Teach a Man to Fish and He Can Eat for a Lifetime: Lessons for Woodworkers and Entrepreneurs

custom baseboard molding
Custom Baseboard Molding

We’re putting the finishing touches on the kitchen after having painted all three floors of our house in preparation to sell it and downsize. One of the minor projects in the house was to install a small piece of baseboard molding near the refrigerator (see picture). Unfortunately, the original piece was missing and not to be found around the house. A few years ago I would have driven to one of the big box home improvement stores to try and find a match. Now, I just cut my own. A woodworker with a good router table, a selection of router bits, a miter saw, and table saw can knock something like this out in a few minutes. That’s the joy and beauty of learning new skills in woodworking (or learning to fish). We don’t have to buy pieces like baseboard, but can create any length, with any pattern at the top, with any angles at the end.  We didn’t get there by accident, though.  We had to learn to fish by continually building new skills, insourcing, and enjoying the ride.

Continually build new skills

How does one learn to fish in woodworking (or entrepreneurship, or life for that matter)?  There are several methods such as taking a short class, watching YouTube videos, listening to podcasts, or being mentored by someone else.  With explosion of the Internet over the past several years there are so many different ways to accelerate our journey up the learning curve.

Several years ago, a very popular business book came out called the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.  One of the habits Covey talks about is sharpening the saw.  His analogy is that you wouldn’t spend all day trying to saw down a tree with a dull blade.  You’d stop, sharpen the saw, then quickly do the job.  Why don’t we always do that in business?  Sometimes, we need to just step away and sharpen that saw (or build new skills) before moving on with a project.

That skill to rout a baseboard didn’t come about by magic.  I got some hands on training at the Festool Ubershop in Beltsville, Maryland from Brian Graham when I bought some of my Festools.  Another great way to spin up quickly is to take a class at Woodcraft.  Typically these are night classes and only last 4 hours or so.  I’ve taken great classes on pen turning, raised panel cabinetry, and bowl turning.  If there is something you always wanted to learn, or something that will help you build a business, set aside the time to learn via a class, video or podcast.

Speaking of mentorship, I’m working my way through the massive biography of John D. Rockefeller by Ron Chernow called Titan, The Life of John D. Rockefeller, Sr., and there are several examples of J.D. learning to fish. For those who aren’t familiar with Rockefeller, he was the head of Standard Oil in the late 1800s and early 1900s. At one point he was the richest man in the world.  His long road to riches started as a humble assistant bookkeeper. Someone mentored him on bookkeeping and he said in an interview that bookkeeping skill was the bedrock for his future success because it gave him insight into how well (or poor) a business was doing.  The numbers didn’t lie when he evaluated businesses to acquire.  There are so many great lessons learned for woodworkers and entrepreneurs from John D. that we’ll have an upcoming blog post on him.

Insource

In our travels around Asia for work, a colleague of mine, Rich Davis, pointed me (thanks, Rich) to a blogger named Mr Money Mustache (aka “MMM”) whose blog is about financial independence.  I can do without MMM’s F-bombs, but he does have sage advice for those striving for early retirement and one of his tenets is to do the work around the house yourself rather than hiring it out.  This is contrary to the current rules of engagement that say we should hire everything out that we can.  Is this a contradiction with the last post about only doing what only we can do?  I don’t think so.  During my command tours in the Air Force, I delegated tasks and mentored my Airmen because it built their capacity.  In addition, I couldn’t possibly do everything myself.  At home, by outsourcing I’m supporting a local business, but I’m not necessarily building capacity of someone who has done that skill for a very long time.  On the flip side, if I do the work myself I am definitely building capacity because I am not as skilled in as many trades.  I’m pretty comfortable with carpentry, but have a long way to go in installing electrical wiring, or installing plumbing, for example.  Insourcing is building my family’s capacity.

A great example of this is in the book by Ashlee Vance that came out in 2015 about Elon Musk.  Musk owns Tesla, Space X, and Solar City.  One of the striking things about Space X is that Musk decided to insource much of the work that normally would have been outsourced.  He would tell a young engineer that the engineer needed to design and build a particular part and give him or her what seemed like an impossible deadline.  Why?  Think of the incredible capacity in that one engineer that now not only knows how to design a part on paper or on the computer, but can actually manufacture it.  Incredible.  Another reason is that it gave him much more control over the design and precision of the part.

Going back to the household example, if I can do it, why wouldn’t I?  I spent many summers painting to make money for college.  Why would I hire someone else to paint my house?  I can do it with just as high a quality for probably less than a tenth of the cost, especially when I leverage the free teenager labor in our house.  They love to work on Dad’s projects.  Ask Mitch about tiling the basement if you see him ; )

Enjoy the ride

The last main point is to enjoy the ride.  A couple years ago I read a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft:  An Inquiry into the Value of Work by Matthew Crawford.  Crawford writes about how we have lost the experience of working with our hands.  He’s not talking about experience as in gained knowledge, but experiencing the joy of working with our hands.  Crawford got his degree then started working in Corporate America.  He realized the cubicle life was not for him, quit, and started his own motorcycle repair business.  Talk about guts.  I think Crawford is on to something as we wrote about in our post about getting in the zone and “flow state.”  In addition, most entrepreneurs realize they are in for a long gritty slog, but need to step away from time to time and enjoy the successes they have achieved so far before returning to the salt mines.  Along those lines, I think this entrepreneur is going to enjoy the ride by going downstairs to have some of that lunch Mrs Woodworker just made.

Consider learning how to fish before you start eating that fish in front of you.  It will help you in woodworking, entrepreneurship, and life.

How to Fail Fast and Fail Cheap in Woodworking, Entrepreneurship, and Life

“Success is moving from failure to failure with enthusiasm”

— Winston Churchill

prototype entrepreneurship woodworking
Chair Prototype in Progress

Have you ever heard the business maxim “fail fast, fail cheap”?  The reason to fail fast and cheap is to quickly find out what doesn’t work and accelerate your journey to success while doing it at the lowest cost possible.  One of the ways we do that in woodworking is by prototyping.  Premium hardwoods are expensive.  You don’t want to build the first in a set of dining room chairs, for example, and find out your measurements are off or the design isn’t quite right.  All the more reason to do some prototyping first.  This maxim of fail fast and fail cheap applies in woodworking, entrepreneurship as well as life, which we’ll delve into below.

Fail Fast in Woodworking

One of my first projects for Traughber Design was to design and build a cat bed for our favorite pet, Ralph the Woodworking Cat (see post about the life of Ralph here).  The pet industry in the United States is a multi-billion dollar per year industry and given how much people love their pets, I figured a hand-made pet bed in black walnut would be a sure fire seller.  I was actually worried there would be so many orders once the piece was posted on the Internet that I wouldn’t be able to keep up with production.  Silly me.  Guess how many orders we received for that piece?  Zero!  That was a valuable lesson in failing fast for a couple of reasons.  One is that I should have prototyped the design in pine first before going final with black walnut.  Pine is about a fourth the cost of black walnut.  I ended up making two of these beds out of black walnut and could have made just one.  But the other lesson we learned was to finish the piece quickly and get it on the website to get user feedback.  That part I think we did well.  In this case, we learned there was not a market for this type of work and quickly moved on to more lucrative projects.  Lessons learned:  make it fast using a prototype and solicit feedback early from the market.

Fail Fast in Entrepreneurship

I came up with an idea a few years ago for a consumer product that had wide application.  Anyone could use it.  I cobbled together some parts from around the house and started testing it.  Given the nature of the product, I could test it once every 24 hours.  I’d test it, modify it, test it, modify it, etc.  I was failing fast (and cheap) because I could run through the entire cycle in a day.  The grand plan was to market it via a company called Quirky, which solicits products like this then does all the marketing for the entrepreneur.  Unfortunately, Quirky went bankrupt!  The product is currently  on the shelf due to time constraints with our other projects, but we learned a lot in the process of testing and did not have to invest a lot of resources.  We may resurrect the product in the future and try to market it ourselves.  Lessons learned:  do rapid prototyping with inexpensive components.

Fail Fast in Life

At one point in my life I accepted what was considered a promotion, even though I was very reluctant because of the nature of the work.  I did the job for a few months and realized I didn’t want to do that type of work for the next unknown number of years and was not following my calling.  I developed a transition plan, then discussed it with my boss who was very amenable to the change when I explained how the switch back to my old job would benefit the organization.  I had to put aside my pride, because the change might have been perceived by some to be a demotion, but that was definitely the wrong job for me.  By pulling the plug after only a few months, I was failing fast which is a good thing.  Lesson learned:  don’t wait to pull the plug if you know your job is not a good fit.  Move on.

Fail Cheap in Woodworking

I’m currently working on a commission for four dining room chairs in cherry and decided to build a prototype in pine for two reasons.  One reason was to test the form, fit and function with the client, but the other reason relates more to failing cheap.  This reason was to go through the build process and identify any manufacturing problems.  I had modified the joinery plan from using biscuits to mortise & tenon joinery since that’s one of Traughber Design’s hallmarks and we have a Festool Domino (see blog post #2 on tools).  The Domino cuts joints amazingly precise and quickly.  Sure enough we ran into a problem in attaching the leg braces underneath the seat (see picture at top of this post) and were able to resolve it by changing where the joints were placed.  We would not have uncovered that issue until we were cutting into very expensive cherry if we had not prototyped.  As it was, we were using very inexpensive scrap pine 2 x 4s which were laying around the wood shop.  Lesson learned:  fail cheap by building inexpensive prototypes.

Fail Cheap in Entrepreneurship

We’re very happy with our current Traughber Design website, but started out with another provider when we first launched on the Internet.  The other website was free to set up, and there was a nominal cost to post each of our woodworking pieces online.  Sales, however, were disappointing and the more we worked with that site’s community, the more we realized it really wasn’t a good fit for a custom woodworking business.  Fortunately, we were only out a few bucks and we failed cheap.  In addition, we established a beachhead on the Internet for very little cost and learned a lot.  We decided to create a website with more functionality like this one that can grow with the business.  WordPress is a very widely used open-source software with thousands of plugins available.  Our web host, SiteGround, has industry-leading uptime rates, and first-rate tech support (click here if you are looking for a web host)  Lesson learned:  try to do many low-cost experiments to see what works well then pick the winners.

Fail Cheap in Life

One of my summer jobs during college was at a gas station in our home town.  The manager was great and my co-workers were great, too.  The pay was terrible, though.  I learned a lot about the value of time during that job.  For example, the previous summers I had painted houses which was pretty lucrative for a teenager.  Unfortunately, our crew had to disband which is why I got the gas station gig.  I didn’t make much that summer at the gas station, but I paid relatively little to “fail cheap” by not earning what I could have earned painting.  In the grand scheme of things, “wasting” 3 months that summer wasn’t a deal breaker, and I learned a key lesson in valuing my time.  Lesson learned:  take risks in life, just not expensive ones.

You know how you always see or hear that saying “failure is not an option”.  Maybe it should be “failure is mandatory.”  If you’re not failing, it doesn’t seem to me you are trying anything worthwhile.

An Ode to Ralph the Woodworking Cat (2000-2016): R.I.P.

Ralph the Cat and Friend
Ralph the Woodworking Cat and Friend

On Tuesday, my little woodworking helper went to the great wood shop in the sky.  I’m thankful for the time we spent together, in part, because he was such a great mentor and taught me a lot about entrepreneurship, woodworking, and life.  Here are a few things I learned from Ralph the Woodworking Cat.

 

You can accomplish just about anything you put your mind to.

Ralph the Woodworking Cat after tough clamping job
Ralph After Tough Wood Clamping Job

You see that picture to the left?  Ralph had a heck of a time tightening those clamps with his paws and teeth.  He just would not be denied because when it came to woodworking, Ralph was all about craftsmanship.  As you can see from the picture, he was exhausted after all that effort, but he would not quit until he had applied enough clamping pressure.  He was determined to have a solid joint.  His diligence was always a great inspiration to me.

 

Along those lines, when I was a junior officer, I was bound and determined to get my pilot’s license.  Back then, many of our Air Force bases had flying clubs.  These days, they’re mostly gone due to budget cuts.  But back in the day, my aero club had a handful of aircraft like Cessnas, Piper Warrior II’s, an Arrow, etc. and I loved to go out on a clear day and do some flying with my instructor.  One of the things I absolutely hated, though, was doing stalls.  Stalls are when you point the nose of the aircraft up until the plane starts shuddering because it is losing airspeed and enough air is not flowing over the wings for lift.  I knew, though, that I’d have to do stalls with the FAA examiner if I was going to get my license.  I agonized over it and decided I was going to do stalls over and over again until I was comfortable.  So that’s what I did.  I went out flying about 3 days every week and flew to a relatively desolate area where I could stall the plane over and over and over again.  It just took putting my mind to it, just like Ralph did with his wood glue up.

Don’t take “no” for an answer.

ralph the woodworking cat
Ralph Focused on the Goal: Chicken!

See this picture?  Guess what’s in the pan.  That’s right:  chicken.  Ralph would never take no when it came to chicken.  Sometimes he’d jump up on the counter when we weren’t looking.  Other times he’d push a trash can over and other times he’d wait until the trash bag was at the curb to open the bag with his claws.  He was going to get that chicken.  When he smelled chicken, he’d get this crazed look in his eyes and start to almost vibrate.  We need to be the same way when we have an important goal in mind:  get that crazed look and start to vibrate.

A pal of mine wrote his first book called The DevilDragon Pilot recently, but he had to get approval from some government organizations before he could publish it.  As we all know, the government is incredibly fast and efficient…   You can stop laughing now.  Anyway…the review process was supposed to take less than 30 days.  That’s right, it took over 8 months!!!  But the author refused to take “no” for an answer.  He called.  He E-mailed.  He called some more.  When asked to make changes, he turned them around in hours to put the ball back in the reviewers’ courts.  He submitted the book for review in January and finally, in November, the book is for sale.  Now that shows exerting will over friction, terrific grit, and not taking “no” for an answer.  We’ll release a blog post soon with an author interview.  Click here for interview #1 and here for interview #2.

Enjoy life

Ralph the woodworking cat enjoying smell of sawdust
Ralph Enjoying Smell of Sawdust

Ralph liked to work hard and play hard.  I think as he got older, “play hard” meant “nap”, but to each his own.  One of Ralph’s favorite things (and mine) was to enjoy the smell of fresh sawdust. Here you can see he is multitasking by both napping and smelling sawdust.

 

When we were stationed in Europe, our neighbors would disappear for a month at a time taking something called a “vacation.”  We wondered how you could possibly take an entire month on these things called “vacations.” You see, my fellow Servicemembers and I were slaving away and losing some of our 30 days of annual leave every year.  Talk about different cultures!  But you know, our neighbors seemed happier and spent much more time together as a family.  I think the Europeans are on to something.

There’s a lesson in that for all of us.  Sometimes we just need to stop, look around, and enjoy the scent of fresh sawdust.  Or the feel of a finely tuned plane in our hands.  Or the feel of a hand running over a nicely cured oil and urethane varnish.

Ralph, this one was for you.  We’ll miss you.

Entrepreneurship and Woodworking are Like Yoga: Alignment and Holding the Asana (Pose)

cat woodworking entrepreneurship yoga
Ralph the Cat Helping Mrs Woodworker with Yoga

I had the good fortune to start a yoga class last month and was amazed how stiff I was!  After the initial pain of learning the various poses (called asanas) started to wear off, my classmates and I started to see some increased flexibility.  In addition, the daily practice of yoga began to reveal striking parallels with entrepreneurship and woodworking such as alignment and building strength.

Alignment

One of the things our yoga instructor (Thierry Chiapello, see his blog here) emphasizes to us over and over again is alignment.  He is always correcting our alignment and asking us what our body is telling us.  He stresses that our practice on our own is more important than class.  Our practice is where we really begin to listen to what is going on and to develop our muscle memory.  If we just go to class and don’t practice on our own, we won’t be in tune with what is going on.

Just as we need to work on our alignment in yoga, and entrepreneur needs to be aligned with their mission and goals.  There are not enough hours in the day for an entrepreneur to get everything done which makes it imperative to have clearly defined goals and to make sure that some time is devoted every day to doing something toward those goals.  As we wrote about in our post on Tactics, Techniques, and Procedures, there are several methods to creating this alignment.  If an entrepreneur is doing something that doesn’t relate to one of those goals, then it’s probably time to evaluate why that task is even being done in the first place.  The entrepreneur’s activity needs to be aligned with the entrepreneur’s goals, just as we strive for alignment in yoga.

turned wood bowl in poplar
Bowl in Poplar

The same goes for woodworking.  If I want to be an expert bowl turner on the lathe then I need to turn many, many bowls and work on my technique in orienting the gouge to the work piece as it spins.  It sounds simple, but doing this well takes many hours.  The craftsman needs to align his/her activity with the goal of turning a fine wooden bowl.

Holding the Pose and Building Strength

Why do we hold our poses so long in the variant of yoga we are studying, Iyengar Yoga (read more on this method here)?  We do it in order to build strength.  There is a very popular (sarcasm here) pose we do called Warrior II which makes our thighs burn very quickly.  The purpose of holding poses like Warrior for so long is to build strength.  Our instructor continues to talk about an ethereal condition we will reach eventually where we are experiencing effortless effort (I am definitely not there yet). We may not have achieved effortless effort yet, but we have built strength over the past several weeks.

Entrepreneurship can also build strength by building capacity.  Stephen Covey called it “sharpening the saw” in his book the Habits of Highly Effective People (overview here).  Sometimes the entrepreneur and craftsman needs to step away from the daily “doing” and train on a skill or task to build that strength before going back to doing.  For more on sharpening the saw, read our post on Teaching a Man to Fish.

At Traughber Design one way we sharpened the saw and built strength this year was to take time out for a WordPress class to learn how to set up a website/blog.  This twelve session class was amazing and revealed many more capabilities than we thought possible.  Our first website was on Etsy, which was very user friendly, but limited in capability.  By taking time out to study WordPress we’ve increased our functionality tremendously, just as we do in Iyengar yoga by holding our asanas.

Gotta run.  Those asanas are calling…

Entrepreneurship Takes Grit

mahogany jewelry chest
Mahogany Jewelry Chest

See that mahogany jewelry chest in the picture?  Guess how long it took to finish?  My current self would crank out a project like that pretty quickly, but my old self took almost 20 years to finish it!  I started the piece when I was in high school Industrial Arts class and finally finished it  in order to give it to our daughter several years ago.  Was that a gritty performance on my part?  Absolutely not!  That just goes to show you that grit can be developed over time and that’s one of the main takeaways in Angela Duckworth’s great new book called Grit, The Power of Passion and Perseverance.  I’ll share some of Duckworth’s terrific lessons on grit and how they apply to entrepreneurship and woodworking.

First of all, why did Duckworth write this book?  In one of her early research projects as a psychologist, she was studying why cadets dropped out of their first year at West Point.  West Point used a number called the Whole Candidate Score to decide who was accepted and who wasn’t, but success in a cadet’s first year didn’t correlate to the WCS.  Both West Point and Duckworth wanted to know if there was a way to predict whether a cadet would succeed so West Point could admit the right people.  Duckworth developed something called The Grit Scale which did show a correlation between higher grit scores and success at West Point.  So what goes into being “gritty”, which is key to being a successful entrepreneur and woodworker?

Passion

Duckworth says one must have both passion and perseverance.  Passion, however, is not just some overwhelming love for a pursuit, it needs to be cultivated, which is something the Minimalists also talk about.  Many people say “follow your passion”, but sometimes someone may not know what their passion is.  In that case, they should try several things and see what excites them.  If they do know what their passion is, it needs to be cultivated and grown over time.  For example, I have a passion for woodworking, but I’ve cultivated it over time.  Did I always know how to do all of the techniques we’re currently using in Traughber Design?  Of course not, they had to be learned and developed.  In that course of learning and developing, we can learn to be even more passionate for our calling.  An example is that I enjoy performing certain tasks more in the wood shop now that I am more proficient.  I have more passion for doing that type of work.

Another element Duckworth discusses relative to passion is direction.  She gives the example of someone working out every day and not improving their performance.  It’s important to have goals and/or a coach.  As an entrepreneur, it’s important to have coaches or mentors, especially ones that are doing work relevant to your field.  I have woodworking mentors I turn to sometimes when I have a vexing problem and also mentors I turn to in learning the ins and outs of WordPress and blogging.  Mentors can be invaluable and help establish those goals and make sure the entrepreneur follows through.  We also need to align our work with our goals which we describe in more detail in the post about woodworking and yoga.

Perseverance

Another component of this entrepreneurial venture has been this blog which requires perseverance.  I like to write, but in order to make the blog go, I need to write consistently.  Remember, this is currently a part-time gig as we wrote about in the first blog post.  One might think that with over 1 billion Facebook users on the planet, that a blog would instantly achieve critical mass and millions of page views.  It doesn’t quite work that way.  Google runs a sophisticated algorithm 600 times per year that decides what does and does not pop up in the search rankings.  It is a real art and science to stay ahead of that algorithm, and most people don’t have that kind of time.  An entrepreneurial blogger is better off just focusing on fresh and good content that adds value.   If you listen to successful bloggers that have millions of page views, they are consistent in writing fresh posts.  To summarize that point:  write often and add value.  For example, I’m finding there is a big spike in readership immediately after a fresh post and a gradually increasing trend line.   The key is to write and post often.  But it’s not just about posting often.  It is about adding value.  When I’m thinking of posts, I’m thinking “what woodworking tips or philosophies help my readers?”

Perseverance also relates to something called the pivot in entrepreneurship.  An entrepreneur is unlikely to hit upon a million dollar idea and may have to be prepared to pivot to another idea down the road if the first one doesn’t work out.  For example, in woodworking I started out making some pieces on spec (or speculation) anticipating that they would sell.  I also did pieces on commission.  I found through trial and error that spec doesn’t work very well for our business and Traughber Design is focused almost exclusively on commission work now.  We pivoted from spec work to commissions.

There is so much more to talk about regarding grit, entrepreneurship, and woodworking, but I’ll hand off to Duckworth at this point.  I highly recommend reading her book and watching her TED talk which is available here.

Have a gritty day ; )

 

Woodworking is like a Soviet Gulag? Solzhenitsyn, and One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich

woodworking flag of the soviet union
Flag of the Soviet Union

How is woodworking like being in a gulag? Do we mean it is drudgery?  Absolutely not!  There are many parallels to woodworking, though, in Solzhenitsyn’s classic, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. For those who weren’t fortunate enough to have this book assigned in high school or college, this book is one of my favorites. It tells the story of one day in the life of a gulag prisoner (Ivan Denisovich Shukhov) and how he survives.  The book was laying around the house recently since the kids had to read it for high school, so I thought I would give it a read again and noticed there are many woodworking concepts sprinkled throughout the book such as craftsmanship, attention to detail, flowfrugality, and contentment.

Craftsmanship

“Shukhov looked about.  Yes, the sun was beginning to set.  It had a grayish appearance as it sank in a red haze.  And they’d got into the swing–couldn’t be better.  They’d started on the right row now (of bricks).  Ought to finish it today.  Level it off.”

Here these poor prisoners were slaving away all day out in the open with the temperature at 17 degrees below zero when the day started, but the main character is more concerned about making sure the bricks are laid properly than about leaving for the day.  Is he being paid for his work?  Will he be rewarded for a job well done?  No!  He is a true craftsman who will not leave the job site until it is done properly. What a great lesson for all of us woodworkers.

Attention to Detail

“Now if some mortar had oozed out to the side, you had to chop it off as quickly as possible with the edge of your trowel and fling it over the wall (in summer it would go under the next brick, but now that was impossible).  Next you took another look at the joint below, or there were times when the block was not completely intact but had partially crumbled.  In that event, you slapped in some extra mortar where the defect was, and you didn’t lay the block flat–you slide it from side to side, squeezing out the extra mortar between it and its neighbor.  An eye on the plumb.  An eye on the surface.  Set. Next.”

Mrs Woodworker and I had a long conversation the other night about whether I should finish the reverse side of some of the pieces I was making.  One the one hand, finishing only one side would cut the finishing time in half since I wouldn’t need to let the finish dry, then flip the piece over and finish the other side.  Since I use a process with five coats of finish (see our post on the finish process here), you can see this would be a significant time savings.  On the other hand, I’m going to know the other side is unfinished and is it exhibiting true attention to detail to leave the reverse unfinished?  The discussion continues to rage here at Traughber Design.

Flow

“And now Shukhov and the other masons felt the cold no longer.  Thanks to the urgent work, the first wave of heat had come over them–when you feel wet under your coat, under your jacket, under your shirt and your vest.  But they didn’t stop for a moment; they hurried on with the laying.  And after about an hour they had their second flush of heat, the one that dries up the sweat.  Their feet didn’t feel cold, that was the main thing.  Nothing else mattered.  Even the breeze, light but piercing, couldn’t distract them from the work.  Only Senka stamped his feet–he had enormous ones, poor slob, and they’d given him a pair of valence too tight for him.”

Back in the day, we used to call this being “in the zone,” but the current terminology is called “flow” or being in a “flow state.”  When I’ve got the radio on and am using my favorite tools, I’m often in that flow state.  Have you ever achieved this in the wood shop?  Is it often or infrequently?  If you are not often able to achieve “flow” in the shop think carefully about the times you did achieve flow and what were the conditions that contributed.  Try to recreate these conditions as much as possible.  Another technique that works well, is to leave a task unfinished at the end of one day so you can quickly pick up where you left off the next day.  This creates a quick condition for getting back into the flow when you start the next day.

Ivan Denisovich Shukhov gives a great goal to strive for:  being so engrossed in our work that we even forget subzero cold.

Frugality

“But Shukhov wasn’t made that way–eight years in a camp couldn’t change his nature.  He worked about anything he could make use of, about every scrap of work he could do–nothing must be wasted without good reason.”

We discussed this to some degree in our earlier post about minimalism, but I’ll add a few thoughts here.  What should we do with those very inexpensive parts from the local big box retailer we aren’t going to use?  I had a couple of screws in a plastic package from Lowes the other day that I wasn’t going to use on a project.  Part of me said it’s not worth the effort to return them since they only cost a buck or two.  The other part of me said I was going to go to Lowes at some point anyway and why not just return them?  In addition, they were going to lay around the shop and take up space.  Not only that, someone has to produce more of that part if it is laying around my house and doesn’t go back to the store. We’re planning a move to a smaller house next year, then a tiny house, so why have any parts laying around we are not going to use?  The minimalist argument won out and now I return everything to the store I’m not going to use.

Contentment

“Shukhov went to sleep fully content.  He’d had many strokes of luck that day:  they hadn’t put him in the cells; they hadn’t sent his squad to the settlement; he’d swiped a bowl of kasha at dinner; the squad leader had fixed the rates well; he’d built a wall and enjoyed doing it; he’d smuggled that bit of hacksaw blade through; he’d earned a favor from Tsezar that evening he’d bought that tobacco.  And he hadn’t fallen ill.  He’d got over it.

A day without a dark cloud.  Almost a happy day.”

We can learn a lot from such a man.  Perhaps we shouldn’t agonize over what tools we don’t have in the wood shop and just be satisfied with what we have.  Along those lines, I try to be thankful every day Traughber Design has work, not matter how big or small.  We are fortunate to have this business and and small jobs lead to big jobs.

I hope you enjoyed this woodworking journey through the gulag and my rant about craftsmanshipattention to detailflowfrugality, and contentment.  If you haven’t read One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, check it out at your local library.

Thoughts?  Leave a comment below.

Entrepreneurship, Woodworking, and Clausewitzian Fog and Friction

karl von Clausewitz fog friction woodworking
Karl von Clausewitz

What does a 19th century Prussian military genius have to say about entrepreneurship and woodworking?  A lot!

The great Carl Von Clausewitz was a famous Prussian military leader and strategist who wrote a seminal book in 1832 called “On War” that is studied endlessly in the U.S. military’s war colleges.  Clausewitz wrote about many concepts that are useful for entrepreneurs and woodworkers, but I’ll focus on two here that have come to mind lately:  fog and friction.

Clausewitz says friction is like running in water.  It’s something that can be done very easily on land, but is not very easy in water.  Clausewitz says “Everything in war is very simple, but the simplest thing is difficult.”  After 27 years in the military, I have encountered friction many times, so there is no surprise at seeing some in my entrepreneurial ventures and woodworking; however, it is still frustrating to experience.  How one responds to it is the most important thing.  One of the “joys” of woodworking is that it will force you to be patient.  For example, the other day I was working a piece in cherry which can change color depending on how much it’s been exposed to sunlight.  I was finishing up sanding the piece and was about to start wiping on finish, but was just not happy with the variation in color across the face.  I had inadvertently sanded away too much of the face that had absorbed the sun so the color wasn’t uniform any more.  Clausewitz’ friction had raised its ugly head because I was ready to press on with finishing, but had to stop and consider what to do.  One thing I’ve really strived for in Traughber Design is craftsmanship.  I don’t want a piece to ever leave the shop if I’m not happy with it.  Given that,  I closed the shop for the day and decided to sleep on it.  After a good night’s sleep, it was clear we needed to start over and resand with coarse 60 grit to get a consistent color, sand with 120, then 180, then continue the finishing process.  A calm, measured response is one way to respond to friction, and another is to just power through it which Clausewitz addresses in some detail.

Clausewitz says “Iron will-power can overcome this friction; it pulverizes every obstacle, but of course it wears down the machine as well.”  This is great counsel for an entrepreneur with a startup.  An entrepreneur can “pulverize every obstacle” for a while, but eventually only has a finite supply of will power.  It’s important to survey the battlefield (or business landscape) to assess where to focus that iron willpower, because one only has so much of it.  You can’t do everything and have to decide where to expend your finite time and energy.  This is especially important when you are building a business alongside a career as we discussed in blog post #1.

black walnut crown molding
Crown Molding in Black Walnut

Related to friction is a concept Clausewitz called fog.  This is essentially not knowing what is going on because you can’t see.  Fog, however, can be a good thing.  It forces us out of our comfort zone and also forces us to learn new things.  In some ways, at Traughber Design we seek fog because I like to always learn some new technique or tool on each project.  There have been some woodworking projects we took on where I had no idea (fog) how we were going to do a particular portion of the piece.  An example was the first gun cabinet project.  The plan called for a mitered crown molding (see picture above) made from three intricately routed pieces in black walnut which were then glued together.  We hadn’t made anything quite that elaborate before, but knew that by talking with more experienced woodworkers and researching online we could figure it out.  In that case we sought the fog.

Another example of fog is starting a new business.  When you are an entrepreneur, you are essentially jumping off a cliff into the unknown. The only thing you know for sure is the vision that’s in your head of what you would like the enterprise to be.  Every day you try to take steps to achieve that vision, but certain aspects don’t work out and you need to pivot to where the promising opportunities are.

Clausewitz said “Moreover, every war is rich in unique episodes.  Each is an uncharted sea, full of trees.  The commander may suspect the reefs’ existence without every having seen them; now he has to steer past them in the dark.”  Likewise, an entrepreneur has to attempt to sense the business reefs approaching and steer away from them in the dark.  One of the practical ways to do that is to identify risks and develop a mitigation strategy.  For example, one reef in small business is what happens if there is a fire and the shop burns down?  One mitigation strategy might be to beef up your insurance.  Another reef might be an area with which the entrepreneur is unfamiliar.  For example, operating a WordPress blog was a reef in my mind, but thanks to my sister’s suggestion, taking an online WordPress class mitigated the danger and actually created an opportunity since it showed possibilities with WordPress I hadn’t even anticipated.

If you’d like to read more from the great master, here is a link to the book on Amazon (the blog does not benefit if you buy the book).

Who knew all that study of Clausewitz and Sun Tzu during PME (Professional Military Education) would be so useful in starting a small business?

How to Price Your Woodworking Projects: Advice for Entrepreneurs and Startups

prayer kneeler in cherry and black walnut
Prayer Kneeler in Cherry and Black Walnut

Are you in a quandary how to price your woodworking projects?  Have no fear.  This post will give you a tried and true solution developed over the past couple years that may help.  This cost estimating model makes pricing a very simple process and generates a number in which you can be confident.  I’ll give you the specific formula at the end, but need to explain a few things first.

 

 

The biggest wildcard for beginning woodworkers is how long will it take to make something and what the labor estimate should be.  Before you get too far down the road, I have one piece of advice for you:  document, document, document.  If you don’t track your hours on projects, you will be shooting in the dark and working at great risk.  If you are working for free that’s not a big deal, but if you’re starting a business you need to manage your risks.  Once you’ve made a few projects, cost estimating becomes very straightforward.  For example, my first gun cabinet took 100 hours.  I made a prayer kneeler (pictured) which took 20.  A picture frame, depending on how fancy it is, is about 5 hours.  With the couple dozen data points I have, it’s easy to estimate how long something will take.  If you are just starting out and have absolutely no idea how long something will take, try this.  I’m finding that in general 60% of my projects are labor and 40% materials.  This varies from project to project, but does not stray far from this median percentage.  I would think this type of percentage (not the actual values) would apply to other maker startup efforts like photography, etc.  So if you don’t know how much the labor will be, you can usually estimate very closely how much the materials will be because the dimensions of your project will require a certain number of board feet (see the post about buying lumber) then you can extrapolate to the labor hours by multiplying the materials cost by 1.5.

So now that you’ve estimated how many hours something will take (based on previous projects or the 60/40 split mentioned above), how much should you charge per hour?  I give a lot of credit to The Wood Whisperer, Marc Spagnuolo, who wrote a post on this years ago that influenced my initial thinking.  My current thinking is that the hourly rate should be high enough that you feel good about working on a project in the wood shop at that rate and don’t feel like you’re giving away your work.  On the other hand, it would be nice to set a very high rate, but the market probably won’t bear it.  A good way to get a feel for the going rate is to search on the Internet, but stay away from researching custom woodworking prices on sites like Craigslist, because custom woodwork is not a bargain basement proposition.  We use Craigslist a lot to declutter and minimize, but it’s not a good fit for selling custom-made pieces.  A better site for researching the price of custom made projects might be one like Etsy.

Materials

I had a client over to the shop the other night and we were discussing the wood type for their upcoming project.  I like to give a range of woods and prices because some people are price insensitive and others want to stay within a certain budget.  It’s all about what the client wants.  In this case, the client decided to go with some nice premium cherry I had leftover from a previous project that had a beautiful grain pattern.  We talked about dimensions and since I knew the price per board foot from having purchased this board before, the calculation was straightforward.  If you’d like more information on how to do this calculation, check out our post on buying lumber.

So now that we’ve laid all of that foundation, here is the formula:

Labor

Hourly rate times estimated hours

Materials

Board feet times price per board foot
Required hardware
Any special tools or bits required for this specific project

Overhead

Overhead Rate times (Labor + Materials)

What should your overhead rate be?  All those tools you purchased have to be paid for somehow.  The trick is to figure out a reasonable overhead rate to amortize this cost over your projects.  I’ve been using 10%, which is probably a bit low, but it will give you a starting point.

Tax

Your Local Tax Rate times (Labor + Materials + Overhead)

Total

Labor + Materials + Overhead + Tax

There you have it.  If you are just starting out, this can be a bit daunting, but I recommend increasing your margin of safety by conservatively estimating the labor hours, making sure you’ve allowed for enough wood in the board foot calculation, and charging a high enough overhead rate.  That should keep you out of trouble.

Other entrepreneurs out there–what are your lessons learned?

Get Out of the Rat Race: How to Manage the Transition from Career to Maker

small business lessons learned
Building the Small Business

Tired of the rat race?  Ready to get off that hamster wheel?  Being a maker (like a woodworker, for instance) can be incredibly rewarding.  It’s not easy to get there, but the rewards are incredible freedom and limitless creativity.

 

There are many paths to success, but I’ll share what has worked for Traughber Design.  We’re currently in a position of having as much business as we can handle as a part-time (see blog post #1) enterprise.  We’ve delivered two commissions in the past couple weeks, are currently working on a dining room chair commission, and are about to ink three deals on more projects.  This was after 2 years of effort, though, and we’ve learned some things along the way.

If you’re contemplating such a journey or have already retired, the following principles may help.

You have some amount of time every day you can devote to making.  Everyone’s situation is different, but you can get up early, stay up late, or shoe horn in a few minutes before or after dinner.  That amount of time depends on how badly you want to succeed with the transition.  I experimented with multiple approaches over 2 years and found that allocating a set amount of time every day worked best for me.  I’m currently setting aside 90 minutes every day split in two pieces (more on that below) since I’m about 2 years away from retirement and want to ensure this endeavor supports my family before then.

Along those lines, another key ingredient for success is to just get in the shop.  Some days I get tired and don’t feel like it, but I drag my sorry butt down to the wood shop.   Once I get started I’m energized again and more often than not, find myself in the zone (or flow).

Another strategy is to get up a little earlier every day.  As we learned in our interview with an Amazon Best Selling author and entrepeneur in a future post, getting up early every day before someone’s day job is a way to squeeze in some regular making time.

Split time between making and managing.  I owe a great debt of gratitude to Paul Graham, the founder of Y Combinator, which many view as the pre-eminent start-up incubator in the world.  Graham wrote a great blog post in 2009 called Maker’s Schedule, Manager’s Schedule about the difference between making and managing.  Making to me means unfettered time in the wood shop to create or time to write blog posts.  Managing is all the associated functions like drafting proposals for clients, filing taxes, etc. and includes everything not making. I allocate 60 minutes minimum for making and 30 minutes for managing every day (remember I’m doing this part-time for now).  Sometimes life happens (Back to School Night for one of our kids, for example) and I don’t get to spend any time in the shop, but that is the exception rather than the rule.  If I can’t get the full hour in the shop, I try to spend whatever time will allow.

An hour per day for a year is extremely powerful!  I take Sundays off, and 1 hour per day, 6 days per week over the course of a year comes out to 312 hours.  That is a ton of woodworking projects.  The gun cabinet project took 100 hours, but most projects are in the 10 to 20 hour range.  That means you can potentially crank out around a dozen projects in a year with only 1 hour in the shop per day.  If you leverage holidays and weekends while you are still in a career, you can accelerate your making that much more.

Another very important concept to consider is efficiency.  Between the times I’m in the shop, I’m thinking about how I’m going to use that hour the most effectively.  In addition, I write down exactly what I’m going to do with the 30 minutes of managing time. As I’ve told our kids a million times, “plan the attack and attack the plan.” It’s amazing how you can quickly move through your tasks during managing time when you’ve written them down.  For example, my goal was to spend 30 minutes per night going through a WordPress class this summer, but I found if I focused, it didn’t take 30 minutes every night.  If I had extra time, then I moved on to drafting blog posts, like this one.  I could not have been that efficient if I hadn’t written down what I wanted to achieve in those 30 minutes.

Start your side business now while you have income from your primary career.  Building a business takes a very long time.  I’ve been at this for almost 2 years now and am just now at the point where the commissions are rolling in on a regular basis.  I’m confident this will work.  You want to build enough revenue that you can be confident your small business will be a going concern before you jump ship from your primary career.  In addition, you can build all the start-up infrastructure (company registration, insurance, website, tools, etc.) you need so that when you do transition you can focus on making and continue to build your client base.

Already made the transition?  Share your lessons learned below!

 

Woodworking and Minimalism: If I Buy All These Tools Am I a Minimalist?

minimalism tools
A Minimalist’s Set of Tools?

Mrs. Woodworker and I have been on a minimalism kick for a long time, way before it became “a thing.”  Our military moves (called Permanent Changes of Station, or PCS’) were terrific opportunities to get rid of things we hadn’t been using.  For example, we’d unpack boxes at our new duty station and say “I didn’t use this at the last house, why do I even have it?” then get rid of it.  We also have had a regular run to the local donation center for quite a while and are long-time users of eBay, Craigslist and Freecycle to get rid of things.

Can you be a minimalist and also a woodworker?  Some might say no, because of all the materials woodworkers use and the myriad of tools in our shops, but I’ll argue you can be a woodworking minimalist for a few of reasons.

First, I think the question needs to be asked why are you being a minimalist?  Josh and Ryan at www.theminimalists.com write about their focus on finding meaningful lives and the things that add value.  We’ve been following their podcast for some time now and just watched their new documentary.  Minimalists get rid of things and extraneous tasks so they can cultivate their passions.  They are aligned with their goals and passions.  If you are passionate about woodworking, then a minimalist would strip away everything that’s unnecessary in their lives so that they can pursue their woodworking craft.  It’s not about minimizing woodworking, it’s about minimizing in order to work wood.

Second, woodworkers can pursue their craft in a minimalist way.  One of those ways is to use sustainable materials and purchase lumber harvested from fallen timber.  Another way is to create our pieces using the minimum amount of wood possible.  That’s one of the reasons a cut list is so important:  to plan every piece out of the larger piece in order to minimize waste.  Along those lines, sometimes you can make something with scrap wood versus buying new wood.  A good example of this is the fairing stick project we wrote about in another post.  That project was made with leftover pieces from other projects.  A third way to pursue your craft in a minimalist way is to buy the minimum set of quality tools required to cultivate our passion.  Do you really need multiple power drills, for example, or can you buy one quality drill that does that job?  I purchased a core set of Festool that does about 90% of what I need to do.  Do I drool every time the hardware circular comes in the mail?  Sure.  But do I really NEED what they are selling?  Most of the time the answer is “no.”  A fourth way is to run a clean shop.  How many times have bought a part or piece of wood and didn’t realize you already had what you needed?  An organized shop will prevent a lot of those redundant buys.  Think about the best way to store your tools, hardware, and lumber so you can easily see what you already have.  Speaking of seeing what you have, it’s probably a good idea to survey all the tools in the shop on a regular basis and see which ones have not been used for a while.  It may be time to pare down and sell some of those tools on Craigslist.  Keeping a tool “just in case” is probably not a good reason to keep it.

Third, woodworkers are generally making custom pieces that are more solidly built than cheap furniture from the big box stores which minimizes the amount of furniture that needs to be produced. Since the pieces last a long time, they can be passed down from generation to generation and enjoyed over a longer period of time, not needing to be replaced as often.  This is a more sustainable model since it requires fewer trees and the large logistical tail to bring additional pieces of furniture to market.  Not only that, purchasing custom-made pieces supports the local economy which is more minimalist than having items shipped halfway around the world.  For example, for most pieces I make I’m buying wood, supplies, tools, etc. locally which help pay the wages of people in the local area and support local businesses.

My ultimate minimalist vision, though, is to harvest fallen wood on our own land and mill it for use in the pieces that we make.  We’re on that road now and are planning to downsize to a smaller house (and wood shop) next year then plan to eventually buy some land with a tiny house and wood shop.  We’ve learned a lot about small personal saw mills from sites like Pure Living for Life.  Check it out if you get a chance.  I’ll share more on our journey and the wood shop move in later blog posts.

I hope I’ve convinced you that we can be woodworkers and minimalists.  Chime in below.  What do you think?