A matter of scale

A few days ago, I initiated a conversation.  It did not go the direction I intended it to go; you might say the entire conversation ended up disastrously for me.  Along the way, though, I learned quite a bit, and gained a practical example of some of the theoretical knowledge that I have been gathering for the past two years.  While the contents of the communication might not exactly be private, some specific and confidential information was discussed, so I won’t be more enlightening than I already have.

An external shot of one of the courtyards at the West campus of Cuyahoga Community College
An external shot of one of the courtyards at the West campus of Cuyahoga Community College

For the past two years, I have been steadily chipping away at classes for an Associates Degree in Small Business Management.  While there’s a lot of theory that you learn, and in the past two years I’ve learned quite a lot, nothing drives the knowledge home better than an example to pin it to.  But what has kept me going, and kept me sane during five straight semesters, has been something that I have wanted to do for years longer than the education.

For as long as I care to remember, I have been interested in making things.  Not just out of wood, which is my primary and preferred medium, but things in general.  I watched people twist metal into names for charms on a necklace over a few summers, I’ve been fascinated with blacksmithing in general – and armor and lamps in specific, I have longed to make stone walls, I yearn to make concrete forms like lighting and fountains, and I have done several items in leather, though nothing I would say I can make a living off of.  But it is precisely all these interests, these hobbies, that I have managed to maintain a sense of who I am and what I want to do.

Wire flowers made from paper clips
Wire flowers made from paper clips

The short version is that I want to get paid for making something.  My current job does not allow this feeling through itself, but it does allow me the opportunity to spend my money in a manner that will feed me and fulfill this desire.  Through working, I can afford to play, if you will.  This is part and parcel of the hobby life: doing what you like to do and not needing to make a living from it. There are those bits of advice out there for working that many people turn to.  You might have heard of them; the most common is something like, “do what you love for a job, and you will never work a day in your life.”  Reality is somewhat different.

Every thing, regardless of how much enjoyment you get from it, has an element of working in it.  In wood, for example, I do not know many people who enjoy the process of sanding.  Cut, build, layout, measure, paint, stain, nail, screw, glue, clamp, whatever.   Most wood workers view the chore of sanding as something akin to having teeth pulled… by way of the colon.  Not nearly as painful, but certainly the most time-consuming, boring, and potentially mistake prone area of wood working.

Don’t get me wrong.  Cutting the boards to the wrong length has a huge impact.  Splotchy finish detracts from the final product.  A loose nail gets under your skin.  Loose joints are dangerous.  Yet sanding, in itself a nearly trivial stage, earns the lion’s share of ire.  Because of one unenjoyed task, something that you might have to dedicate minutes to or hours to, it can detract from the enjoyment of the project.  This is working, though.  If I am doing something I love, it would contain furniture that is painted or stained and very uncomfortable to sit on.  Rough edges would catch at clothing or blankets, books or computers would become scratched or worse, and my projects would look very unprofessional.

Then, too, if I was to make my living doing wood work (not saying that I won’t some day in the future), I need to increase the production to offset the prices.  Considering some of the names in furniture today can command thousands of dollars for pieces, who will pay the same price for an unknown?  Even if the quality is the same, the unknown will be viewed oddly for extravagantly priced items.  These known names also have been in business for a while, hence the catch-22 situation: unknowns cannot charge what a named source can, but the named source has been charging the same since they were unknowns themselves.  They also have the benefit of being able to hire additional people to build additional pieces.

The debate rages on: hand tools or power tools?
The debate rages on: hand tools or power tools?

Additionally, we get into the nature of the largest apparent debate in wood working: hand tools or power tools.  (In reality, this is kind of a silly debate: the best tool to use is the one you are familiar with.  But I digress.)  The benefit of power tools is an increase in production capacity; the draw back is a larger shop space requirement.  There are tools that can convert from one purpose to another, and others that offer a breadth of capabilities so you don’t need as much, but the fact is that the power tool moves faster than the average human.  The hand tool, however, has the capability to be placed exactly where it is needed, and sometimes offers a faster approach to the job than power tools.  Instead of working out the jig to hold a piece where it is needed, a hand tool can just cut right where it is needed.

But to make a chair, for example, it would take approximately 40 hours worth of work using only hand tools.  (This is not my number, incidentally; this was provided and corroborated by a few different sources.)  The use of power tools can certainly speed up this process, but not by much for the individual piece.  Sure, one person can cut down a board into a leg in five minutes by power tool.  (If you watch Frank’s video on the lawn chair, it will appear that the boards magically cut themselves.  A fascinating way to spend time, but slightly off topic.)  Others will claim that the leg will jump out of the wood by itself, if you only know where to whack the mallet to begin.  Both are missing the point.

The reason furniture shops can charge more is due to this matter of scale.  While the average home or weekend wood worker is making one or two chairs at a time (or a year), the shop churns out one or two chairs per week, if not more.  I had worked up a business plan that required me to complete a chair a week, in addition to smaller pieces to make up the difference in income, and this would have cost me 50 to 60 hours per week.  Sure, most of it would have been spent doing what I enjoy.  But it would just be me making the chair, or bookshelf, or pepper mill.

The small shop of a hobby wood worker
The small shop of a hobby wood worker

In order to make my hobby pay for itself and my standard of living, I need to change it’s scale.  I need to complete a project within a deadline.  (And readers of this blog may have noticed how well those deadlines work for me.)  This changes it from something I enjoy, to something I have to do.  If I’m not enjoying it anymore, it’s another chore like sanding.  It’s back down to a job.  So much for the hobby, so much for my sanity, so much for my joie de vivre.  So, until I have found a way to use the secret of the furniture shop – namely, batch processing pieces – I will continue to exercise my right to work in smaller scale.  I shall continue to remain a hobby worker.  And along the way, I will enjoy most of what I do.  Those nights that I’m sanding, though, be prepared to offer me a beer and a comfortable fire… just not anywhere I can thrown my current project into.  Some things, I’m not ready to have to reproduce.

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