This is a shout-out to all the woodworkers struggling to find your place in a world full of furniture made to look like real wood but fall apart like real chipboard. We feel your pain.
The struggle is real. But not insurmountable. We sought advice from Remi Garcia, a woodworker who’s built a successful business creating handmade guitars (while also building custom interiors for super yachts). He gave us so much golden advice we had to break it up into two articles to fit it all in. Our first story covers everything you need to know about marketing your woodworking business and competing with big industry.
Even if you’ve established yourself in a nice little niche, away from the mass producers, you’re still not out of the proverbial woods. There are plenty of other artisans doing the same thing and creating equally inspiring pieces. In this select and impressive crowd, you need a whole new set of tactics to stand out. We mined Remi’s brain for the best ways to grow your business from the workshop, improving your productivity and expanding your profit margins.
Diversify and specialise
Remi has been a guitar builder for the last decade and a woodworker for almost as long as he can remember. He got his start as a little one, helping his dad build and restore furniture. Over his career, he’s found creative ways to keep the money rolling in as he traversed the unpredictable terrain of building a boutique woodworking business.
“When I left school, I worked in the coach and motor body building industry. That was sheet metal work, building new buses from scratch and taking old buses, stripping them down to the frames and rebuilding them as motor homes. Around the same time, I worked for a specialised vehicle manufacturer building ambulances, fire engines, dental vans and modified mine vehicles.”
Remi also worked in antique furniture reproduction before moving into boat building: fitting out interiors and completely restoring old timber boats. He now also works on super yachts, old timber yachts and the Moreton Bay Cruisers.
He fits out camper vans and has made numerous one-off solid timber furniture pieces. Through his guitar building he’s also gotten some interesting commissions. A restaurant in Brisbane’s West End requested shelves made out of guitars. So instead of being played, they’ve been filled with decorations for a quirky, unique look.
Furniture repair and restoration
Remi has found a lot of work repairing both furniture and guitars. There is a lot of demand for this kind of work and it allows you to practice your skills and gain an understanding of the classic techniques which offer superior quality to customers and help you stand out above competition.
Find work machines just can’t do
There are plenty of beautiful, old woodworking techniques machines just can’t do and a lot of niche markets out there with customers primed to pay for an (human) expert to build them something.
Most retail options are stock, each one the same as the last. You get what you see and it will look like everyone else’s. People like to think of themselves as unique and the idea of having the same old thing as everyone else is a drag. Offering custom items allows you a competitive edge by appealing to our desire to be special. There are artists out there creating ornate and intricate parquetry designs, carved mantles for fireplaces and furniture made of fallen tree roots. Some people choose to share their skills in a different way, offering workshops to the public, teaching people woodworking techniques and taking them through the process of restoring old furniture and vintage tools.
What you choose to do will depend on what’s around you—your life, your friends, your surroundings, your other passions. From here you can draw all sorts of inspiration. Remi words this beautifully:
“I draw inspiration from not only what I see but how it makes me feel. I am driven by a desire to capture the essence of our surroundings in playable art, be it designed by man or by nature. For me, the process of designing and building a guitar is one that bridges all the intellects together at once: physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. The instrument you receive is a snapshot of who I am, where I’ve been and where I’m going.”
Old-school vs new-school woodworking techniques
One of Remi’s first jobs was creating antique furniture reproductions. The pieces were all made of solid, Australian native timbers, mostly silky oak. The business owner created a catalogue of Australian antique furniture pieces for customers to order from. He taught Remi all the best, classic techniques. Dovetail drawers, all the old joinery.
“Using those old techniques adds a lot of value to a piece through the structural strength, and the beauty of the join if it’s exposed. Solid timber furniture will last a lot longer than mass-produced units made from cheaper materials and pinned together with glue. It’s mostly just butt joins, no real joinery there. It’s throwaway furniture. You’re lucky if it lasts one move from a rental house.”
Improve your efficiency
Remi starts with two base products: a student model guitar and a performance model guitar. These can be customised with a range of upgrades at set prices. His third option is a fully customised instrument.
The entry level options, and set upgrades, allow you to build in multiples. This doesn’t put you on the level of a factory. There is still the highest regard held for the value of the materials being used. It just means, if you know there is going to be a certain task repeated over and over again, one that needs to be done accurately, you can build a jig or a template. You can then take a blank piece of timber, put it into the jig and use a router or cutter to get the precise shape you want. Sand it, do your finishing touches and you’re done. You can use that same jig to build your components and, if you schedule your work well, you can cut down on your setup time.
It helps if you start thinking of every bit of time saved in the workshop as money in your pocket. As a custom woodworker, you need to keep in mind, you are part of the service industry. There’s a confusing grey area for people who are manufacturing products. Remi distinguishes it this way:
“If you manufacture set items and keep the materials in your workshop, you are a manufacturer. But if you purchase the materials to suit custom orders and designs, you are a service provider and so you need to value your hourly rate. This means doing everything you can to improve your efficiency.”
Resources for the entrepreneurial woodworker
To Remi, the best resources you’ll ever find are people.
“Speak to as many people as you can. People from the same industry, people from other fields who might still be in a similar situation to you. Anyone who has skills, experience and knowledge that might be useful. Talk to people you admire.”
Remi has mentors he looks up to, within the Australian Association of Musical Instrument Makers and overseas as well. He is always on the lookout for people who are achieving things he wants to achieve, whatever industry they may be in, so he can learn from them. He observes what they do and, where appropriate, translate ideas or techniques they use into his work.
Not everything will suit you but you should know who the experts are in your field and watch what they do and how they do it. Learn as much as you can from them. Emulate them without imitating them. By doing this, you can often find ways to improve your efficiency and reduce your building costs.
Even mentors who are completely removed from your industry will have relevant skills and advice to keep you motivated and help you with the entrepreneurial side of things. Remi looks to successful entrepreneurs from all sorts of industries to draw motivation and inspiration.
“When you’re working as an entrepreneur, you have to be flexible and willing to adapt to constant changes. You develop certain tricks and techniques and your own style over years and years and after a while you get into a groove and you can work with your own specific skill sets. But you will have to change occasionally to keep up with the market. Drawing inspiration from these sources allows you to be more versatile and adaptable so you will be able to not just establish yourself but have longevity in your industry.”
Overall, it’s a matter of finding something that inspires you and then letting your creativity flow through that outlet. If you love what you’re doing, people will feel it in your work. And if you develop your talent, they’ll want to own a piece of it.