In the last of his series of articles on modern woodworking, Anselm Fraser, principal of the Chippendale International School of Furniture, looks at the thorny issue of how to price bespoke furniture.
Oscar Fingal O’Flahertie Wills Wilde, the 19th century playwright, would have understood the problem completely.
In his play, Lady Windermere’s Fan, he writes that a cynic is “a man who knows the price of everything and the value of nothing.”
Like much of Oscar Wilde’s work, his comedy hides a biting truth – that we often consider moral or ethical values as being less important than financial worth. We allow greed to overrule good sense.
It’s an issue that is particularly pertinent for today’s woodworkers, because the value that we place on a beautifully-crafted piece of furniture may be rather more than a prospective customer is prepared to pay for it.
Yes, it may have taken many, many hours to make, using the finest woods, veneers and delicate inlays. But if that prospective customer is looking for a simple table or chest of drawers, then he or she may be more interested in utility value than financial value.
In other words, spending days and weeks crafting the finest chest of drawers in the whole history of chests of drawers, and placing a huge price tag on it, is no guarantee of a sale.
In a world dominated by IKEA, furniture makers have to look imaginatively at the market, design and build accordingly, and – most importantly – always have a sensible price in mind. We may be craftsmen and women, but our valuations have to be pragmatic.
The key concept is value. The painting hanging on our wall may only have aesthetic value, until we discover it’s a Picasso – at which point it acquires huge utility value as a way of paying off the mortgage.
In the same way, good furniture has both utility and aesthetic value. Our wonderful chest of drawers may be aesthetically beautiful but, if the drawers don’t open properly, it lacks utility value.
That balance between form and function is at the heart of all good design, including architecture and fine woodworking. Finding that balance is the first thing that furniture designers should always do: who am I selling to, and what are the values my customer is looking for?
The fact is, good design must be about both the aesthetic and the utilitarian and, if necessary, woodworkers shouldn’t be afraid to compromise, if compromise brings down the cost to an acceptable level.
That budget will be influenced by two things – the cost of materials and the labour costs of designing and making the piece of furniture. It’s a deceptively simple bit of arithmetic: costs + your time = price.
Of course, it’s a little bit more complicated. Costs aren’t just wood and screws. They also include everything from heating to water, local taxes to equipment. For the mathematically dyslexic (and I’m one), it’s a three-step process:
Step One: Deduct the total cost of your piece of furniture from the income you will receive from it. If your total cost of production (including an allocation for materials, marketing, rent of workshop etc etc) is £10,000 and you sell for £11,800, your gross profit is £1,800. Easy-peasy.
Step Two: It then becomes a little harder, because the next step is to divide gross profit by total income, giving you a gross profit margin of 0.15.
Step Three: Multiply that figure of 0.15 by 100 to calculate the gross profit margin percentage. In this case, 0.15 x 100 = 15%.
The British Woodworking Federation (okay, not representing fine furniture makers) says: “When looking at profit margins it is important to make sure that you cover the depreciation of your fixed assets in your profit and loss account so that you can provide the essential cash to replace these with new investments. As a rule if you are in manufacturing gross margins after direct costs should be in the region of 40 to 50%.”
I wouldn’t disagree with that figure, and improving gross profit margin should always be a clear and unambiguous business objective. Equally, you have to have realistic expectations about what customers may be prepared to pay.
Being realistic about pricing is key, but you also have to have some clear ideas of what you want from life. How much income do you want? In terms of profit, do you also want to generate savings to fund growth? Do you need to invest in more equipment?
It’s a question of balancing the present with the future – building a business and a reputation, so that, in future years, you can build gross profit margin. The problem is that many woodworkers think too highly of themselves, and charge a Rolls-Royce rate, when their customer is looking for a Fiat Uno. (All too infrequently, alas, the opposite can be true!)
Remember that Picasso hanging on your wall? Also remember that Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santísima Trinidad Ruiz y Picasso (to give him his Sunday name) survived during his early career in Paris by burning most of his paintings – just to keep warm.
I always advise our students to be pragmatic, certainly until they have built a reputation. There’s no point in graduating from a furniture school and thinking you are immediately a master of the woodworking universe.
That takes time and, in the meantime, it’s better to under-sell than not to sell. Remember also another line from Lady Windermere’s Fan: “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”
Start low, be sensible and pragmatic, but always aim higher and higher.Read More
An historic part of the countryside is being brought back to life by Scotland’s leading furniture design school.
The humble shepherd’s hut was once a common sight across much of the British countryside, allowing farmers to watch over their flocks by night, particularly during the lambing season.
The project by the Chippendale International School of Furniture, which has completed its first shepherd’s hut, complete with wood-burning stove, also aims to run a specific shepherd’s hut course in the summer of 2015.
The 4-8 week course will teach a range of woodworking skills, with students also building their own shepherd’s hut.
The traditional hut was a small one-room structure with cast-iron wheels and, internally, contained a bed for the shepherd, some basic amenities such as a stove, and feedstuffs and medicines for the animals.
The first recorded shepherd’s hut dates back to the 16th century and they were a common rural fixture in the 18th and 19th centuries. During World War II they were sometimes used as Home Guard outposts or as accommodation for prisoners-of-war working on farms. However, by the 1950s, very few remained.
The Chippendale school, which takes furniture design students from across the world, believes that there are new markets for the shepherd’s hut – everything from home offices and spare bedrooms (with indoor toilet and shower facilities) to outdoor gyms, storage sheds or workshops.
With the shepherd’s hut being of limited size and with wheels, it more resembles a caravan than a fixed structure, and not normally subject to planning regulations.
Anselm Fraser, Principal of the Chippendale School, said: “Our intensive 30-week courses teach students traditional woodworking skills, as well as practical business skills to turn their craftsmanship into commercial success.
“But we also want our students to realise that excellence in woodworking can be put to use in different ways – for example, boatbuilding or, in this case, bringing an almost-forgotten part of the past back to life.”
The school also believes that history could turn full circle, with NFU Mutual in 2012 estimating that 69,000 farm animals were stolen at a cost to farmers of some £6 million.
“While we want to reinvent the shepherd’s hut for the 21st century, it may still have a role to play in keeping farmers’ livestock safe at night,” said Anselm Fraser.
Prices and further information on the shepherd’s hut course, which will be run in July 2015, are available from the Chippendale school. Visitors to the school are always welcome during office hours.Read More
The Chippendale International School of Furniture, half an hour from Edinburgh, is situated in rolling East Lothian countryside close to fantastic mature forests of oak, elm, lime, ash, chestnut, sycamore and beech trees; an environment with all the raw materials needed to make flawless furniture.
“We teach students on our nine month course to plant a tree, choose a tree, fell it and plank it,” says Anselm Fraser, Chippendale Furniture School Principal.
“There is much more to selecting a good tree for furniture making than you might think. You need to understand the effects of shrinkage, defects in the wood and warp.”
Here are some of the useful tips that students at the furniture design school are given on how to choose wood for the furniture pieces that they make each term (you can see more photos on Flickr and slides on these tips) :
• A hardwood tree should generally be about 150 to 200 years old. An oak tree, for example, should be about 200 years old. Trees that are too old usually suffer from rot and other defects, which means they often cannot be used for furniture making.
• The wood in a felled tree dries out and shrinks as it ages. After 6 months you may see radial checks and splits towards the centre of the wood and tangential (clockwise or counter clockwise).
• Boards cut from a fresh cut log will not show any shrinkage. However, after six months boards cut away from the heart of the log may show some warp due to tangential shrinkage. Shrinkage takes place around the growth rings. So, boards need to be cut from the centre of the log to reduce the chances of warp.
• When shaped pieces of wood are cut too early from a log they will also end up distorting as the log seasons. Cut wood circles will end up more like ellipses, and square cut pieces can turn into parallelograms.
• Stresses in a tree can appear in planks cut from it a year later! If a tree is in a windy location, the wood can become ‘cork screwed’. The wind can result in planks being springy, bowed, cupped or twisted. So, you should not buy a tree in an exposed windy location on the top of a hill or standing alone in the middle of a field.
• Watch out for natural defects in a tree such as a cross grain, a diagonal grain or a spiral grain (also called ‘corkscrewed’), as well as the effects of knots.
• These defects can also make it difficult to plane or work with pieces of timber: the fibres of growth rings may run in different directions, grains may be interlocked or wavy.
• You also need to ensure that the tree is felled in the right way. Bad felling techniques can result in ‘shakes’ creating cracks in the heart of the log like a ring, a cup or a star.
“At Chippendale Furniture we have stocks of locally cut boards that we ‘air season’ outside in the yard. A 1” thick board needs to be air seasoned for 1 year; a 2” thick board for 2 years…. That is why buying 1” thick seasoned boards is significantly less expensive than 2” boards or 4” boards.
“Our students also learn to work with wood with attractive defects; these pieces can be used to make artistic furniture pieces like table tops and facings on drawers,” adds Anselm Fraser.
For details of Chippendale International School of Furniture’s intensive 9 month furniture design course, please visit www.chippendale.co.uk or www.chippendaleschool.com
The spring term at the Chippendale International School of Furniture started with a design theme. Design is the very essence of a good furniture school and is taught throughout the course from many different angles, starting right from the very first day.
Anselm Fraser, the school’s principal, says:
“Our students learn how to conceptualise their designs using line drawings and perspective. Being able to draw furniture designs accurately and well is essential for furniture craftsmen. It gives you the knowledge you need to make the piece. Our students need to learn to draw furniture in different ways.
“Drawing a piece’s design plays a key role in the decision process between you, the maker, and your client. By seeing and agreeing to the final design, you know that the client will be delighted with the furniture on delivery.”
In order to develop the design for a piece of furniture, a student needs to answer a series of questions in an organized way. Design must follow a systematic process. The following is an example of one approach to design that is covered; it uses the ten step conceptual design approach to demonstrate how a desk is designed – you can also see some slides which illustrate this process here:
Step 1: Rough in carcase proportions – you draw the rough proportions using perspective to work out the depth, width and height of the desk.
Step 2: Block in spatial relationships – you decide the size of major shapes such as the opening for a chair.
Step 3: Assign overall dimensions – You work out the overall dimensions, like the width of drawers on the left and right sides of the desk.
Step 4: Select design form – you decide whether the desk is on a plinth, or floor based, and what height it should be.
Step 5: Configure spaces – you decide the depth of the drawers on the left and right, possibly with the larger drawers at the bottom and smaller ones at the top.
Step 6: Choose the construction method – you choose the materials, wood (solid or veneers), handles and whether there should be decorative panels on the sides.
Step 7: Assign component relationships – you work out the thickness of the top and decorative facings.
Step 8: Design details and embellishments – you consider the added details and the optional extras, depending upon what the client is willing to pay for.
Step 9: Colour and finish – you confirm the planned colour, finish and type of wood.
Step 10: Select complementing hardware – you confirm handles and other chosen hardware.
These photos show examples of designs produced by two of the students in their first term using the 10 step conceptual design approach.
Our Corner Cabinet Project
Sandy and I are currently working on quite a big project. A client has commissioned two large corner cabinets. The top sections of each cabinet will sport a pair of astragal doors which are by no means simple. (The sort of doors that are made up of loads of different panes of glass, framed by mouldings made of wood or metal). They will be display cabinets for books or china.
Anyway, I thought I would share a couple of basic tips with you, which may save you a few potentially wasted hours should you ever decide to embark on a similar project. The first thing to mention is that you will need a spindle moulder (or router moulder) to get really balanced, matching doors. [You can use old-fashioned moulding planes but these aren’t so common these days. Should you want to make your own then check out this site www.philsville.co.uk/mouldingplanes.htm].
Work out all the angles in advance. The angles are the really difficult bit when making astragal doors and, as is often the case, good preparation will save you a great deal of time in the long run.
Do a mock up of one section. This will help you work out the angles and you will clearly see in what direction you are headed. If you are going wrong, this will allow you to correct the piece before going too far down the line.
It’s really easy to get hung up on the angles and to loose sight of other important aspects. With that in mind, make sure everything is aligned as you go along.Read More