In the past few days, several folks have asked me if I could give them some suggestions as to how to develop a successful carpentry contracting business, based on the restoration or replication of historic homes.
Well at first, a couple of jokes came to mind:
A young journeyman asks a master craftsman, “how can I make a small fortune in the woodworking business?”. The master craftsman replies “start with a big one”.
The young, frustrated businessman decides he will sever his relationships with the corporate world and make his living with his hands, doing the woodworking that he loves. He walks through the library doors and asks the librarian if there is a copy of “How to make $100,000 per year doing woodworking”. The librarian replies, “Oh, yes! We have a copy of that book, it’s right over there in the Fiction section.”
FIRST THINGS FIRST
The first question you have to answer is “do I want to physically do the work of carpentry and joinery?” If the answer is yes, understand that your maximum income potential is around $150,000/year. This assumes that the planets will all come into alignment and the “Age of Aquarius will begin immediately. Remember, you’re probably going to have a lot of “down time”, that’s time when you’re not producing revenue. Quoting time, travel time, sales time – these are non-revenue producing hours. So if you can average $75.00/hour for forty hours a week, fifty weeks per year – you’ll be able to generate $150,000 in revenue. However, you have to consider direct and indirect expenses like fuel, tools, insurance, loans on equipment, etc. After you subtract those costs from your revenue you have your gross (before tax) income. BTW, most working carpenters are “tickled pink” if they can find 1500 hours of work per year. Do the math.
If you wanna make the big bucks by executing the proper restoration of America’s historic architectural treasures, you’re going have to be a contractor. That’s the guy who’s not going to get to play with the tools very often. He’s going to make his revenue by taking an “override” on the work that’s done for him by other craftsmen. He’s a planner, an accountant, an administrator, a salesman and will have a host of other job descriptions – anything that is required for the completion of the project – except working at the craft. But this is where the bucks are.
WHAT SHOULD YOU KNOW
Develop a basic (but sound) understanding of business. Get an accountant and a lawyer. A good banker would help. But, in this day and age, lines of credit for carpentry contractors are a rare thing, a rare thing, indeed. Most craftsmen fail in business not because they’re poor craftsmen. They fail because they know absolutely nothing about business.
Develop a client base. An excellent restoration business can be built around as few as twenty clients (given that they have fairly substantial restoration projects that will be spread over a broad period of time). Client development is very time consuming and it can be very, very frustrating. However, it is ABSOLUTELY ESSENTIAL to your success. Most successful restorationists get all or nearly all of their business from referral.
Occasionally close your mouth. Listen to what your client is saying. He/she will tell exactly what they want and with a little effort on your part, they’ll tell exactly how much they can afford to pay to get it. You can’t listen is you’re talking all of the time. Learn to be comfortable when there is a “pregnant pause” in the conversation.
Build a sterling reputation. Under-promise and over-deliver.
Be honest. Provide client’s with a very well-defined scope of work, sign a contract and keep up your end of the bargain.
Make sure that your math and geometry skills are “up to snuff”. This may sound like a joke, but it is deadly important.
If you can’t be a master practitioner of the trade, you should, at very least have an excellent grasp of the craft you’re talking about. Don’t try to “bullshit” your way through a client interview. People will respect you if you simply say, “I don’t know, but I’ll find out and share that information with you”.
Understand that the work can be very physically demanding. Toting tools to a third floor ball room can get to be a real pain in the arse. Toting tools to a third floor ball room when it’s cold and snowing or hot and rainy can be a royal pain in the arse. Realize what you’re getting into. It’s not the same as whiling away the hours in your shop, admiring the sound that your antique Norris smoothing plane makes as it sheers across a beautiful piece of old growth mahogany. It’s work! Work, with a capital W.
Become a student of architectural history. Learn how the structures you’re interested in were constructed and why they were constructed in a particular way. Understand materials. Love what you’re doing.
READ – READ – READ
Several readers have asked if I can recommend any book titles that I have found useful in pursuing the trade over the years. Here’s the list (I’m sure there are other titles, but I have found these especially helpful):
The Ten Books on Architecture – Vitruvius – A classic
The Classical Orders of Architecture – Robert Chatham
The Architect , or Practical House Carpenter – Asher Benjamin – Leader of Greek Revival Architecture in North America
The American Builders Companion – Asher Benjamin
The Country Builder’s Assistant – Asher Benjamin
The Steel Square – Frederick Hodgson – Essential
Circular Work in Carpentry and Joinery – George Collings
Modern Practical Joinery – George Ellis – An incredible resource
Specialized Joinery – Thos. Corkhill and S.G. Duckworth
Modern Practical Stairbuilding and Handrailing – George Ellis
A Treatise on Stairbuilding and Handrailing – W&A Mowat
A Simplified Guide to Custom Stairbuilding and Tangent Handrailing – George R. diCristina – Be wary when anyone says it’s a “simplified” guide. It’s definitely NOT. But, it might be the best staircase book available.
Manual of Traditional Wood Carving – Paul N. Hasluck – Classic British Work on Architectural carving.
Also: In my experience there is no one single source of information about North American historic architecture and craft that Roy Underhill. Read the Woodwright series of books and everything else that Royhas written since he was Master Housewright at Williamsburg. The man is clearly a National Treasure and an individual with a huge sense of stewardship, from which we all benefit. Understand how things used to be done.
Frederick Wilbur is, in my judgement, the finest contemporary Architectural woodcarver in the United States. Let him be your guide to any restoration or replication carving that you might undertake.
Alright. Enough said. There will be a test and you better know the difference between a Linen Fold Panel and a Bolection Moulding.