How Can I Make a Living as an Artisan?

workbench-paul-sellers-designThis is a question that is often asked on forums.  People discover that they like to work with their hands and dream about it becoming their day job. I think this notion is almost as popular as stealing away to a tropical island and living the good life.  I’ll admit that I’ve entertained both of these options.  In reality, neither of these options are as appealing as they seem in our fantasies.  The more appropriate and accurate question to ask is, “How much am I willing to give up to become a full-time artisan?”.

Of all the “big” names that we know in the woodworking community there are very, very few who make their living solely by building furniture. They teach, write, publish, entertain and build furniture to make their living. They travel quite a bit, going where the opportunities are. These are some of most established people doing this type of work and they are still doing whatever it takes to bring in an income. So where does that leave the rest of us?

Being an artisan has never been a lucrative career choice. Sure there are a select few who have made some big money, but most artisans toil away in anonymity all their lives and just do eek out a living. Is it a fulfilling life they lead? Do they wish they had chosen a different path that paid better? Chances are they would answer yes to both questions. At times anyway. Most of us who dream this dream of working as an artisan are middle-aged and deeply established on our current path. We have families, mortgages and car payments. We put in our forty to fifty hours a week, collect our pay and go home. Maybe we work a little in the woodshop, maybe not. That is a choice we can make because it’s our hobby. If we truly want to make this life/career change we first must take an honest look at what we are going to have to give up. Are we willing to give up a steady paycheck? Are we ready to work seven days a week? Are we ready to travel every weekend to craft fairs and trade shows, set up and take down a booth? Are we ready to fail for a while?  Small items are where most our money will be made.  Building one cutting board is fun.  Will it still be fun after building a hundred or more?  Are we ready to move our families to an area that offers more opportunities for selling our products?  Are our families ready to support us?   These are the hard questions that must be addressed before you can seriously consider this change.

So if you still want to take the plunge what are some steps that we can take to position ourselves for a better chance at success? First, we need to enter this endeavor debt free with several months to a year or more of cash in the bank to cover expenses.  Yes you read that correctly.  I said debt free with cash in the bank.  Are our skills at a level commensurate with that of a professional and can we honestly charge people money for what we produce?  This is the real world, we need a well thought out and executable business plan.  Where are we going to sell our products?  Consignment type shops, craft fairs and/or the internet.  Are we going to set up a true brick and mortar store?  No matter which path or combination of paths we choose, we need a website, email address and business license.  That’s the world we live in.  So that’s a whole other area that we need to get a handle on. I could go on but I think you have the gist of it.

Transitioning an activity from hobby to career is a risky proposition.  What is fun as hobby can quickly become drudgery once money enters the equation.  As for myself, I’ll work on becoming debt free and hone my skills.  I’ll continue to enjoy my time in the shop and share what little I know and learn here on this blog.  Maybe helping the next person with their dream.  If I take it further remains to be seen….of course there’s always Tahiti.

Greg Merritt

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13 Responses to How Can I Make a Living as an Artisan?

  1. Dan says:

    You hit the nail on the head, being debt free is huge! We should all strive to be debt free anyway, but the pressure to succeede when debt is involved, and no steady income is a recipe for disaster. I would also recommend having a good amount of retirement savings as well before taking the plunge, if the aspiring artisan is middle age.. No need risking your future self on a dream.

    Great blogs! Keep it up!

    Dan

    • gman3555 says:

      Glad you’re enjoying the blog Dan. Your point about retirement is a good one and something that must be considered as well. To take on such a transition requires mitigating the risk as much as possible.
      Thanks for commenting.

      Greg

  2. I’ve had the same dream but the reality of situation is the fun and joy of making things in wood died for me when I tried this route. I am with you in that I would rather continue to make and learn things on my own rather then make and sell. I get more satisfaction from “dad, can you make me…..”.
    BTW, I heard Tahiti is very nice in the off season and the costs are lower.

    • gman3555 says:

      Money changes everything. Sometimes for the better. Sometimes for the worse.
      I keep bringing up Tahiti, but SWMBO says that I can just keep dreaming.
      Thanks for the comment.

      Greg

  3. David says:

    Interesting article Greg I doubt there are many hand wood workers making a great living , it maybe an idilic life style but worrying how you are going to pay your next months bills and as Dan says funding your retirement can not be great.
    I have worked for 50 years in engineering manufacturing and still work 2 days a week and for the exception of a few rough patches have always enjoyed work I get a kick from making things, I aways said the day I stopped enjoying working I would give up , so maybe if a person is not happy in their current job a better move is to find a job they do enjoy and continue with the wood working as a hobby . That said I am convinced that with your wide skill base could make a good living not just from making and selling but with writing articles and giving courses.
    Keep up the good work on your blog it looks great

    • gman3555 says:

      David I don’t know how to do anything but work. No matter if I’m getting paid for it or not. I have to be doing something all of the time. I agree that we should all seek out employment that we find enjoyable and fulfilling, but that can be easier said than done. I like my current day job just fine and the money is good. So I’m in no hurry to make any drastic changes. I’ll just keep doing what I’m doing and if an opportunity presents itself I’ll explore it.
      Thanks for the encouraging and complimentary words. They are much appreciated.

      Greg

  4. John Meaney says:

    Nice article Greg. The question we all ask is How can I make a living as an Artisan when often we’re thinking is how can I make money as an Artisan but simply mean how can I make this a bigger part of my everyday life.

    • gman3555 says:

      Thank you John. You are correct. Living the life of an artisan does not necessarily mean that you have to make it your profession. Some dream of total immersion though and that means you would need to generate an income. Small steps in our daily lives will prepare us if an opportunity presents itself.
      Thank you for commenting.

      Greg

  5. billlattpa says:

    I’m not an artisan…maybe one day…but I never cared for the word, not what it means, but sometimes when it is used where it shouldn’t be. In any case, I’ve found that the reason I enjoy woodworking is because I don’t have to make a living at it. My un-artisan like corporate job allows me such luxuries as woodworking, and a place to sleep. I couldn’t imagine having to worry about selling a piece of furniture in order to survive; I can only assume that it would suck the fun right out of it. No matter what anybody says, having steady money in your pocket and food on the table trumps being an artisan every day of the week, no matter how lovely the stuff you are making may happen to be.
    Another commenter mentioned maybe not necessarily earning a living as an artisan, but living life a bit more like one. That is an idea I can get behind.
    Bill

    • gman3555 says:

      When I was writing this I chose to use the word artisan so as to address all those who are working with their hands. Woodworkers, artists, potters, bakers and the like. My goal with this was to point out the reality of choosing these sorts of activities as a career. Living and working the life of an artisan is a romantic idea but the reality is not all puppies and rainbows. It can be done though, but you need to be prepared for what you are actually getting yourself into. I have no desire to start worrying about how I’m going to pay my bills every month.
      Thanks for the comment.

      Greg

  6. Andy in Germany says:

    I’m now about two years into a three year apprenticeship as a journeyman carpenter and everyone wants us to go into computer based work, which I have no intention of doing, and get into the debt treadmill on the side which we have managed to avoid for fourteen years of marriage and family, and have no intention of doing either. At the moment I’m working on improving my skills, mainly dovetails because that hones my observation, measuring, marking, chisel and saw skills, and trying to find a way to get beyond the rather draconian licencing requirements in germany. I din’ want woodwork to become the main thing I do, and I’m hoping it will be part of a patchwork of some kind involving different community based ways of making an income that allow me to invest in people as well. I don’t know how this will happen yet, but I’m working on it…

  7. Tam says:

    Hello, I am making my living as an artisan and this is something I have come back to as I have had success in the past with a different artisan business (selling garden stones.) What I can share from what I learned in the past and what I am experiencing once again is sometimes you just have to get out there and do it, you don’t have to be perfect from the get go, but you do have to be pretty good at something and take it from there. On your journey you will be faced with things that aren’t working out or just don’t give you a good gut feeling. Follow that gut feeling, be unconventional, try things.
    When you are truly focused and think about your craft all the time you will have so many ideas you would like to try, so try them…. all the “what ifs” …are worth checking out. Don’t be afraid to fail at something, or spending money on the wrong stuff, it is just part of the process of finding something great for yourself. Don’t expect a direct route or straight line to success, it is more like a bumpy road with lots of ups and downs, but it does lead towards the success point.
    My current work (artistic sandblasting) has changed so much from what I initially thought it would be as it took me some time to learn my art, but once I started my business I found the craft of sand carving came with many issues, so I tackled the issues by creating my own unique way of sand carving that saves me money and time from the traditional, allowing me to create one of a kind stone pieces cheaply yet more artistically connected to the stone canvas and sell at a more reasonable price to the public. When I reflect on my garden stone business I can see I did the same thing; I tossed the traditional methods of making stained glass garden stones and created something that would save time, use 95% of my glass (almost no waste) allowing me to make and sell thousands of them .
    I just know that when you truly put your heart and sole into your craft and connect with the passion of it, doors open, ideas flow, mistakes lead to bigger and better things and obstacles can sky rocket you in a new direction. Every little break through in your craft will give you that good gut feeling and you will know you are on track. Keep going!

    • Greg Merritt says:

      Thank you Tam for the inspirational and encouraging input.
      Without a doubt, the path to success is rarely a straight one. Twists and turns can lead to success in a way that may never have been considered.
      Thanks again.

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