Hardest thing to do in Woodworking

In almost 20 years of woodworking I still have trouble mastering this woodworking problem. It has become the most complex thing ever done in furniture making.

I’m sure you might be thinking dovetails, staining, or even furniture design. But for me, none of these are a problem compared to pricing my work. Even with all the practice giving a fair estimate for a customer is not an easy thing to do.

Dealing with a customer, especially a new one, has become sort of a dance with the client. I can’t just grab their hand and drag them out on the dance floor. I must walk up and introduce myself. Then I make small talk or complement them. Then politely ask them for a dance. Gently take their hand and lead them to the dance floor. From there, I can quickly learn the skill level of that person and move at a pace that is comfortable for both of us. So how do I do that with estimates? Let me explain.

To begin with, I like to visit the home of the client to see their style and surroundings. This not only helps me with the designing process but tells me a little about what they value in their lives.

Upon hearing what the customer would like to have made, I try to see if they have done any homework on the subject. Some customers are very specific to what they want. Others only have a vag idea. I like to ask questions to the customer on design features. It helps educates them but also tells me there experience in knowing quality furniture.  Lastly, and most important, I ask them if they have a budget. This is where an awkward silence falls over the room. The seconds feel like hours. They are quickly trying to size me up. “What kind of guy is he? Is he trying to rip me off?”

But this is a HUGE time saver for both of you. If the price is too cheap, there is no point in taking the time to do the estimate. I simply explain that that price would not even cover the cost of materials. They will quickly throw the ball back in my court by saying, “Well what do you think it would cost?” I have found to never answer this question. Whatever price I say at this moment will be the price they remember, FOREVER!


Instead, I give them this simple geometry formula. There is FAST, GOOD, and CHEAP. They can two of the three things in the triangle.  The customer can have fast service  and good quality, but the price won’t be cheap. Perhaps they would like it fast and cheap price, but the quality won’t be good. And of course, they will say they want it good and cheap. Absolutely, they can have that. But it won’t be fast. It might take months or years to complete because I have to wait for either scrap wood to be used leftover from another job. Or perhaps, when I am slow and need the work I can focus on it then.

This might seem like a bold thing to do but they will understand where you are coming from. Usually a happy medium can be reached and at that point and i can leave and work on the real price of the estimate. By the way, I will never do a job that is fast and cheap. My reputation is worth much more that any paycheck.

There are three things to consider when pricing your work.

  1. The cost of materials. Cheap products are something i try to always avoid. But I do look for specials or discounted items from my regular supplies who know me and my standards. If I got the impression the customer would really appreciate this potential piece, I might also give them the option of upgrades which could beautify and enhance the work.  Of course, this would be more expensive.
  2. The cost of the competition. It’s important to know what the going price of the piece you are about to make. Whether it is a table or entertainment center, what the competition charges is good to know. Sometimes a quick Google search can show you what others are charging. Keep in mind, if it is mass produced it will be cheaper than what you can make. But point out the features yours will have.
  3. Lastly is the cost of your time. This one is very difficult to do. Your time is very important, but you have to be honest and fair here. Your tools and skill level have to be considered. I figure things on an hourly rate when i price. But having done this for many years, I have a good idea how long it will take me for each task.

Let’s say that the customer wants dovetailed drawers. A person with a router and jig can do this very fast. However, if you don’t have that and are going to cut them by hand, it will be much slower. Especially if you never cut dovetails before. You can’t charge a hourly rate. “But Chad, you said that my time is important!” Yes, it is.

If you are using the router take the time to do a dovetail and then add a little extra. This helps cover the wear and usage of the machines. Remember all machines will one day break.

If you are going to try it by hand, consider it as education and you are investing in yourself. You can’t charge them for your learning experience, but it will help you in the future with other jobs. Your skill level and confidence will grow. And you can’t put a price on self-esteem.  

By doing this I can realistically stay within the range of the customer’s budget. If the price is a little over, they usually can deal with it. If you are under, it might be tempting to give yourself a little extra and raise your price to their budget. But I wouldn’t suggest that. Coming in a little under shows you are honest and trying to look out for their best interests. I have found that I get more work from them and they usually never ask for a price again. They just say, “Do it.”

Happy customers, fair pricing, and quality work are somethings  that make me want to DANCE!!!!!