3 Entrepreneur Revelations from our Largest Commission to Date

Gun Cabinet 2.0
Gun Cabinet 2.0

We were so excited when we inked the deal for our second gun cabinet (see our post Our First Commission of 2017!  Black Walnut Gun Cabinet) for several reasons.  First, I wanted to see how long it would take relative to the first version and whether some efficiencies had been gained since we built cabinet 1.0.  Second, it was a quick start to our third year as a company and we are now profitable!  The Motley Fool says half of all business fail by the fifth year, so maybe we can pat ourselves on the back.  Third, I just like working with wood.  So here are some lessons learned for other budding entrepreneurs out there:

Revelation #1:  Good art takes time.

I was a little surprised the second cabinet took 102 hours to make which was about the same time as the first one!  We added some complexity, however, such as solid walnut panels on the sides and front door, but I thought we would have been much faster in other areas.  Some of the Festool tools I had used on version 1.0 were new to me then and I figured the second time around I would be faster.  For example, it took 15.6 hours to select and cut all the pieces on 1.0 and 17.8 hours on version 2.0.  Apparently, carefully selecting the pieces and cutting them with precision is something that can not be hurried.

Reflecting on how those hours remained the same made me recall an amazing commencement speech I saw on YouTube recently by the author, Neil Gaiman, who talked about making good art (check it out here:  Neil Gaiman – Inspirational Commencement Speech at the University of the Arts 2012).  One of the things Neil talked about, was the consistency of working on your craft, day in and day out.  Those initial steps in crafting the wood for those gun cabinets was very much in that same vein:  spending the time to carefully create.  In Neil’s case, it was writing and editing, but his lessons apply to any craft or art.

Along similar lines, I was reading an article the other day by the entrepreneur, Jason Fried (owner of Basecamp, formerly called 37signals), in Inc Magazine about not concerning yourself with scale before perfecting your craft.  Perhaps it was too early to start thinking about speed of production at this point with cabinet version 2.0.  Jason’s article (Starbucks Wasn’t Built in a Day) tells the tale about a tea entrepreneur who starts a successful tea pop up store, who then asks Jason for advice about expansion.  When the entrepreneur asks Jason for advice, the entrepreneur is already thinking about stores, 2, 3, 4, etc.  Jason told the entrepreneur to perfect store #1 first before worrying about expansion.  Going from a pop up store to a permanent location was going to be difficult enough.

Revelation #2:  Document your processes

I could not have written this blog post or done the analysis of the hours for cabinet 2.0 versus 1.0 if I hadn’t documented my hours.  When I was the commander of a recruiting squadron several years ago, we were facing a big inspection.  My boss, Mark Ward (aka “Wardo”), had always trained his commanders that if something wasn’t documented, it didn’t happen.  The inspectors wouldn’t care if we said we did something a certain way.  They wanted to see the documentation that we had actually done things the right way. The same goes for entrepreneurs.  I’m not real keen on excessive documentation when it comes to being an entrepreneur, but there are certain areas where it is crucial.  For one, it’s important to document where you are spending your time so you can see whether there are opportunities to improve.  As I mentioned in the post on How to Price Your Woodworking Projects: Advice for Entrepreneurs and Startups, documenting hours is critical if you are going to develop a pricing model.  In the case of gun cabinet 2.0, I should have better documented lessons learned from 1.0.  For example, I was happily cutting boards to match the cut list and didn’t realize until assembly, that a couple boards would be too short because they were supposed to be cut extra long, then cut down to size later.  The situation was recoverable, though, since I had some extra walnut laying around.  If I had documented my lessons learned better, that would not have happened.

It’s important for entrepreneurs to always document lessons learned and review them so we don’t commit the same errors.  Time is short in entrepreneurship and there is little time for rework.

Revelation #3:  Design in flexibility

As we say in the Air Force:  “flexibility is the key to airpower” and this applies to woodworking as well.  In the Air Force flexibility means our space, air and cyber forces can do tactical missions in one moment or rapidly perform more strategic missions, depending on what the needs of the commander are (if you really want to dive into the flexibility doctrine click here).  In addition, they can adjust depending on the needs of the military campaign.  In woodworking, where possible, it’s always important to design whatever it is that you are working on so that it can be adjusted later.  For example, on gun cabinet 2.0 I built the door to the cabinet so it fit the case perfectly.  Perfectly, that is, if the case is laying flat on its back.  I hadn’t accounted for not only the weight of the glass in the door, but also the solid walnut panel toward the bottom which was an upgrade for this piece.  When I hung the door, the weight caused it to sag slightly on the side away from the hinges where all the weight was.  Luckly, I had placed the screw holes relative to the hinges so they could be adjusted a few millimeters up or down.  I was able to raise the hinges to level things out.  This would not have been possible if the flexibility hadn’t been designed in from the beginning.

Building this latest commission was great fun, and I hope my fellow entrepreneurs and regular readers can profit from these three revelations: good art takes time,  document your processes, and design in flexibility.

 

Entrepreneur Innovation: How to Make Your Woodworking Dazzle with Epoxy Resin

Black Resin Filling a Void
Black resin filling a void.  Unfilled on left.  Filled and finished on right.

One of the things I’ve learned as an entrepreneur is to keep innovating and experimenting.  Some things work out and others, not so much.  You just press on.  One of the recent experiments I’ve tried was using epoxy resin to fill in voids in my work.  Ever wonder how they get those really awesome thick “bar top” finishes on tables and bar tops?  In many cases, those are epoxy resin finishes (click here if you’d like to do more research on epoxy resins).  Resin is also very useful for dealing with knot holes, cracks, and other voids.  I recently took the dive into experimenting with resin finishes and thought I’d share some lessons learned to help you get started.  I’ll also provide specific product recommendations you can purchase directly from Amazon and have delivered right to your door.

The most important step is protect yourself before beginning.  These finishes are very toxic so make sure you are in a well-ventilated area.  When I applied my first resin finish it was in the basement shop, so I flung the outer door wide open to let the air in and applied the finish at a table that was very near the door.  In addition, make sure you are wearing long sleeves and are wearing gloves.  You definitely don’t want this stuff on your skin.  I also recommend wearing safety glasses, just in case you splash some up toward your face. This is not likely with the resin since it’s so viscous, but might happen with the hardener or dye.

The materials you’ll need are the resin, a hardener, and dye.  The particular resin I’ve been using (System Three’s MirrorCoat) is mixed two parts resin to one part hardener (also MirrorCoat).  One of the advantages of MirrorCoat is that it’s clear, so you can add dye (I’m using TransTint’s product) to make it any color you like.  I chose black because I was filling in some voids in the black walnut gun cabinet I’ve been telling you about.  Clear resin without the dye might make for an interesting finish in the black walnut as well. Here is the list of materials with links to Amazon if you’d like to purchase them:

Resin and hardener click here
Dye click here

I also recommend a plastic cup, measuring spoon, and scrap stick to use as an applicator.  If you wipe the measuring spoon carefully with a paper towel, you can reuse the measuring spoon indefinitely.  I like to use a plastic cup because it’s disposable and doesn’t require clean up.  I’ve tried a couple different applicators, and a long thin piece of scrap wood seems to work just about as well as anything else.

The procedure.  This stuff is very expensive so you only want to use the bare minimum required.  I recommend finding a piece of scrap wood with a small knot hole to practice on.  A small knot will not require much resin to fill in.  During my first experiment I used two 1/4 teaspoons of resin, one 1/4 teaspoon of hardener, and one drop of dye.  Start by pouring the resin into the cup.  Then add the hardener.  Then add the dye until the color has the opacity you like.  Mix with the scrap stick and let one drop fall from the scrap stick into your void.  Then add another drop, then another until the void has been filled.  You want to slowly add drops, rather than pouring the resin so the air has time to escape and the resin has time to slowly fill all the gaps in the void.  Fill the void to the top then wait about 5 minutes to check it again.  You’ll probably have some settling.  Then add more resin to top off the void.  The resin will take about 24 hours to set and 72 hours to cure completely.

This is very important:  make sure you set aside a time period when you have a few days in a row to check on the settling of the resin. You’ll typically find that overnight the resin has settled, and you’ll need to add some more the next day to level it off with your wood surface.  If you wait more than 24 hours to do this, your resin may not bond together and you could end up with air gaps in your resin which would create an issue during sanding.

The finish.  You may have a slightly convex shape over the void, but not to worry.  You can sand the resin just like you sand the surrounding wood.  I like to use 80 grit, then 120, then 180 as discussed in the post about my go-to finish on the cherry coat rack.  As you can see from the picture, the resin really added some pizzaz to what could have been a distracting knot hole.

One caveat:  the directions recommend using a propane torch to heat the resin and pop any air bubbles at the surface, but I’ve found that in the proportions recommended, the air bubbles escape before the resin hardens.

If you haven’t tried resin, but have always wanted to, give it a shot.  For less than $70 you can be up and running in no time.  This is consistent with our entrepreneurial mantra of fail fast and fail cheap which we wrote about here.  If you have any questions, post below.  I look forward to hearing from you about your experience with resin finishes.

 

Update on Black Walnut Gun Cabinet

black walnut gun cabinet glue up
Black Walnut Gun Cabinet Glue Up

(Thursday night) We got kicked out of the house!  Given that we’ve been banished, it seemed like an opportune time to update the blog.  Some of you have asked “Jerry, what’s up with the blog?”  Well, it’s three things.  First, I’ve been busy keeping the world safe for democracy in my day job.  Mrs Woodworker won’t let me retire, so we have 23 more months to go.  Second, Traughber Design has been swamped with orders, which is a good thing.  Third, we’ve been getting the house ready to sell so we can continue our minimalism journey.  That’s the reason we got kicked out of the house tonight:  our realtor told us to beat it for the open house.  That actually turned out to be a blessing since we caught up on our Five Guys addiction and it gave me some time to update you on the happenings at Traughber Design.

As far as those commissions, many thanks to Lisa Love for the furniture repair commission, Jeremy Wood for the woodturning commission, and neighbor Dave Strong for commissioning two home base footstools.  Dave also commissioned some baseball bat stools which we’re working on.  And a huge thank you to Dr Steve Ford for his gun cabinet commission (see our first post about that commission here).  Speaking of which…

The picture above shows the glue up we did today attaching the face frame of the gun cabinet to the cabinet itself.  Believe it or not, it took almost 40 hours to get to that point.  The cabinet involves over 70 pieces and it took some time to carefully select each piece to match grain and avoid knots in the raw boards.  In order to maximize efficiency, I cut all the 70 pieces at once so I didn’t have to keep switching back and forth between tools later.  Not that it wasn’t fun, though.  I enjoy letting the wood talk to me and tell me what each part wants to be.  It’s also important to finish sand certain parts before gluing since they won’t be accessible once they are glued together.  When finish sanding with three grits (80, 120, and 180) it takes some time.  Be sure you are not sanding where the joints glue together, however, or you won’t get a solid bond.  In the next step we’ll cut the two back panels which consist of black walnut plywood.  After that, we start working on the base molding and crown molding which will be three carefully routed pieces glued together in an intricate pattern.

While projects like Steve’s are drying, I flip over to the second project, in this case the baseball bat stool.  Thanks to Jacob Hummitzsch for his engineering prowess on this one.  We jerry rigged a frame to hold the bats  in place and to get the angles right for the stools.  Now I just need to drill the holes and dry fit everything together.  With any luck, I’ll post an update with pictures when that stool is done.

Did you set aside time for making today?

Our First Commission of 2017! Black Walnut Gun Cabinet

black walnut gun cabinet
Black Walnut Gun Cabinet

We were very excited to receive the deposit for our first commission of 2017 only 9 days into the new year and we’re jazzed about sharing philosophical musings regarding our maker journey as we build the piece.  This commission is for another black walnut gun cabinet which we’ve made before (see picture), but we’ll be making subtle design changes in this version.  Also, the last one took approximately 100 hours to make, so we’ll be very interested to see how far up the learning curve we’ve gone.  For example, we’ll be putting that fairing stick to work that we wrote about in September to streamline making the curve at the top of the door.  Several additional techniques we’ve learned since then should speed up the work.  Then again, the design changes will add some time to the project so it may be a wash to the overall hours count.  As we mentioned in our post on moving the shop, we’re a bit under the gun since we’d like to complete this piece before the wood shop move this summer.  A little pressure is good : )

We picked up the raw lumber from Dunlap Woodcrafts yesterday (for tips on buying lumber, read our post here). One of the most fun parts of the process was chatting with some of the other woodworkers and the owner.  There was a young guy there looking at a board and I asked him what he was making.  He was making a coffee table for his wife.  Another guy walked in and said I should buy all the boards I was gazing at (which I did) and said he was making a guitar for his son.  We just have a great woodworking community here in Northern VA.

The walnut we purchased is S2S cut and we’ll square it up in the shop with the planer, tracksaw, and mitre saw.  Carefully cutting all the pieces with precision will take a long time.  We tracked all of our hours on the last cabinet and have a pretty good feel for how long each operation will take.  That’s why it’s so important to always document your hours.  Then you can more actually predict how long future projects will take.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, though.  The first step is to to stand the wood up, take a look at it for awhile, and listen to what the wood tells us it wants to be.  For example, we need to think about what the most visible parts of this piece are and where it is going to sit in the client’s house.  In this case, I’ve talked with the client and have a good idea where it is going to be and how people are going to see it.  In this case, the door, face frame, and crown moulding at the top will be the most visible parts so I’ll look at the raw wood to see which boards are knot free, have matching color, and pleasing wood grain.  I need to ensure the opposing sides of the glass door and opposing sides of the face frame have not only matching color, but matching grain.  That means I’ll cut those pieces immediately next to each other from the same board.  Likewise, I need a long enough board that will allow the entire crown moulding pieces to be cut from it, so the grain flows all the way from the top left to the front to the top right of the piece in one seamless flow.

We’ll keep you updated how it goes.  As I stand in the shop looking at the boards, I’m thinking I have 100 hours of joyful creating in front of me.  As I wrote about in blog post #1, this is a part-time business for now so I’ll continue to follow the time management framework I laid out in the post on making versus managing.  Working 6 days per week with Sundays off, we’ll make good progress.  As I mentioned in the last post, we’re also getting ready to move:  talk about a self-inflicted time management challenge!  Ay caramba!

Stay tuned.  We have several more interviews with entrepreneurs queued up, some random thought pieces, and a couple other potential commissions we may be writing about soon!

Reflections on 2016…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Traughber Design!

black walnut key ring rack
Key Ring Rack in Black Walnut

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all of our clients, friends, and family.  Traughber Design just delivered its last commission of 2016 (see picture at left) on Friday, and we thought this was a good time to thank our community of supporters and reflect on the past year.

This was our second full year of operation and the business continues to build.  We delivered 8 commissions this year with a wide variety of projects and have 1 piece in progress in the shop.

One of the most exciting things this year was the launch of the new and improved website and blog.  SiteGround’s servers will give us a lot more space and room to grow than our previous website.  There was a little bit of a learning curve with our blogging software, WordPress, but the functionality is much greater than we had with the last website and we’re much more comfortable now with using WP.  Traffic continues to build and we had over 350 unique visitors in the past 4 months (the blog went live in September with post #1) and 1,500 page views.  The metrics show our users are spending more and more time on the site, which probably makes sense given we’ve published almost 30 posts now and have more content.

key ring rack in black walnut
Key Ring Rack in Black Walnut

We’ve been very blessed with not only commissions from clients, but also just words of encouragement.  If you can, support your local artisans in 2017.  If you know of someone trying to get their enterprise off the ground, consider throwing some business their way.  Every sale can be critical in those first few months or years of operation.  We will continue to do our part by sharing the exciting stories of other up and coming makers, and have three more interviews in the queue for early 2017.

The future looks bright and we are talking to multiple clients about potential commissions for 2017 including another black walnut gun cabinet which will keep the wood shop humming.  Our last one took approximately 100 hours to make, so we are very interested to see how long the next one will take.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year everyone!

Juggle Several Balls at the Same Time: Maximizing Efficiency in the Wood Shop and as an Entrepreneur

black walnut keyring holder in progress
Black Walnut Keyring Holder in Progress

An effective woodworker always wants to have at least two projects going on simultaneously in the wood shop.  Why?  In order to maximize efficiency.  If you are woodworking as a part-time gig, as I am, there is all the more reason to make every minute count as we discussed in the blog on making and managing.  There is not a minute to spare when you are working a full time job during the day and working in the wood shop on nights and weekends.  Let’s get into the mechanics.

 

How does it work?  

Woodworking by its nature entails a lot of waiting during certain portions of the build such as glueing or waiting for finish to dry.  It’s important to take advantage of these pauses to flip to another project(s).  For example, once a glue up has been done on one project, why wait for the glue to dry when you can just pick up where you left off with the other piece?  Another example is once you’ve applied finish to the first project, flip over to the second project.  However, it’s important to consider that if you are doing finish work on the first project, make sure the second project is not going to generate dust that will settle onto your finish on the first project.  A way to mitigate that risk is to rig a dust shroud around the first project while the finish is drying or to take the second project outside.  If you are looking for more information on finishing, check out our post on the cherry coat rack project or Marc Spagnuolo’s DVD on finishing at The Wood Whisperer.

What if I don’t have a commission right now?

If you are between commissions, I’m sure Mrs. Woodworker or your significant other is looking for something that needs to be made around the house.  These projects are great for continuing to build your skill set.  In addition, this valuable shop time may spark an idea for another project.

Another approach is to build something that doesn’t take a lot of time that you know sells well.  For example, it only takes me about 3 1/2 hours to build a corn hole set and I always like to have one set available in case a client wants one.  If I have some dead time and don’t currently have a set ready, I know that time is well spent to get another one built.  In general, I don’t like to build on spec as I’ve written about earlier, but if I know that something has sold in the past and is likely to sell again, then it’s pretty low risk to build another one.

Another reason to have multiple balls in the air applies to entrepreneurship in general.  If you get stuck in one area you can always shift focus to another area.  For example, if I don’t have a lot of work in the shop I can always spend more time working on the blog, or vice versa. We were working four commissions at once not too long ago, so I spent a little less time on the blog until we caught up in the wood shop.  You can extend that concept to entrepreneurship in general.  No matter what your business is, it likely involves sales.  If sales are slow, you can shift focus to other value-added tasks in the business that don’t involve sales.  If you are swamped with sales, you can shift to fulfilling orders until you catch up or hire more staff.

Better opportunity for flow

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

When you have multiple projects there is also less starting and stopping in the shop and this can be less jarring to your system.  You are always seamlessly transitioning from one project to the other and it’s just part of your normal routine.  In addition, there is also a greater chance for serendipity.  You may learn something on one project that benefits the other.  For example, on one project I was contrasting light and dark woods, which gave me an idea to try the same thing on a prayer kneeler I was building (see picture to left). That wasn’t in the original design, but I went with the flow and I think it turned out pretty well as you can see in the picture.

Increase production.  If woodworking is your business, you need to be continuously producing and delivering in order to bring in revenue (you especially need to be producing if it’s on your honey-do list).  Advertising completed projects on social media generates new bids, which generates more production, which generates more advertising and bids.  It’s a  virtuous cycle.  In addition, increased production means you can build things quicker at the same level of quality and either pass on your costs savings to your clients (see our blog post about pricing for more information on what is reasonable to charge clients) which will make you more competitive, or you may decide to increase your profits, or both.

What efficiency hacks work well in your shop?

 

How to Make a Beautiful Custom Wooden Mitered Picture Frame

black walnut wooden picture frame
Black Walnut Picture Frame

Want a great idea for a birthday gift for Mrs Woodworker? She works hard and a custom made gift like this will go a long way to show your appreciation.  In our case, Mrs Woodworker’s grandmother was quite the artist and had done a neat charcoal drawing that was hanging in our house.  Unfortunately, the frame was not the right size and was falling apart.  The glass in the frame and mat had also discolored over time.  I thought a new frame would be a great gift to let Mrs Woodworker see a little return on all the tool investments I had made.

First, start with the print you want framed.  All of the dimensions will be generated from the size of that print.  Once you have the print in mind, estimate how big the visible portion of the mat should be.  In our example, the print is 9 1/2″ by 19 1/2″ and we overlapped the print by a quarter inch with the mat all the way around.  Given that we wanted a 2″ wide (visible portion) mat all the way around, our matt needed to be 14″ by 24″.  Keep in mind a quarter inch of the mat will not be visible because it will be resting inside the frame.  Continuing with our example, the inside dimensions of our frame are 13 1/2″ by 23 1/2″.

Select a wood type and color that complements the pictures in the print.  Before going to the wood dealer, read up on our post about buying lumber.  In our case, I had some 1″ thick black walnut left over from another project and decided to go with 1 3/4″ wide frames.  If your print is bigger than the one in this post, you may want to go with a wider frame to keep the entire piece in proportion.

cutting rabbet for wooden picture frame
Cutting Rabbet for Picture Frame

Rout your pieces first (see picture), then miter in order to clean up any tear out from the routing process.  One of the techniques that will prevent tear out is to always place a block behind the piece being routed.  This will usually give you a nice clean edge on the trailing edge of the piece after it goes past the router bit.  For our frame, I used a 1″ thick piece of black walnut and routed a rabbet (or notch) 1/2″ deep into the piece from the back and 1/4″ from the middle of the picture for the matting to lie against.  Use either a straight router bit (I recommend the Whiteside bit # 1086) or the bit from a rabbet bit set (Whiteside #1955).  Both bits are available at your local Woodcraft.  This leaves 1/2″ of wood showing in front of the glass and leaves enough room for the glass, mat, and any cardboard or plywood backing.  The rabbet should be 1/4″ wide all the way around the frame.

wooden picture frame tenon
Picture Frame Tenon

Join the corners of the frame with 8 mm x 40mm tenons (see picture) if you have a Festool Domino then glue up.  If you don’t have a Domino, you can make an oval hole with a router straight bit and use Festool tenons (available at Woodcraft), or clean out the corners with a chisel and use rectangular tenons.

After you’ve got the mortises cut, it’s time to glue it up.  Make sure the piece is square by measuring from corner to corner.  If it is slightly off square, use a long clamp to pull the long corners toward each other until the two diagonals across the piece are the same length.

Once the glue dries (best to allow 24 hours), it’s time to add the finish.  I prefer a clear finish on top of premium hardwoods so the grain is visible.  Check out our post on making a cherry coat rack to see the steps in finishing.

You probably don’t have a mat cutter at home and this is where your local frame shop can really come in handy.  If you live near Montclair VA I highly recommend The Framing Outlet.  Osman at the frame shop was extremely helpful in picking out mat colors and suggested the double mat design in the picture at the top.  You can Google “frame shop” and you should be able to find a shop near you that can help with the matting and glass.

Well that was a lot of math!  But if you methodically go through the steps above, you’ll have a beautiful picture frame in just a few hours!