excellent exercise in planning . I recommend that anyone who’s starting a woodworking  shop/business draw up a quick shop layout to figure out :

  • is there room for all the machines you plan to put in your shop space?
  • do you have enough space to move between machines?
  • does the flow of the shop work?  (moving traditionally from the miter saw, over to the jointer, planer, then table saw, and over to the bench from any given place in the shop)
  • where are the best places to put outlets and what voltage?
  • is your bench close to natural light?
  • can you store wood close to the entrance and/or miter saw or jointer? (this will save you from walking unnecessarily far, and wasting time)

That last one reminds me- I didn’t picture my wood storage in the layouts because I have existing overhead shelving along  two sides of the shop that I’ll use for wood storage.  Have yet to decide where plywood and other sheet-goods will be stored.

Also research layouts that work. I already had two books I had bought second hand because ” looking at other woodworking shops is fun”. But I finally put them to good use and studied the layouts. Especially the shops that were of similar size to mine. If you’re looking to take books out of the library, the ones I have and recommend are:

Woodshop Lust by David Thiel, published by Popular Woodworking Books

The Workshop by Scott Gibson, published by Taunton Press (finewoodworking)

My potential shop space…

31 Jan

Here’s the potential  shop space I have to work with.  It had had a fire, then was cleaned and functioned again. Next it sat unused for 5 years and had many leaks in the roof. All the mold covered and soaked items were tossed.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Now the shop has been outfitted  with a new roof and has been dry for about a year. Because of the previous water damage, the electrical wiring is compromised and will need to be redone. As is clear in the photos the shop has served as  storage space in the mean time. There are many counters lining the walls of the shop and overhead storage galore. The process of sorting and purging the shop might take a while. What a mess!

You may have noticed that I also included photos of the tools in the shop that are relevant to woodworking. These are the tools I’m lucky enough to have right out of the starting gate.

To these I will need to add:

-a planer

-a jointer

The most immediate being a planer. I’ll buy a bench top model if I can’t find an affordable used one. I’ve decided that I can go without a jointer for a little while by using a straight bit in a router table to get edges flat and square. Then I’ll skip plane rough boards taking off small amounts at a time until the faces are flat.

I have to start clearing out the space to get to that point though, so first things first!

As for hand tools, I have what I bought for school- added to the rusty assortment I have yet to sift though in the  shop.

  • a marking gauge
  • a 4″ engineer’s square
  • a handful of 6″ rules
  • a cheap set of chisels
  • a gents dovetail saw
  • a digital vernier caliper
  • a block plane
  • 2 other hand planes
  • a dowelling jig
  • a card scraper
  • 2 handmade mallets
  • tape measures
  • utility knives
  • a contractor’s calculator

So for now this is what I’ve got to work with- looking at it now I can see that it’s a versatile selection that should allow me to start tinkering in the shop on new projects as soon as I clear a bit of space and get the electrical issue sorted.

For those of you who are looking to start a woodworking business as I am and don’t have a space or tools yet- I’d urge you to ask your friends and have them ask their  friends if there’s a shop space and/or tools that are not being used. It seems all of my friends from woodworking school already have a space (a garage will do, or basement) or connections to a space (to share with someone they know), OR have woodworking tools already from someone they knew who was closing their shop.

Ideally I’ll gain some funds from working in the woodworking field and purchase a 10″ cabinet saw, a 15″planer and an 8″ jointer. So stay tuned and I’ll let you know how it pans out!

Pricing and pace… what’s a woodworker to do?

28 Jan

I recently gathered with my fellow woodworking graduates to have a catch up session. They are at the half way mark in their apprenticeships. The issue of pace came up. This was one of my worries, what pace does industry run at? It varies!

I learned that one of the shops was scary fast. All operations carried out with speed in mind. Production had to be quick.

In another shop the owner admitted to being the slowest worker he knows. He gets teased for it but insists on working at his own pace.

This led me to thinking about how price and pace are linked.There are a myriad of different ways to run a successful business but to simplify:


There are those who focus on speed to keep costs down.


There are those who focus on quality to keep prices up.

I realize there is a large grey area in between the two. As I said, all kinds of business models lead to success. And success is a  subjective term.

But this thought process helped me to plot out a definite direction for my future business. I decided I want to head more towards quality and a slower pace. Especially since I envision staying a one man shop. I don’t want to manage a larger shop. I also don’t want to spread myself too thin trying to work at the speed of light every day AND stay safe AND still take care of the administration, marketing, sales, accounting, and designing. Of course the direction you choose will be unique to you and the goals you have for your own business.

So with the pace figured out for myself I move on to pricing…


Do you charge based on  materials + markup + hours+ overhead?


Do you charge based on the value and quality of the product?

Can’t I just make some hybrid of the two? If  I can, I probably will.

In the research I’ve done on the topic, most people start small, selling to friends.  At this point you’re not charging on an hourly wage, nor on the value of the product, you’re giving a discount. It’s a trade-off for building a name for yourself and starting to spread your network to get that target client that you need. Then gradually you build the right clients and start to price according to that market.

Some Pros and Cons for both types of pricing

Cons: sticking to an hourly wage that was prematurely high or just ran over the time estimated can scare off clients when you’re just starting out. Whereas if you do a job based on the value of the product and you find you’ve lost money on it,  that doesn’t make sense either.

Pro: Pricing by the value of a product could help you profit from a product line, where production is fast and quality is predictable.

Pro: Knowing that the materials, time, and the cost of the shop will all be taken care of in the pricing can set a business owner’s mind at ease.

Pro: Pricing by the value and quality of the product can remove limitations to a project. When the limit is however much your clients are willing to pay, you could potentially build a whole different type of furniture by pursuing this pricing model. The highest of the high-end, always challenging yourself more than you would when you have a set hourly wage.

PERSONAL Conclusions

I think that pricing by the hour is for businesses that want to do well financially through strategic pricing, but pricing by the value of the product can mean that you are not worrying about getting by, you just want to be a creative free spirit and the client is happy to pay for that end product.

So… ultimately I guess what I’m saying is:

I’ll probably start  my business by charging by the hour with all my costs etc.

But I’ll aspire to raise the level and quality of my work until I don’t need those training wheels anymore!

I expect as I gather more and more information that I might even change my mind about this, but for now this is where I am and I’m documenting it as such. EVERY single woodworker that I’ve spoken with or whose opinion I have read has had very different ways of tackling pricing, so it’s definitely worth forming your own opinion.

Shop equipment; what kind do I need to get started?

26 Jan
Stocking a shop with equipment can be a large stumbling block for us woodworking upstarts. It’s hard to know what the best path is.
Do I start small and then upgrade as I go?
Do I try to start with all the best equipment?
How do I get the money to pull that off?
I had the opportunity to speak with the man my friend is doing her apprenticeship with. I visited them at his shop which is a stand alone garage behind his house  in a well populated neighbourhood. My friend had filled him in on my goals to set up shop, and he was VERY helpful and was more than willing to let me pick his brain for two hours.
The ah-ha moment I had was when we talked about shop equipment. Let me preface this by letting you know that at the school I had attended we were using industrial sized table saws,  panel saws, drum sanders, jointers and planers. We did 9 shop visits to small, medium and large-sized shops and all of them had industrial grade machinery (except for the luthier we visited!).
This was the first successful shop I’d visited where a portable planer, and a contractor’s table saw were in evidence. Now I’ve seen countless videos online with shops like this in them, but I didn’t know these woodworkers personally and couldn’t ask “Can your machinery handle the everyday milling of a woodworking business?”. The answer in this case was yes. What I had passed off as hobbyist machinery could actually get the job done for my purposes too. And that’s because just as in this situation I will be running a one “man” shop building one-offs, versus a production line. Another reason this will work for me and for you is that upgrades will follow.
Which leads me to the two tips that he shared on machinery:
  • get the best machines that you can afford (as in now)
  • when buying used, never pay more than half the retail value of the machine  (you never know what that machine has been through, no matter how shiny and clean it looks.)
My own apprenticeship “boss”, Tim also debunked the myth that woodworkers starting a business need all the best tools. Tim said that he started out with a canvas bag of tools and now owns solid, good quality stationary equipment that still isn’t beefed up on horsepower, isn’t large capacity (6″ jointer, 12″ planer), and was not bought new. But Tim is able to do the quality he promises to clients, the volume of work he’s capable of, and he told me that he doesn’t have any debt.
Recently I stumbled across a website for woodworkers starting a business that I found very inspiring with a lot of useful content run by a guy named Adam King. If you read the article I just linked to up there, you’ll note that there are just 3 things you need to start a woodworking business today:

A Work Space (borrow a nook in a basement if you need to)

A Creation to sell (go on start to create with the tools you do have!)

A Client (start with friends and friends of friends)

So this is the conclusion I’m sticking with- start small and work your way up. That way you can start now and stop holding things off until everything is perfect, or your funds are there.

That said, my next step is to fix the electricity in my shop space as it’s been through a fire and could be dangerous to use as is.

I’ll be sure to update you in future posts with the:

  • Machinery I currently have and how I came to acquire it
  • Tools I find to be essential
  • How I plan to start with what I have
  • And finally what I may have to buy on the cheap to cover my bases
%d bloggers like this: