It's not about money, but about a building a life that brings you meaning, pleasure, and satisfaction
What does it mean to be a successful furniture maker? I’m always struck by the diversity of ways in which woodworkers answer this question, whether they earn their living from woodworking or pursue it as an avocation in their spare time. While I was a training to make furniture 40 years ago, my fellow students, all men, judged success competitively, comparing their work with that of others. Whose bridle joint fit the best? Whose blind dovetails? Harder joints were worth more. If candidates were equally matched in technical skill, speed became a factor in the accounting: Faster was always better. In fact, impressing others any way you could was generally better, so the cooler the tricks you could muster to wow the socks off your friends and others (the perfect sand-shaded shell inlay, the most convincing relief-carved rendition of a thick hemp rope, a seemingly-impossible confluence of curved, angled parts in a flawless fit), the more successful those others would likely consider you.
Then again, it’s hardly news that comparing yourself to others is a bad way to judge success. Not only is comparison always a shaky foundation for self-esteem; it is also a fact that most comparisons involve apples and oranges. As a field, woodworking is mind-bogglingly diverse and bursting with talent, skill, and artistry. There are green woodworkers who carve bowls and rive logs to build 17th-century-style coffers, makers of Danish Modern-inspired chairs with seats of paper rush, specialists in miniature furniture or staked work. Others make conference tables from medium-density fiberboard with gorgeous veneers and hand-rubbed lacquer finishes; still others, furniture designed to be looked at, not used, an obvious example being the chair with a seat made of nails, their points facing up. (Go ahead, have a seat.) Each of these sub-fields has its own tools, techniques, and learning curves. Mastering any one of them is indisputably a sign of success. Forget being “the best.” There will always be others who are better, no matter what field you’re in, and the number of fields in which to shine is constantly expanding. Find a more worthy basis for how you define success.
I know that some people consider me a successful furniture maker and others don’t. What matters to me is how I feel about my own success or lack thereof. It’s a question to which I hadn’t paid that much attention until recently, when I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. That kind of thing will nudge many of us to reflect more than usual on what really matters.
How you define success will have a bearing on how successful you consider yourself. And how you define success has everything to do with your values, as well as hopes for, and expectations of, yourself. Before I ventured into formal training, I got into woodworking in my late teens. My interest wasn’t in anything abstract – I had no desire to “be a furniture maker.” I wasn’t even specifically interested in learning skills. I just wanted some furniture, and I couldn’t afford to buy it. You can call that a great example of “instrumental woodworking” if you feel the need to disparage my motivation as somehow unworthy. In response, I will remind you that even the crudest artifacts are blessings to those in need, and in this case I was both the person in need and the agent of potential need fulfillment. I would see things in magazine ads – “natural” pine was the thing in England in the late 1970s – and do my best to build a table or a bookcase inspired by those pictures. I had no idea what I was doing; I didn’t own a single tool. I borrowed tools from my boyfriend, mother, and stepfather – a hammer, a saw, a handplane, a slotted screwdriver.
The things I made served their purpose, however roughly wrought they may have been. I had no idea even how to saw a straight line. I had never heard of wood chisels. When my stepfather insulted me and my work one time too many, I signed up for a year of training in traditional furniture making through the City & Guilds system. (I was living in England at the time.) The syllabus included a modern coffee table with bridle joints in elm; a vaguely Regency-style coffee table with pedestal feet, reeded columns, and a banded, inlaid top; a dovetailed silverware chest with inlay and marquetry, among more prosaic projects.
I had a skill. That was when I decided I wanted to make furniture for a living.
I worked for two small shops in England that made freestanding furniture, kitchen cabinetry, and built-ins. Then I worked for a shop in Vermont that made custom, high-end office furniture. Each job broadened my education. When my former husband and I started a business of our own in 1989, I realized the necessity of getting to know people in our community. I got more involved – with historic preservation groups, the local co-op, the county history museum. I ended up finding clients, helped some good organizations, and had opportunities to indulge my interest in period architecture and design. Many of the people I met through these involvements became friends. And it was all because I found ways to support myself by making furniture. I make things for people to live with and use. I make their lives better. I call that success.
For most of my adult life, I have supported myself as a woodworker, whether as an employee or in my own business, which I started in 1995. Sometimes I was living alone, at other times with a partner who shared household expenses, which made it a lot easier to make furniture for a living. I have never made more than $45,000 a year in personal income, i.e. what my business is able to pay me, as distinct from gross revenue from sales. (I don’t think keeping this kind of information private does a service to anyone.) Shortly after my husband and I started seeing each other I told him I’d made $40,000 that year, the most I’d ever made. I was so proud of myself. In response, he said he thought $70,000 was minimal for a successful tradesperson. (Now he gets where I am coming from, the whole big picture.) A furniture maker friend who has had a well-paid spouse who brought benefits such as health insurance to their marriage used to complain to me 20 years ago that he was only making $40,000 or so a year, which he compared to the income of an assistant professor at our local university. He constantly reminded me that his wife considered his a hobby business. Whatever. Although housing costs are high in our area relative to most of the state, you really don’t need that much to make a living — especially if you share household expenses with a partner.
One of the most valuable lessons my parents taught me is not to measure my worth by how much money I make. I set out to support myself by doing what I consider good work, not to make a lot of money; and contrary to what some maintain, the two do not always go together. I didn’t need to make enough for vacations and travel beyond the kind of travel I do for work, because I wanted to live the kind of life that would be satisfying in itself, without the need for escape. I didn’t need a big house or an expensive vehicle.
That said, I could have designed many of my commissioned jobs to be more profitable – this kitchen with full-overlay doors and drawers, that sideboard with Domino fasteners instead of hand-cut dovetails. I have balanced these projects with others that required me to learn a new skill, such as carving commemorative text on the backrest of a walnut bench; I took a week to learn from videos on letter carving by Mary May and from Chris Pye’s letter carving book; I told myself that while I wasn’t earning income for the business, I was enhancing my education and my skills — all without the expense and commute that attending a course in person would have required. I know a bit from experience about what happened to the joy I took in working when my employer prioritized profit defined in financial terms. Now, when I decide to add something extra to a job — say, carving a tulip on a medicine cabinet or building a kitchen storage rack with hand-cut dovetails that I know my customers will appreciate every single day, I’m adding joy to my days, as well as theirs. So maybe I give them a few hours’ labor at no charge. I may make less money on the job, but the satisfaction I derive from doing the work, the pleasure I get from seeing my customers happy, and the fun of having the piece become part of my portfolio, is never-ending. I call that a mark of success.
And there’s more. I have always loved houses and wanted to build things for them, from bookcases and beds to libraries and kitchen cabinets. It’s a pity so many woodworkers consider built-ins a lower species of work; my life is enormously enriched by living with a few judicious pieces of built-in furniture – the wall of closets and drawers in our bedroom, or the 7-ft.-high storage cabinet I built into our bathroom, planning the case so it would accommodate a very cool salvaged door. I consider it an honor that my customers trust me to interpret their personalities and surroundings and design pieces that will make their home feel and work better. The honor is even greater when I’m working for an old house; it means so much when clients want to incorporate something made by my hand into their building’s historical fabric.
I always wanted to see my work published because I saw publication as a mark of success. But I’ve found far greater satisfaction from having my work published than the simple stamp of approval conferred by seeing my work in print. Writing about my work is creative at a meta level: design a sideboard, build it, critique it, improve the design, write about it – then see my work in print – all while working with good people who excel at what they do? Call me weird, but that’s my kind of fun. I have had opportunities to work with some great editors — Patricia Poore, Anissa Kapsales, Jonathan Binzen, Liz Knapp, Ben Strano, Chuck Bickford, Megan Fitzpatrick, Kara Uhl, and Chris Schwarz, to name a few. Learning to enjoy life is another definition of what I call success.
I also owe my professional opportunities as a writer of essays and books to my work as a furniture maker. The first piece I got published was an essay about the business of making a living in the trades, something I’d pondered at great length over the years while sanding. I have loved writing since I had a couple of thought-provoking English teachers in middle and high school; to have an editor at one of my favorite magazines (Patricia Poore, then at Old-House Interiors, now with Old-House Online) offer to publish my essay and pay me well for it? The printed essays and bound books become artifacts in their own right, irrefutable evidence that I have some skill in thinking and writing, whatever remnants of imposter syndrome I may still occasionally experience. I am who and what I am. I do what I do. Accepting who I am and understanding the value of what I do is success.
And writing has given me opportunities to join others in spreading the news-that-should-not-be-news, i.e. that Black people and women and people of no clear gender, people with physical and other challenges – in short, people of all kinds – are and can be woodworkers. It has introduced me to lots of readers who have become friends, whether in person or remotely, from the other side of the world. How is that not among the worthiest definitions of success?
As for fame defining success, it’s no more part of how I define success than is money. I need money in order to keep living and doing the work I love. I need “fame” only insofar as I appreciate its potential for opportunities to do more and better work, both with and for people I love. If being truly grateful in the face of a life-threatening illness is not a good definition of success, I don’t know what would be.
In short, for as long as I can remember, I have worked to make what I call an integrated life – one in which I would find meaning, pleasure, and satisfaction in the work of every day. To have people pay me to design and build furniture they will appreciate on a daily basis feels like success to me. I’m doing my best to stick around for a long while, encouraged by many of the people I’ve mentioned here, as well as others, the vast majority of whom I have met through my career as a woodworker.