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!

 

The Cornhole Plan, or How to Jazz up your Next Party

cornhole
The Cornhole Master!

Want to make your own cornhole set in just a few hours?

Multiple friends have asked for my cornhole plans and the cornhole sets have been flying off the shelves at Traughber Design, so I thought I’d put this how-to guide out for everyone.  If you’re not familiar with cornhole, it is a very simple game that is a great icebreaker for parties.  It’s so popular there is even an American Cornhole Organization (check out the rules here).

Here is what you need (Lowes has all of this):

A 4′ x 8′ sheet of half inch plywood
Three 8′ 2x4s (you may need four if you don’t have any scrap for the legs)
Four 3/8″ diameter 4″ long carriage bolts with wing nuts
Glue or fasteners (more on those later)

Step 1: cut the plywood in half with a circular saw (or Tracksaw for you Festool fans) so you have two 2′ x 4′ pieces of plywood.  This will give you two regulation-sized playing surfaces.

cornhole circle dimensions
Circle Dimensions

Step 2: cut the holes.  This is probably the trickiest part since not too many people have a jigsaw and jigsaw accessory to cut a perfect hole, but there are ways around it.  First of all, your hole needs to be 6 inches in diameter to be “legal” according to the ACO.  Center the hole 9 inches from the top of the sheet of plywood (see picture).

If you are fortunate enough (remember when we talked about investing in tools in blog post #2?) to own a Festool Carvex jigsaw (another option is described below), then drill a 4mm hole at the center of the circle, insert the circle attachment pin, drill a 10mm hole at the edge of the circle to accommodate the jigsaw blade and cut away.

Festool Carvex jigsaw
Festool Carvex Jigsaw with Circle Cutting Attachment

You will probably need to use a wood rasp to even the edges where you originally cut the 10mm hole.  If you don’t have a Carvex, you can still put a nail where the center of the hole goes and tie some string or twine between the nail and your jigsaw.  Make sure you cut a hole on the arc of the circle with a drill bit large enough for the blade of your jigsaw to start in.  After you’ve cut the circle, clean up the edges with a wood rasp.

 

Titebond III glue
Trusted Glue

Step 3: make the frame.  Cut one of the 8′ 2x4s into four 2′ sections, two for each cornhole frame.  Then cut two 45″ sections from two 8′ 2x4s which gives you two for each frame.  Drill the holes for the carriage bolts with a drill press before joining the boards together so the holes are parallel.  The holes are 3/8″ in diameter and 2 inches from the end of the board.  If you have a Festool Domino, join the two 24″ sections to the two 45″ sections with two tenons at each joint.  I prefer the 10mm by 50mm tenons since the joined boards are 37mm thick (using the 1/3 rule the tenons would be no more than 12mm).  If you don’t have a Domino, you can either screw or nail the boards together.  Make sure you put the holes for the legs opposite each other when you are joining the boards.

clamping cornhold frame
Clamping the Cornhole Frame

Step 4: attach the playing surface to the frame next.  I like to use glue to attach the plywood to the 2x4s since it eliminates ugly metal fasteners which have to be covered with wood filler later.  The glue method will only work if you have a lot of wood clamps, though.  I use over a dozen clamps on each 2′ x 4′ piece of plywood because you want a lot of clamping pressure to ensure the bond stays strong in any weather.  I’ve had good luck with Titebond III glue.  If you don’t have a lot of clamps, I recommend screwing or nailing the plywood to the frame and covering them with wood filler or covering them with paint.  Make sure you align the part of the frame with the leg holes at the same end of the plywood that has the 6″ hole.

cornhole leg dimensions
Cornhole Leg Dimensions

Step 5: make and attach the legs (see picture).  These can easily be cut from some scrap 2x4s.  First drill the holes using a drill press if you have one or a hand drill.  Then cut the 45 degree angles at the top and the 15 degree angle at the bottom.  Attach the legs to the frame and test to make sure the legs swing freely.  If they don’t you may have to trip a bit from the top of the legs.

 

Step 6: apply finish.  Some people prefer paint and some prefer stain.  If painting, I recommend a latex primer then at least one coat of semi-gloss paint.  For stain, I recommend at least one coat of stain then at least two coats of polyurethane varnish to give the surface enough slickness for the bean bags.  For more information on our finishing process, check out our post on finishing the cherry coat rack commission.

Speaking of bean bags, I tested bags from a local discount store as well as the local sporting goods store and they fell apart during the first game.  I highly recommend the double stitched canvas bags from All-American Tailgate.  We’ve used their bean bags for several parties and they are still going strong.

This project should only take a few hours to make and will give you many hours of cornhole-playing fun.  Enjoy!

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?

How to Buy Lumber: A Trip to the Hardwood Dealer

woodworking grain patterns
Quartersawn, riftsawn, and flatsawn grain patterns

A woodworker walks into a hardwood dealer and the owner says “Say, I’ve got a special on some S2S six quarter white oak.  Are you interested?”  Do you respond with “A”, the deer-in-the-headlights look or “B”, “riftsawn or quartersawn?”  “B” is the correct answer.

 

One of the most daunting aspects of getting into woodworking is buying the lumber.  Sure, you can buy wood at the big box stores, but eventually you’ll want to make something using premium hardwoods that aren’t available in the big box store.  In that case you need to seek out your local hardwood dealer.  I recommend Googling “hardwood dealer” and see which ones are closest to you and then doing some homework before going to visit. In my case, there are several dealers within about 45 minutes that have met all my needs so far and the service has been excellent.  You need to go armed with a few pieces of information, though.  As we talk about in another post, learn to fish before going fishing.

Before you start the project, ask the client (or whoever you are building the project for) a lot of questions such as: What color do you want?  What type of wood?  What is your budget?  Answers to those questions may drive you to a big box store if they are on a tight budget.  If they want something a little more heirloom-quality, you probably want to hit a hardwood dealer.

Wood dealers measure wood in something called “board feet” which is often abbreviated “BF” on their price sheets.  The cost per BF is the cost for a 1 foot by 1 foot by one inch thick piece of wood.  This equates to 144 cubic inches.  You’ll need to calculate the volume of wood for your project in order to get a rough estimate before you go to the dealer so you know how many board feet you will need.  For example, multiply the length and width and height of the wood for your project in inches and divide by 144 which will give you the estimated board feet.  You may be able to look up the wood dealer’s price sheet online in some cases and estimate the cost before you go.  In addition, dealers don’t measure thickness in inches they measure in quarters.  For example, an inch thick piece of lumber is called “4/4” or “four quarter” and a 2 inch thick piece of wood is “8/4”, or “eight-quarter.”  The nice thing about going to a dealer is when you buy 4/4 wood it’s usually very close (measure before you buy) to an inch thick, whereas if you go to a box store, an inch thick means 3/4″.

Before I lose that train of thought, take advantage of the tremendous selection of wood sizes at the dealer and design using non-traditional thicknesses.  It will make your piece stand out.  Anyone can buy 3/4″ lumber.

A couple more things you need to know are how milled wood is described and the description of grain patterns.

Milled wood is described as S2S, S3S, or S4S, which stands for Surface ___ Sides.  For example, S2S is planed on the two flat sides and the edges are rough.  I prefer this type of cut since I like to cut the edges at home.

The last thing you need to be aware of is the difference between flatsawn, riftsawn and quartersawn boards (see picture at top).  The rectangles in the picture represent where the various types of boards are taken from the log.  Quartersawn grain runs vertically when looking at the board’s end grain and is best because it is more stable, but it is also more expensive.  Flatsawn grain runs horizontally (more or less) when looking at the board’s end, is the least expensive, but expands and contracts the most.  Riftsawn is a compromise between the two and the grain pattern is approximately 45 degrees when looking at the end grain.

One more note for you…if you’re not buying a lot of wood, Woodcraft (www.woodcraft.com) can be a good option.  It’s a little more expensive, but for single boards may be more convenient.  In addition, the staff is very knowledgeable.  Most of the employees have been woodworking for decades and will help you do things the right way (more on that in another post).

Best of luck on your hardwood buying journey!  Let me know how it goes.

Mrs Woodworker’s Yoda-Like Woodworking Wisdom

Mrs. Woodworker knows nothing about woodworking.  Mrs. Woodworker knows everything about woodworking.

band saw and tenons
Band Saw and Tenons

The other day, I was agonizing (ah, the trials of being a craftsman) whether to go with the 6mm wide, 40 mm long tenons (those “plugs” on the bandsaw in the picture which help join two pieces of wood together) or the 5mm wide, 30 mm long tenons for some kitchen cabinets I was building (see our post about making cabinet panels if you’d like to make some).  In general, you want to use a tenon that’s about a third the thickness of the material you are drilling into.  In this case, the material was 3/4 inch, or 19mm, which means a 6mm tenon would be about right, but the tenons would be a bit long for certain mortises (the holes the tenons go into) and go all the way through the face frame of the cabinet if I wasn’t careful.  I could have offset the mortises by cutting 15mm into one piece and 25mm into the other side, but that would require great care to make sure I didn’t accidentally punch a mortise all the way through by having the depth setting wrong on the mortising machine (Festool Domino).  Given that the cabinet had 38 tenons, that was 38 opportunities to make a mistake.  Sometimes failing is good, but not when you are at the end of a long project like this.

In trying times like those, it’s sometimes wise to consult a higher power:  Mrs. Woodworker (substitute The Husband, woodworking mentor, etc. depending on your particular situation).  Mrs. Woodworker would tell you she knows absolutely nothing about woodworking, but her advice has proven to be remarkably prescient over the years.  In this case, I asked her advice and her eyes quickly glazed over when I said “mortises” and “tenons.”  When I was done speaking, and she said “remember the other day when you quit for the day because you said you were getting tired and stupid and didn’t want to make any mistakes?  Shouldn’t you find a simple approach in this case, so you don’t accidentally make a mistake?”  Brilliant!  The answer was clearly to cut down the 6mm tenons from 40mm to 30mm, to idiot-proof the process and prevent mortise cut-through.

Lesson learned:   Do what your spouse/significant other/partner tells you.

Choosing Woodworking Tools, or Why I Love Festool

Festool tools
Joy of Festool

I am so thankful I crossed paths with my pal, Steve Patoir, in Afghanistan.  He was a stark raving mad lunatic about some tools called Festool (check out their website at festoolusa.com) which I had never heard of.  I figured when I got back to the States, I’d give them a try and boy, am I glad I did.  I’ve been using Festool almost exclusively now for 2 years and they are worth every penny (that’s a lot of pennies, more on that in a minute).

If you are just starting out in woodworking, let me give you a few thoughts to ponder.  As Steve says:  “a cheap tool, is an expensive tool.”  Why is that?  Because if you buy a low-budget tool you don’t really want in the first place, you’re going to end up replacing it anyway.  In addition, it’s probably not going to last very long or do the job that you need it to do.  You need to think in terms of decades when you are buying tools.  Is this tool something you will enjoy using for the next 10, or 20 years?  If it frustrates you because of the way it’s designed, you’ve got the wrong tool.

So why are we such Festool fans?  Let me give you a few reasons:

Precision.  Once you’ve worked with the Festool mortise and tenon machine (Domino), sliding compound miter saw with laser (Kapex), and table saw equivalent (Track Saw), you can easily work within the millimeter precision window.  Festool has designed their gear to be incredibly easy to use and incredibly precise.  I’m still amazed and overjoyed to see that the cuts come out perfectly every single time.  When you are making something like the cornhole set we profiled in another post, precision is not quite so important, but when you are making something like a picture frame, it is very important.

Interoperability.  It wasn’t until I had built up a core group of Festool that I saw how interoperability equalled speed, which is crucial in a woodworking business.  You can quickly switch the dust collection hose and power cord from the dust collector to each power tool in seconds.  For example, on the gun cabinet project I found myself quickly transitioning from cutting pieces with the Track Saw and Kapex to cutting mortises with the Domino in no time at all.

Dust collection.  I go overboard when it comes to shop safety.  Why poke your eye out if you don’t have to?  Always wear hearing protection and eye protection.  In addition, all the dust floating around your shop can kill you (in the long run).  A dust collection system will keep all that floating crap out of your lungs and keep them healthy.  Festool has a great system that screens out fine particles and is easy to use.  Also, having the vacuum automatically turn on when you trigger the power tool is pretty slick.

And most importantly:  Joy.  Those German designers have thought about just about every situation a woodworker will encounter in using their tools.  Steve and I are still swapping stories about some ergonomic tool feature we had overlooked.  I absolutely love using these tools (also see our post about the gulag and craftsmanship joy) in the shop.

So you may be saying “Jerry, that’s great but Festool is really expensive!”.  You know what?  You’re right.  I saved up my deployment bonuses to buy my tools and my super sister bought me one of the more expensive Festool as a welcome home present.  You may not be so lucky, so consider buying one per year (or every other year if necessary) to spread out the pain.  I would NOT advise using a credit card to finance tool purchases.  Try to grow your hobby or business organically (more on that in one of the business-related posts which will be rolling out soon).  If you are going to go the Festool route, start with the smaller Domino.  You will use it a LOT and using mortise and tenon joinery to eliminate metal fasteners will set your work apart.  Then I’d get the TS55 Track Saw (the 55 means it can cut to a depth of 55mm) when you can afford it.

Do I only have Festool?  No.  I’m a big fan of Harbor Freight tools (harborfreight.com) because they are inexpensive and durable.  If you have an edge that’s not going to be visible to the client and will not sacrifice the quality of your joinery, then a HF tool may do the job.  For example, I have a HF bench top bandsaw.  You are never going to use a band saw to produce a finished edge on a piece since you will always be filing and sanding that band sawn edge.  Along those lines, I’ve got a HF bench top drill press which does the trick just fine.

The bottom line is it’s important to think about exactly what you are going to be doing in the shop then the appropriate tool that will allow you to do that task quickly and with precision.

For the experienced woodworkers out there.  What are your favorite tools and why?

Why Did I Write This Blog About Woodworking and Entrepeneurship?

Gun Cabinet
Black Walnut Gun Cabinet, the First Commission

Why Did I Write This Blog?  I wrote this blog to share some woodworking wisdom gained over the years and also lessons learned from starting my own woodworking business in 2015.

But first, let me give you a bit of backstory.  In 2014 I finished up a year-long deployment to Afghanistan.  We were extremely busy when I was there, but a situation like that gives a person some time to think about their future, especially since we were away from our families.  At that point in my career, I had been in the military for 25 years and was approaching one last assignment before retirement.  With our military pension, I knew we were not going to starve and that there was a golden opportunity to try something new.  I kept thinking “if money was no object, what would I like to do as the next act?”

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed is woodworking.  Ever since my first Industrial Arts class in middle school I’ve enjoyed making things.  Our itinerant lifestyle and postings all over the world have made it difficult to set up a permanent shop and outfit it with quality tools.  We have been in one spot here in Northern Virginia for a while which has enabled me to carve out some space for a shop and to invest in tools.

Another thing I’ve always wanted to do is start my own business, which I did with Traughber Design in 2015.  The commissions have been steady and the business has a bright future.  Writing this blog may help some other budding entrepreneurs out there get started on their dream business.  We’ve learned a lot about things like pricing our work and will share those tips.  In addition, I’m ramping up this woodworking gig part-time as my career winds down.  I’ll share some insights learned about how to manage that transition.

Last, I would be remiss if I didn’t give a special shoutout to Kevin Hanson.  He was the catalyst who pushed me to attempt the first commission, the black walnut gun cabinet pictured above.  The cabinet was from a plan I purchased from Wood Magazine, was a challenge, and great confidence builder.

So that is why I started his blog.  I hope you like it.