||It's been nearly 20 years since I first started working at woodworking. In the beginning, I worked alone out of a one-car garage outfitted with a minimal number of tools. Today I am the sole proprietor of a one-man cabinet shop, working out of a two-car garage outfitted with a minimal number of tools.
'That boy's gone far,' I can hear you saying, 'now he's got room for a second car.' There is, however, an even greater difference: This boy can now afford a second car. In my first 10 years of working wood for a living, I could barely provide for myself, let alone a second car, or the family of four I now support (another difference 20 years can make). It was not the woodworking itself, but rather the way in which I was working the wood that forestalled my financial success.
During those first 10 years, I could often be found building highly refined pieces of casework that required much hand joinery and tedious fine detailing. I called the results of these efforts kitchen cabinets. With each delivery, I bathed in my clientele's enthusiastic approval of my work. Little did I realize how much of the celebration was due to their joy at obtaining such a piece at such a price -- at least not until the day I looked up from my work and realized that this was not cabinetmaking. I was going broke like every custom furniture maker I had ever met. It had come time to unplug myself from the shop for a while and try to figure out what I was doing wrong.
It didn't take very long before I had three likely answers. First, I did not have the faintest idea about how to go about building cabinets -- in fact, I didn't really know what a kitchen cabinet was. Second, my methods and tooling, such as they were, were primitive and counterproductive. And third, I was an abysmally poor businessman. To continue to practice woodworking as a livelihood, I would have to understand the market's perspective of a quality piece of cabinetry and learn how to build it as efficiently as possible. I would also have to learn how to present myself and my products to the public in a successful way.
I began my education by taking a long, hard look at top-of-the-line cabinetwork on display at several local showrooms. I quickly found that the products imported from Europe had a great deal to teach me. With childlike awe, I examined the incredibly sophisticated hardware system that allowed these cabinets to achieve fitting tolerances generally unheard of in kitchen cabinetry. Looking closer, I learned that the casework was manufactured so that any variety of hardware elements could be installed: the same cabinet module could thus hold numerous configurations of doors, drawers and shelving without further processing. My mind boggled at the implications this would have on my primitive approach to cabinetmaking.
Imbued with a new vision of the cabinetwork I would strive to produce, I turned my attention back to my shop. It would be necessary to revamp the layout of the workspace completely and upgrade the tooling. Out went dust-collecting workbenches and an ancient, massive surface planer. In their place I substituted mobile caddies for tools and materials, and a multipurpose knockdown work platform. A new, lightweight planer was hung from the ceiling, instantly ready for use with a heave on a rope. I regrouped the major stationary tools into symbiotic relationships, creating compact work stations; I also upgraded the table saw, radial-arm saw and drill press with new fence systems, which practically eliminated the need for a tape measure during sizing and milling operations.
With the physical plant in shape, I then focused my attention on the production process itself. I analyzed the way in which materials flowed through the shop and how processes could be grouped and sequenced. I was mapping out a plan that would make the most of my time and my modest floor space. The result was the creation of a production flow chart that carried me smoothly from the initial stages of developing the layout and cut lists, through the production process, to the final installation of the product on site.
At this point, with a firm grasp of the products I intended to offer the market and a revitalized shop and workstyle, I needed to jump just one remaining hurdle: into the world of business. But the creation of a viable business enterprise struck me as something intangible and daunting. I soon realized, however, that I need only apply the same frame of mind that had wrought such miraculous changes in my shop.
I began by talking with people who were successfully operating small businesses like mine, and quickly learned what I needed to do. I explored the paper trail that must be followed to lend a bureaucrat's vision of credibility to a small business. I researched the legal ramifications of the various forms a business might take. I became acutely aware of the art of image-making. In dealing with clients, I learned not only how to clean up my act, I made one up. Finally, I designed a paperwork system specifically for small-shop cabinetmaking that simplified the day-to-day documentation of production data and business transactions.
This book is divided into the three major areas in which I worked to fix what was going wrong with my career: the shop, the process and the business. Together they comprise the story of how I now go about working at woodworking. It's the story of working hard and working well, and of producing a product whose market value amply rewards its maker. I am thankful to have been able to write this book; who knows, if I hadn't looked up from my work that fateful day, things might have turned out very differently. Not having learned what it has taken to get me to this point, I probably would have ended up going back to college for an advanced degree and would now be stuck with a real job. I shudder to think ....