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.
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.
We 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.”