How to Start a Business: Sometimes You Just Have to Say No

Black Walnut Jewelry Display
Black Walnut Jewelry Display

We turned down two commissions this week.  Is that how to start a business?  Am I crazy???  Maybe so.  My pal Derek Sivers who wrote Anything You Want says that when you are starting a business you should say “yes” to everything, because you can’t afford to be choosey.  On the flip side, he says that entrepreneurs are creating their own universe with its own set of principles, and why would they do work that doesn’t align with those principles?  Don’t get me wrong.  One of those commissions was a large refinishing project which I very much wanted to do, but I’ve already told about a half dozen people I would do their kitchen table, bookcase, entertainment center, etc. and there isn’t much time left in the year.  The other project was for six dining room chairs, but those chairs would have required upholstery which is not really my thing, and would require a lot of hand carving which is not currently my thing.  I guess the good thing is knowing here in year #4 of Traughber Design what “my thing” is. I guess it’s time to start saying no.

Another one of those principles was to migrate to a business that didn’t require a lot of commuting.  I’d like most of the work to be in the shop rather than on site, because after 11 years of commuting in DC during two Air Force tours, I’d rather not sit on I95 any longer.  Clients can come to the shop and pick up their pieces, which preserves my new 5 second commute to the garage.  Yes, I still have that lovely I95 commute because this is a side gig for now (I wrote about this some in the post Reflections on 2017…Merry Christmas and Happy New Year from Traughber Design!), BUT my retirement papers were approved (hurray!) and we (I use “we” because military service is a TEAM sport as Mrs Woodworker will attest) are within 1 year of official retirement and 8 months of terminal leave.

We’re not aiming to be a Rockefeller with Traughber Design (see our post Lessons Learned from John D. Rockefeller on Life, Entrepreneurship, and Woodworking) but make just enough to get by on military retirement (by the way, if you are making that transition also, I highly recommend Doug Nordman’s site The Military Guide on military transition and financial independence.  He also has some great content on how to start a business). Given our current backlog of projects, making a go of it shouldn’t be an issue.

On to more positive things, like saying “yes”!  We just completed a four sided jewelry display (see picture) for Nomades Collection in black walnut this week and are pretty happy with the result.  You may have seen two of our recent Facebook posts on this.  This was an evolution from the two sided version we profiled in the post Traughber Design and Nomades Collection Team Up!  Some of the new features are:

100% more display space.  The original display had two vertical jewelry trays back-to-back within a wooden frame.  While the two-tray model is perfect for a smaller store, this one has space for three trays and a fourth side with posts to hang bracelets and bangles (I don’t know what bangles are, but they seem to be popular with the ladies).  This allows for twice as much jewelry to be displayed.

A slot for brochures.  This was trickier than it looks.  The lazy susan bearings have to be reached from underneath to screw them in, so we had to make a removable bottom to be able to access the holes.  It killed me to use metal fasteners for that removable bottom since we always strive for 100% wooden joinery, but I couldn’t see a way around it.  At least the fasteners are not visible.  I’m still noodling around on ways to access the lazy susan without the removable bottom and metal fasteners.  If you have any ideas, leave them in the comments below.

Well, we sold out of the corn hole games, so I need to go tell the elves in the wood shop to get busy!  Now, that’s how to start a business…

How to Build a Little Free Library

little free library
Little Free Library (and Model)

Traughber Design was pleased to recently deliver its latest creation, a Little Free Library, to the Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center in Horicon Wisconsin.  If you haven’t heard of the Little Free Library movement that’s sweeping the nation, I’ll give you a quick overview of the revolution, talk about the glorious new Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center, then wrap up with some crucial tips for making a little free library.

The Little Free Library Revolution

You may have already seen a Little Free Library  in your neighborhood since there are now over 60,000 Little Free Libraries worldwide and they are in all 50 states and over 80 countries.  The concept is simple.  You take a book you’re interested in from the library and/or leave a book of your own:  easy.  If you make a Little Free Library, you may want to consider registering it so more people will know about it.  Apparently, some people are making pilgrimages to as many of these libraries as they can.  For more on Little Free Libraries visit the official website at littlefreelibrary.org.  There are also many plans on this site if you would like to build your own, and you can even order prebuilt kits.

The Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center

The location for this particular Little Free Library is an interesting one.  It’s at the new Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center and will allow visitors to “check out” bird books before they hit the trails behind the center.  You can check out the Center’s website here.  The staff at the Center was very supportive of installing this library to commemorate Jerome R. Traughber (Dad), who passed away in 2017, and who was a big supporter of the Center (and reading in general).  If you get a chance, I highly recommend hiking the nature trails behind the Center and also checking out some of the exhibits inside.  For much more on the memorial site and to see much better photography than mine, I highly recommend the blog Horicon Marsh Nature Photography.

How to Make A Little Free Library

This project was a lot of fun to make.  We started with a basic design from Wood Magazine (click here for the link), then made several significant modifications.  Wood Magazine also has a comprehensive YouTube video if reading plans is not your thing.  Click here for the video.  If you are looking for plans, I recommend Googling “little free library plan” on Google or searching those terms on  YouTube.  As mentioned earlier, littlefreelibrary.org has plans as well.

The original plan called for 3/4 inch plywood, but since this library was going to be so visible, we decided to upgrade with cedar for a couple reasons.  Cedar is a little more pleasing to the eye than plain plywood, and holds stain well.  In addition, cedar is insect resistant and should last longer than plywood.

Since cedar boards are not as wide as plywood, you will need to join several 8 inch cedar boards together to get boards that are wide enough.  We used our trusty mortise and tenon joints for extra strength to join the boards along with TiteBond III glue which is well suited to the outdoors.  For more tips on glue technique, check out our post Woodworking Glue Technique, a Metephor for Life.

One quirk of the plan was that it called for an 1/8 inch (or. 125 inch) acrylic window.  Acrylic doesn’t typically come in that width, so we used .08 inch acrylic instead, which introduced a variable you need to be careful of.  Since the acrylic was thinner than called for in the plan, the wooden stop blanks (the thin pieces of wood that hold the acrylic in place) that were to hold them left a slight gap.  Looking back on it, I should have made wider stop blanks, but I was committed at that point, and going back to remill and stain the blanks would have taken a long time.  To ensure you don’t have any visible unstained cedar, including cedar you think is going to be underneath the acrylic, make sure you eyeball the stop blanks from every angle including from within the door and outside the door, or else some unstained wood will be slightly visible through the door.  I was able to easily adjust for this by staining the stop blanks on all sides, which is usually not necessary.

As far as the stain, we tried a redwood stain, but it was a little too “orange” for my taste so we went with the rosewood stain in the original plan.  Always stain a test piece first.  This is part of the fail fast and fail cheap mantra we talked about in our post How to Fail Fast and Fail Cheap in Woodworking, Entrepreneurship, and Life.  Stain is so variable from wood type to wood type that a test piece is a must.  Rarely does stain look like the color palettes you get in the store.

Last, we decided to go with a cedar shingle roof to add some pizzazz and make it blend in with the natural environment.  I had considered asphalt shingles, but when I was poking around the hardware store noticed some cedar shingles that I thought would look much nicer.  To make the shingles, I used cedar shims and laid them out to hang over the edge of the library about a half inch.  I also left about 4 inches exposed in each layer.  I highly recommend the video How to Install Cedar Shake Shingles on YouTube before starting out.  After the shingles were nailed and glued, I added a cap using cedar with a bevel equal to the angle of the roof (see the video).  I screwed the cap on the library using deck screws then coated the shingles with Thompson’s clear stain.

little free library Horicon Marsh Education Center
Little Free Library at Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center

This is a view of the Little Free Library as you approach the front door of the Center and you can see the beautiful Horicon Marsh in the background.  If you are ever in Wisconsin, I highly recommend visiting the Horicon Marsh Education & Visitor Center.

 

Rumor has it, there will be a bike trail going from Mayville to the Center soon, then another trail going to Horicon which will connect to the 34 mile Wild Goose Trail.  If you are a rails-to-trails fan, this will be right up your alley, since the Wild Goose Trail is a rail trail (see the link here for more on Rails to Trails).  This new trail should open up the Center for even more visitors to enjoy and spur an innovation boom in Horicon and Mayville (see our post Having a Mental Block with a Thorny Woodworking or Start-Up Problem? Get on the Bike!)

If you get a chance to build a little free library, go for it!  I’d be glad to answer any questions via this blog post’s comments section or the Contact Us page.

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?