I Am What I Am

Popeye 1The cartoon character Popeye used to say (maybe he still does) “ I am what I am and that’s all what I am.” except he said it with his odd accent that made it sound like he was referring to himself as a sort of sweet potato. His words were brought to mind by a note I received this morning from the client for whom we are building several pieces of furniture. She says:

The incredible beauty of the bench takes our breath away. It is so exciting to watch the tenderness, thought and care you put into each move you make. How different this is than buying a finished piece (and always wondering about the level of quality that went into construction) or worse yet – buying a piece made of particle board and having to put it together with no skills whatsoever.

It is so difficult to fathom the care you put into each piece you make for people you have never even met before.

I always believe that those who are happiest in life are those who have found and followed God’s calling for them. God gave you such a unique gift, and you use it to His glory for each person fortunate enough to find you. I am glad that we are among those so blessed!

Carolyn
Continue reading “I Am What I Am”

Warts and All

I recently posted one of my step-by-step discussions of how we build a piece of furniture; the more interesting of these discussions from our In The Shop blog become permanent articles in the library section of our custom furniture web site.

oops, mistake, errorIn this episode I discovered a mistake had been made in the piece of furniture and discussed my remedy for the error.  Shortly after having posted the chapter I was hailed by a constant reader and frequent critic to ask, “Why in the world did you admit to having made a mistake?  Doesn’t that undermine peoples’ confidence in your work?”

I asked him if he knew anyone who never, ever makes a mistake.  What do you think of someone who claims to have never erred?    Continue reading “Warts and All”

Moment of Truth

Hurt, resentment and a bit of anger welled up from my heart and swirled around my brain stem begging to be vocalized and hurled at my unsuspecting wife.  Not long ago I would have opened my mouth and given release to them, but years of training were finally paying off and caused my jaw muscles to clench for a moment while I reviewed the situation.  What had actually just happened?  Is this response appropriate?

It began a few minutes earlier that bright sunny, Sunday morning.  My wife; Marie, and I got into the truck to go to church.  I turned the key, fully expecting to hear the familiar quick rowr-rowr-rowr of the starter motor turning over the engine followed by the purr of combustion indicating a successful start.  Instead all we heard was the rapid metallic fluttering of a solenoid failing to engage.  I knew that sound all too well. Continue reading “Moment of Truth”

Simply Swapping Favors and the Barter System

Photo by Michael Ging

There was a time when, especially in rural America, most “commerce” was done not by exchanging cash money for goods you wanted but by trading something you had and could spare for something you needed.  Many rural General Stores were simply barter centers where families who had chickens would bring eggs and trade them for butter and milk brought in by another family or for flour ground by the mill up the road.

These stores would have cloth, pots, pans and farming implements brought in from the more industrialized East, thereby being able to supply most of the needs the local families had.  Cash transactions were accepted of course, but a large part of their trade was done through barter.

Rural life is still a lot like that.  Swapping favors is one way we can help one another get things done without depleting our bank accounts.  This goes beyond rallying around a friend who has something heavy to move because we know when we need help he will return the favor.  For instance, I have the equipment and skills to do high end woodworking, Tim has a truck and trailer.  Tim has often delivered my furniture pieces going “out East” for me, and I have built him furniture.   Continue reading “Simply Swapping Favors and the Barter System”

Watch What You Say…

I suppose these days, what with people sitting around in restaurants and wandering through stores talking loudly on their cell phones about Aunt Geraldine’s latest visit to the gynecologist or Cousin Sam’s messy divorce, people probably just tune out everyone else when in a public place.  Except me, I have a hard time ignoring loud talk and find it quite rude to be exposing everyone within 50 feet of you to the intimate details of your life.

However, I too was caught up in a similar situation once.  It was long ago, I was collaborating with a woman named Ann on a murder mystery novel.  This one day it turned out to be more convenient for us to meet at a restaurant for lunch and discussion of our progress.

It was getting noisy, as the place filled up and we found ourselves having to talk louder to hear while we discussed various plot twists and character attributes.  One particularly tricky bit finally flashed into inspirational focus for Ann and in her excitement she fairly shouted, “…and we could have the gardener kill Mr. Murdle and throw the body down the old well!”

We noticed immediately that the place was unusually quiet.  Looking around, all eyes were glued to us in shocked amazement.  Some were thinking about calling the police: we could see it in their eyes.

“It’s OK; we’re writers,” I explained, “we’re working on a book.”

Most of them gave us an “Oooohhh, I see” sort of look and went back to their meals.  A few, however, kept casting sidelong glances at us and seemed to be trying to listen in.

That was the only time we met at a restaurant to discuss our work!

Hitting the Wall

Runner_148498605_8037c74d18_mWhen I was in Junior High and High School one of the sports I excelled in was long distance running: both cross country and the longer track & field events.  One of the things I learned while training to run is that all distance runners reach a point where every fiber of our body is screaming at us to stop, to quit running, to rest.  This message is delivered via considerable amounts of abdominal pain, noodle-like legs and feet of lead.  We called this “hitting the wall”.

By ignoring my body’s command to cease punishing it and pressing onward, time seemed to slow down; I felt as though I was just plodding along in slow motion, running through Jell-O.  But the pain would ease up (because I’d go numb), I could no longer feel my feet (only hear them thumping into the dirt).  In reality I was still sprinting along, but I was totally unaware of that.  And I found that not only could I continue to run after ‘hitting the wall’, but I actually had untapped reserves to call upon if needed.   Continue reading “Hitting the Wall”

Moonshine Rod Run

It seems we all have our holiday traditions; what would Christmas be without a tree, what would Thanksgiving be without turkey (or ham in some homes), what would the 4th of July be without at least one 3rd degree burn.  And for Marie and I, Father’s Day has always meant… Car Show!

While we lived in St. Louis, we went to a monstrous car show in Forest Park that covered square miles with every conceivable kind of custom and classic cars, trucks, tractors and motorcycles.  Since we’ve lived here (2001), we have attended the Hard Times Street Rod Club Moonshine Rod Run in the Newport City Park every Father’s Day weekend.

Newport has a very nice park, and the Hard Times Street Rod Club does an excellent job of presenting this show.  This year the attendance, both in terms of lookers and in cars displayed, was back up to the level it was when we first came here.  When the economy crashed, this show suffered some.  We did notice that all the tags we saw indicated the cars were from Tennessee, North Carolina and South Carolina.  We saw no tags from Georgia or Florida as we had in the past.  So while the numbers are up again, people are not willing to come long distances for the show.

This year the Moonshine Rod Run again boasted over 500 classic cars ranging from the 1920’s to 1958.  Some were stock restorations, some were fully customized, most were somewhere between.  Some were breathtakingly beautiful, all were interesting.  If you like classic cars, that is.

Continue reading “Moonshine Rod Run”

The Fat Lady Sings

fat ladyThere is a saying: “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings.”  Apparently coined by sports information director Ralph Carpenter during a 72-72 tied game between the Raiders and the Aggies in 1976 and reiterated any time someone is in a close contest.

For most of us recently life has been a close contest.  Economic disaster has pushed many to the brink of ruin.  And some have gone over the brink.

I’ve been building furniture for over 30 years.  It started as a hobby, making things for my own home, then friends and relatives.  Eventually word got around and my friends’ friends began calling on me to build things for them too, and furniture making moved from hobby status to side-line business.  This side-line grew until I cut my full-time employment to part time to test the waters as a full time woodworker, then quit my job altogether.  That was about 12 years ago (1998) and I’ve been working full time as a self employed custom furniture maker ever since.

There have been a few lean spots where things got particularly tight, and there have been times when demand for my work has been so great that I had a 12 month long waiting list in spite of the fact that I was working 12-14 hours a day 6 days a week for weeks on end.

Yet, somehow we never seemed to reap the benefits of all this work.  Even when our busiest year came to a close and we tallied up all the numbers in our annual report to Uncle Sam, profitability was disappointingly low.  How could that be?

Then I found a series of articles in Custom Woodworking Business magazine written by consultant Anthony Noel in which he addressed this very issue, pointed out many expenses that often slip through the cracks to feed upon your profit margin and taught us to build a spreadsheet for tracking those costs and calculating them back into our hourly shop rate.  I awaited each installation of that series with much anticipation and when it was complete I had my spreadsheet and began tracking down all those misplaced profits.

We recalculated our shop rate based on the results of that study and were confident that we would now be able to start tucking away a little for retirement.

Then the economy tanked (2008).

For a while people who still had money to spend on quality furniture were finding us and we were getting along, but last July either those people started feeling the need to hang onto their money or we were no longer able to get our name in front of them and things began to get really tight.  But, the fat lady hadn’t sung yet.

Almost another year has passed and nothing is getting better.  I believe I hear that buxom soprano starting her aria.  It’s decision time.

Having furniture custom designed and built for you is expensive.  It’s much like the difference between selecting a suit off the rack at your local department store or going to a tailor and having a suit specially fitted to your physique.  A tailor made suit will be many times the cost of an off the rack suit.  More so if you choose a particularly spiffy fabric.  But there are men who feel that $500 to $1000 (sometimes more) for one suit is money well spent.  Marie spent many years as a seamstress in a popular dress shop in St. Louis and she knows first hand the extraordinary amount of money women will put into custom made gowns.  And we hope to meet some of those people again soon as they will be the ones who are willing to spend money on high quality furnishings that are designed to their specific needs and tastes and built to last for generations.

But those are not the people who have been contacting us lately.  As an example, there was the fellow who wanted a table and benches designed for his children’s use.  After discussing his needs with him I estimated the job at around $1,000.  His budget for the project was $350, and that had to include delivery to the east coast!  This was just one example, it is typical of most of the dealings we’ve had lately.  We’re just going to have to move in a new direction if we are to survive.

Over the years there have been certain items that have been very popular and have sold consistently.  The higher pricing dictated by the need to actually show a profit as cooled the enthusiasm for even these items.  But if I can get pricing back down to the previous levels, we may be able to revive interest in those pieces.  How do we do that? Volume production.

I have always considered myself as something of an artist and as such have always considered production work to be distasteful.  But then, so is starving to death.

If I can produce our most popular items in batches of 10 to 12 pieces I can economize by making the parts of these pieces in runs, and saving labor overall.  How does that work? Well, it takes time to set up a tool to make a particular cut.  Depending on the tool and the cut being made, it can take 20 minutes to fit the jigs and make test cuts to home in on perfection.  If making parts for a single piece of furniture, all that work will go into making one or two finished cuts on parts (which may take all of 30 seconds to make the actual cut) and all that time gets billed to the one piece of furniture.  If making 12 of those pieces of furniture, once the set-up is done it can be used to make parts for all of them and the 20 minute set-up time gets split between the 12 pieces.  Instead of adding 20 minutes of shop time to each, less than 2 minutes is billed to each.

This is not to say that we will be able to slash our pricing to ½ of the current rate, for assembly and finishing of each piece of furniture will still consume most of the construction time and that must be done one piece at a time, with careful attention to detail or the quality of our work will suffer greatly.  And it does not take 20 minutes to set up for every cut made.  But if economizing in the parts making stage will help us reduce costs, maybe we’ll get some of that business back.

This will mean that what we build will not be customizable.  Asking us to make a set of tray tables 2″ wider than the ones we normally make seems a simple enough request, but it would in fact require re-designing and re-making all the jugs and templates for most of the parts used to make those tables.  So, full custom work is being sent to the bench until the game turns around for us.  The fat lady has sung.

Best Laid Plans

When I first started my woodworking career in earnest, many years ago, I was a young man with a dream; and a plan. I planned to go sailing about the world on a 28 foot Bristol Channel Cutter, earning my way by doing carpentry work in the ports I visited and writing about my adventures. This was before laptop computers, so I planned to do my writing with pen and paper, mailed off to a typist who would put it into manuscript form. The woodworking angle took a little more planning. I refined my tool kit to a selection of the essential hand tools that would fit into a pocketed oilskin tool roll about the size of a big duffel bag. Hand tools only because electricity would not always be available. With that, a knock-down work bench, several reams of paper sealed in freezer bags and a fair bit of ingenuity I felt confident I could accomplish my dream.

I practiced by building furniture for friends and neighbors using just this tool kit in my back yard. I got to be pretty good at it. I was already pretty good at the writing and had sold a few articles and one book.

Following in the Footsteps of Others

I felt confident that I could do this because I had some great role models. I had read all of the books written by Lynn and Larry Pardey about their adventures as they cruised the world in their 24 foot Serrafyn. Much of their writing was about handling rough weather in a small boat, navigation and cruising on a shoe string; being a “Self Sufficient Sailor” as a common thread through all of their books and the title of one of them. These folks provided the blueprint for my plan and their tag-team style of writing (Larry writing some and Lynn writing some) kept me guessing as to who was writing what.

http://www.amazon.com/Seraffyns-Oriental-Adventure-Lin/dp/0964603632/ref=sr_1_7?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1282900253&sr=1-7

I enjoyed a pair of books by Gordon and Nina Stuermer, Starbound and Deep Water Cruising. In them the Stuermers spend two and a half years circumnavigating the world with their family aboard the square sail ketch, Starbound. Gordon used a fair bit of humor to keep things entertaining, and includes many practical tips on deepwater sailing.

I also added Blown Away and You Can’t Blow Home Again by Herb Payson to my library. His first book, Blown Away caught my fancy by his writing style. Herb and Nancy Payson, she a cocktail waitress and he an experienced sailor, decide to sell everything, buy a boat and sail the world. Herb writes about their adventures aboard their 36 foot wooden ketch, Seafoam. He injects a good amount of humor and uses self deprecation to counterpoint his obvious skill as a seaman. With a large boat, a bankroll to live off of and plenty of family who rotate through as crew for a working vacation, these folks were the exact opposite of the Pardeys; but the books were very entertaining

And of course Chapman’s Piloting and Seamanship is a reference book no serious sailor should be without. It covers everything from tying knots to weather prediction to navigation.

Since I planned to build my boat by finishing out a hull and deck kit, I also devoured all of Ferenc Maté books beginning with From A Bare Hull. It was his Best Boats To Build that helped me decide on the Bristol Channel Cutter.

Phase One: A Real Boat

T hen I bought a sailboat. Not the Cutter I wanted, I lived inland and needed a boat that could be used on the local lakes yet would handle like a bigger boat. I did some research and chose the Victoria 18. With a full keel, 550 pounds of lead ballast and a sloop rig, she would respond and handle on the lakes like a large boat would on the ocean. I had already taught myself the basics of sailing using a Sunfish. I traded the sunfish in on a Victoria, christened her Pegasus and set about learning to handle a real boat.

Pegasus came with a small outboard engine, but I loathed using it. I didn’t even take it with me most of the time. Instead, I learned to SAIL the boat. I learned to tack my way up the narrow channel to the marina, learned to watch the water for wave patterns that indicated wind shifts, and to maximize whatever winds were available. I went out sailing in all weather from near calm to 35 mile per hour winds that whipped the lake to huge, foam crested waves, spray stinging my face and the wind howling through the rigging. Pegasus seemed to enjoy the rough weather sailing as much as I did. And I learned a great deal about sailing single handed.

I did have a little Welsh Corgie named Brandy, who enjoyed sailing with me in fair weather. I trained him to stand on the foredeck as I worked into the dock, foreline in his mouth. On my command, Brandy would jump over to the dock, run around a cleat and jump back into the boats’ cockpit where I sat and give me the rope. I’d then snug it up, stopping our forward motion and drawing the boat up to the dock gentle as a falling leaf. This little maneuver tended to leave the spectators on the dock staring gape-jawed. It was great… once we got it down pat. There were a few scary and embarrassing moments along the way!

The First Snag in the Plan

I was well on my way to accomplishing my dream. But then I fell in love with a young lady, and this young lady had no intention of bobbing around the world in a boat.

Rather than trading the Victoria in on a Bristol Channel Cutter and going off to see the world, I kept the Victoria and spent the boat money on building a woodworking shop and got married.

In retrospect, I should have held onto the dream, and let go of the girl. But that’s another story.

Because The Young Lady wanted a fine house filled with expensive toys, the woodworking got relegated to a part time hobby and I took on a full time occupation with its more predictable pay rates. I divided my spare time between tinkering with furniture and sailing. But The Young Lady discovered that not only could I build lovely furniture, but that I could do so much more affordably than buying commercial furniture of the quality she demanded. Thus furniture production became a priority over sailing and Pegasus sat on her trailer; neglected, decaying, and lonely. I hated to see that happen to her, but just didn’t have the time even to keep her maintained let alone taking her out sailing. So I sold her to someone who had long admired the boat and promised to take good care of her. So long good friend.

In retrospect, I should have held on to the boat, and sold the girl. But…

Pressing On: A New Plan

Over the course of my years my life has endured many changes. I’ve attempted a number of different career choices, some with more success than others, and lived in many different locations. But through it all, were my woodworking and writing. I kept at those no matter where I lived or what I did to earn a living. At one point I took a year off from formal employment to try my hand as a professional writer. I did OK, but just OK. Eventually, I got tired of eating beans and decided to earn my living from the woodworking which looked to be far more lucrative.

I was again establishing a reputation and business was building slowly. Then, divorce cost me my first workshop and everything in it. Time to start over.

Same Plan: New Start, New Partner

When I met Marie I was living in a small apartment, with no space for a shop, and being bled white by the divorce I had no funds to rent suitable space and buy tools. But I was teaching woodworking at a local Rockler store and writing articles for woodworking magazines.

While on a vacation, we stopped at a visitor’s center on the Blue Ridge Parkway that houses a store for local artists. Marie was marveling at some lovely turned wood bottle stoppers and saying that they would probably sell well to the wineries back home in Missouri. Yes, Missouri actually has quite a few wineries. I commented that I could make those if I had a lathe.

So she bought me a small lathe and a basic set of turning tools and I began making bottle stoppers. And we sold them to local wineries; we sold lots of them. With the proceeds we bought more tools and built more things. And it mushroomed from there. Back in business.

Almost Heaven Joins the Plan

When we moved from St Louis to the mountains of East Tennessee, we brought the tools with us and bought a mountain side property with a small workshop already in place. Over the next three years we built it up and earned a reputation for making quality furniture. Along the way several people have come to help out.

Marie and I worked together here full time right from our move. But in 2003 we hired a web site designer to improve our web site and use her SEO skills to bring us more traffic. Instead she destroyed our traffic and nearly bankrupted us. At this point it was decided that Marie would seek employment to be sure the bills got paid while I continued to keep the woodworking going and re-build our web site. When the orders began flowing again, Marie chose to stick with her new job, just in case.

Moms HouseWe moved my Mother and Step-dad out here in 2006, setting up a double-wide for them on our property to keep them close so I could help them; they were both getting on in years. Mom helped out as shopkeeper in the gallery we opened in Cosby. Pat tried helping out in the workshop, but it wasn’t something he enjoyed, so he went to keep Mom company in the gallery.

W e met Brian and Linda Hinschberger while buying Mom & Pat’s house. Linda was our salesperson, and mentioned that her husband also did woodworking. We got together and he was very helpful for a time; then he got a shop of his own set up in a huge old barn on his property. I was a little envious of all that space, but wished him well as he headed off to create his own company. We continued to help each other out, subcontracting things back and forth, for quite a while.

M y nearest neighbor, Tim stepped in to fill the void. A born-and-raised mountain man and retired truck driver he had no furniture making skills but had done carpentry work. He built us a wonderful little storage barn. He had a good eye for detail, was willing and eager to learn and was a hard worker. He was very helpful until it was learned that he had stomach cancer and would soon be going on to join the Lord.

That left just me; once again a one-man shop. Back where I started, but content with that.

When the economy tanked in 2008, work began to slow down, my comfortable back-log of orders shrank, then disappeared. In October of 2009 I began gearing up for the Christmas rush. Every year about that time things would get very busy and I’d end up working 12 to 14 hours a day six days a week trying to get orders out in time for Christmas delivery. But that year the Christmas rush never developed. A few orders came in, but nothing like years past. I actually got to spend that Christmas season with my family decorating a tree and the house and baking Christmas goodies to send to our families. Well, OK, Marie baked, I conducted quality control checks.

Between Christmas and February was always slow, it would pick up in late January or early February. It always had. I was sure it would, and we planned accordingly. But it didn’t.

Another New Plan

So the woodworking got set aside and I began to focus more on my writing. Being a part time endeavor it had never brought in much – a few hundred dollars a month at best. And though I had tried being a full-time writer before and failed, the world is a very different place now. No longer do printed manuscripts have to be boxed up and mailed off to potential publishers where they lounge around for weeks (or months!) awaiting a review. On-line publishing makes it possible for anyone to publish their work for the world to read at little or no cost. Building a portfolio of work on-line should make it easier to query publishers for works I hope to have formally published. Or I can publish my work in e-book format and sell it on Amazon. Whether or not I’ll be able to earn anything approximating a living doing this is yet to be seen, but I have high hopes. Like any new thing, it takes some study to learn how to use the mechanisms that make it all work. It takes some perseverance. It takes a positive outlook. And it takes a plan.

My current plan is already bearing some fruit; reaction to my work posted here on Hub Pages has been mostly positive. My personal Blog The Daily Prattle is rapidly building traffic.

Part of that traffic were the editors of Grit Magazine, a rural living publication in print since 1882 who have asked me to write for them as a regular contributor. I will be writing a column/blog called Of Mice and Mountain Men.

Other deals are in the works. The Plan seems to be unfolding nicely. I just need to remember the wise words of a Chinese proverb: “When you want to test the depths of a stream, don’t use both feet.”