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The Fat Lady Sings
By: Doug Bittinger - May 4, 2010

There 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 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.

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 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.

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