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Approaches to a craft business

Like many people, I started with "can you build (or paint or weave) one of those for me?" My initial items were gifts for family. Using cheap materials and rushing in the shop made the gift worth what they paid for it. But using good materials and taking the time to do a careful job, your results will be surprisingly good. You will see every tiny flaw, but potential customers will start to see real value. Is the work "professional quality?" If you look critically at some of the shoddy work done by the average craftsman from the yellow pages, and some of the poor quality goods sold in stores (even "good" stores), then if a customer wants it, and is willing to pay you for it, your work can honestly be called "professional."

If you can build a sturdy, attractive bookcase that fits a special space, you have created something of value. It doesn't have to have ornate trim or carvings or follow historically significant techniques, if the customer is happy with the results. You should charge a fair price. A cheap bookcase may cost $100 but the shelves will soon sag. A good bookcase from a store may cost $500 but won't fit the space. A historical reproduction may cost $5,000 but isn't what the customer wanted. Don't be afraid to charge $500 if that is a fair price (there will be lots more written elsewhere on pricing). If this is a friend, make this a gift, or let him pick up the dinner tab the next time your go out, but don't say "it should have taken me 5 hours (but really took 25 hours), and I shouldn't have messed up and had to replace that $100 sheet of plywood, so, well, er, how about $100?"

I know an excellent craftsman who says "I live in a small town. People make less money here. So I only charge $5 per hour." His work is beautiful, but he cannot work in the winter because he cannot afford to heat his shop, or repair some of his machinery that is falling apart. And the local, expensive furniture store keeps growing. The cost of living may be lower, but somebody in town apparently can afford to buy furniture at a fair price!

Like it or not, you will be competing with people who make a living building what you are doing, whether it is the craftsman across town, or the slave in a foreign factory. Be fair to them as well as to yourself - set a fair price for your work. Not only will it help pay for your materials, time, and overhead, but it will also set realistic expectations in the marketplace. In my experience, most "competitors" have become friends and even helpers when I am a fair competitor, not one who charges less than a fair price.