On Selling Crafts

I have made a lot of wooden things over the last decade or so. Tables, chests, chairs, benches, desks, beds, bowls, spoons, plates, vases, tools, floors, sheds, playhouses…you name it. When I stop to think about how much I’ve actually built, it’s a bit overwhelming.

A lot of that stuff is still in my house. I have very little furniture that wasn’t built by me or at the very least repaired/refinished by me. (One project that I’ve never seemed willing to tackle is a chest of drawers. Just so…many…boxes… So we still make do with ugly dressers, but one day I’ll address that shortcoming).

The next largest portion of my work has been gifted to family and friends over the years. It’s always a pleasure to visit with people who own my work to see how it has held up and aged over the years.

By far the smallest portion of my work are things that I’ve sold. Sure, I’ve sold quite a bit over the years, ranging from $10 wooden shotglasses to a $2,000 quartersawn white oak Arts and Crafts office desk. I have never been completely comfortable with selling things, though. A couple years ago, I came upon this article by renowned British woodturner Robin Wood that I think articulates my primary hesitance with selling craft work. The article is fairly comprehensive, but here is the relevant paragraph:

The difficulty many craftspeople have with price is this. You put your heart and soul into your work, when you offer it for sale it is not like selling potatoes or lemonade, it’s not just business, it is more like asking the public to pass judgement on you as a human being. If you put a high price and people sneer it feels terrible but if you undervalue your work that is no better for your soul. The trick is to find a fair price for the work and skill and then to find people who value and appreciate it.

That quote really got right to the heart of the matter and stuck with me. When I sell work, I feel compelled to make things to a much higher standard than I would require for an item that I planned to keep for myself. I aim for perfection in my work, but ultimately I am OK with small flaws and irregularity as the mark of handwork. For some reason, I don’t trust my customers to have the same appreciation so I always seem to go overboard with the work that I sell, and yet I’ve never been comfortable asking a price that would be commensurate with the skill and effort involved.

To worsen matters, most of the work that I’ve sold has been to friends and close acquaintances (not surprising, since I’ve never advertised anything). There is nothing inherently wrong with that, of course, but my difficulty here is feeling as though I should offer a discount for friends on work that I’m already in the habit of selling too cheaply. I would usually rather give the work away, because at least then I get to feel altruistic instead of like a poor businessman.

The end result of my unsatisfying history of selling work has been that I tend to find whatever excuse I can to avoid it. I have actually made a fair bit of money through my woodworking hobby (enough that is is a net gain and not a net drain), but very little of that money has come through the sale of craft work. Mostly it comes from wood sales (I always saw more than I can possibly use) and a smaller portion from old hand tools that I bought on the cheap and restored.

Fortuitously, I did have a good friend a few weeks ago who asked me about a sizable commission for her husband’s Christmas gift. She ended her request with the words “and don’t feel bad charging me what’s fair”. It was a much appreciated sentiment and I felt more comfortable knowing that she expected to pay full price for the work and not the “but-I’m-your-friend” discount that some people seem to expect. I was more confident in giving a quote that was fair to both of us.

In the end, it turned out to be one of my most enjoyable commissions, because I know the work is going to a couple who will appreciate it, and I don’t feel as though I short-changed myself in the process. (By the way, I’m purposely avoiding any discussion of what I made or who I made it for on the off-chance that her husband reads the blog.)

As these thoughts tumbled through my head over the last month, it occurred to me that my discomfort with selling my work for a fair price has bled over and caused me to avoid buying craft work at a fair price. I think that my tendency to discount the value of my own work has inadvertently led to my discounting the value of others’ work. I have this problem more so in unrelated crafts – I love pottery, for example, but my own collection of craftsman-made pottery is limited to a couple of inexpensive (but beautiful) coffee mugs. The more complex work is beautiful, but it just seems so expensive! Oh, the irony.

With woodwork, I can typically look at a piece and fully understand the time and skill and effort that it took to bring it to fruition. The problem here is that my first thought is not “I want to buy that!” but instead “I could make that!” Well, that’s really a silly way to think about things. There is no way that I can become proficient at everything. A good craftsperson can spend years focused on a single task and there is no reason that I should hope to replicate it without doing the same. Weaving an ash-splint basket and carving the ball-and-claw feet on a Chippendale chair are both “woodwork” but it is obvious that the skillset involved in each task are vastly different.

With that in mind, I decided to take some of the proceeds from my recent commission to purchase a spoon from a craftsman who has inspired me in many ways – Peter Follansbee. True, I’m a spoon-carver as well (and a pretty good one I think) but it’s been several years and I’ve still made no effort to learn the chip-carved decoration that Peter does on his spoons that I admire so much. Perhaps I never will, but that shouldn’t preclude me from enjoying it.

A very nice early Christmas present to me. Not a gift that was injection-molded in Chinese plastic and shipped 10,000 miles only to end up in a landfill by next year’s Christmas. I expect this little beauty to be my kitchen companion for many years.  And hopefully a lesson learned in valuing the work of a fellow craftsman.

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