No.

This is the fifth in a series of posts related to the tales in Making Things Work. These posts are not excerpts from the book. This one relates most closely to the tale entitled “No.” Due to operator error, the previous post in this series, “Beggars Can Be Choosers,” did not appear on the Lost Art Press site. You can find it here.

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On 06/07/2018 12:23 AM, Mr. X wrote:

Nancy

A few years ago I was looking for an Arts & Crafts bookcase to build for my den.  I am a retired draftsman, so I was able to pick and choose components from different designs and combine them into one.  But even after looking at so many different designs I still couldn’t find one that really made me happy.  And I looked at a lot.  Then one day I received my copy of Popular Woodworking and there on the cover of that issue was the very one I wanted.  It was perfect.  So with my drafting background I began to draw a bookcase a little taller, a bit wider and a little bit deeper, all the while keeping your basic design.  It came out beautifully, which leads me to my question.  I’ve recently been asked to put a price tag on it for a possible commission. But I’m not sure what to say. Can you help?

*

Mr. X,

I’m glad you found my design to your liking.

I don’t suggest prices to other woodworkers. I think I recall seeing a post by Chris Schwarz recently that was perfectly in sync with my own longstanding reasons for this policy. I’m a professional designer and furniture maker. My livelihood depends on this work. Those who are retired or have alternative sources of support may price their work quite differently from how I do. How you price your work is your business.

With best wishes,

Nancy

37 responses to “No.

  1. Steve Southwood

    Right on.

  2. I’ve read with great interest most of what you write including your books. I became a serious hobbyist in this craft because I learned it was filled with other craftspeople, men and women, who were happy to share what they know to benefit the craft and people who wish to make it a significant part of their lives. Your response to this man is ridiculous. It is unfair, arrogant and selfish. How does suggesting a fair price for a piece hurt you? Charles Neil has done it many times. And he writes too. And he makes his living at it. I’m not related to him by the way. I’m disappointed by your response. But I think the reality of this is, you could care less.

    • “How you price your work is your business.”

      Nancy isn’t withholding anything; she’s been nothing short of magnanimous with offering her expertise in book and blog and I’m sure in person. The above quote is the nut of the whole thing. I think it would be unfair and selfish to tell someone to price their work according to the worth of your own labor. It’s different for everyone, and her advice, figure out your pricing yourself, should be viewed as a benevolent liberation from comparing your labor to someone else’s.

      • Geordie, thanks for getting it. You put it well.

      • I totally agree with you. I have asked Mme. Hiller a lot of advices in the past. She ALWAYS carefully answered them, graciously. I am a part time (now) stained glass and frames restorer. I still ask my mentor advices on special occasions for work/prices. But that is because he knows me, my skills , my flaws . So he knows what I should charge to be able to survive. And YES: there is a huge difference between doing that for leisure and for survival. I would not be able to judge the price another restorer in the field should charge unless I know him/her thoroughly.

    • Foul.

      She politely told this guy that his plagiarized design is his business to price. The real disappointment is the premise that a numerical response is an expectation. Material + hourly rate should be a good starting point.

      • Kapow, you also get what’s really at stake here. Thanks. Let me add that Mr. X didn’t plagiarize the design. It was published in a magazine feature. I got paid for writing the feature and providing the information. Any reader is free to build the piece. But asking me to suggest how to price it is the problem.

      • Totally agree also… It was her work. Not his.

    • I don’t really see what is so wrong with Nancy’s reply. She sounds to professional to me and to the point. There are whole books written on this subject. For her to do justice to this inquiry would be impossible to do. She even ended with “with best wishes.”

    • When you stop expecting people to be perfect, you can like them for who they are. -Donald Miller.

      Or-

      [She’s] not in this world to live up to your expectations and you’re not in this world to live up to [hers].
      -Bruce Lee

      Here’s the thing, you have placed, in your mind, some sort of expectations of whom Nancy is and when she somehow didn’t live up to those expectations you felt disappointment. That’s on you, not Nancy. It’s ok to disagree with what she thinks regarding this, but your disappointment is your problem and has no bearing on what she feels regarding someone else pricing their work.

      I would add that the bid for a commission in this case is based, loosely though it may be, on Nancy’s work. That factor alone is a rather grey area in commissioning a piece for a client. How much did this person modify her design? What, if anything, is he willing to credit her for doing in commissioning this piece?

      Then there’s the fact that Nancy is dead-on in saying that where this person is, where he’s selling this piece, where he sources his materials, and the degree of skill with which he builds it are all factors that are complete unknowns. It’s ludicrous to assume that anyone, in any market, in any country, can accurately give (for free I might add) advice on pricing work to another without even the slightest bit of knowledge of these factors.

      Lots of craftsman, I dare say Nancy herself, have had to learn how to price their work, commensurate with their skill level, in their market etc. the hard way, through trial and error, and with a lot of research and rejection. What I can sell right here where I live I could sell in other, upscale markets for considerably more, and what I could sell in those markets people have laughed at where I live locally. “You want HOW much for that?” is not unheard of in places outside large metropolitan areas. Some people will throw ridiculous amounts of money at something others could simply never afford.

      And we haven’t even touched on having a little notoriety like say, a well known author, can add to the value of something. Should this person ask a premium for this commission because he based it on her design and then yet another markup because he asked her advise on pricing it? (And not give her any recompense in the process for either…)

      Just some things to think about…

    • This is for Drew. Call it Part 1, On Caring (More, not Less)

      My response has nothing to do with arrogance. Those who know me well understand that I am coming at all of this stuff from the opposite end of the attitude spectrum. My reply to Mr. X comes from my existential familiarity with the realities of making a living as a designer-builder (with the emphasis on building and installing, i.e. sometimes hard, and often dirty, work) of furnishings for the homes of “regular folks.” I’m putting “regular folks” in quotes to underscore that, as is the case with most woodworkers I know, the overwhelming majority of my customers do not hold elevated positions in business, sports, the media, etc. Rather, they are people who, while not on the poverty line, live with their own financial and other constraints.

      My customers, like most of my fellow professional furniture makers’ customers, have well-founded concerns about how much their job is going to cost. Balancing craftsmanship (especially the kind of traditional craft encouraged by Lost Art Press, as distinct from the current trend towards all things CNC) with what we can reasonably hope or expect to be paid is a constant consideration.

      I care deeply about sharing the widely experienced realities of this line of work as a livelihood. These realities, for most of us, stand in sharp contrast to the fantasies, not least in this age of self-branding via social media. I think you may be overlooking the distinction I made between doing this work as a primary means of making a living and doing it as a pastime during retirement. Let me add that I am all for the latter; that is the very best way to savor the work of fine craft.

      Do you have any idea how many professional furniture makers will never be able to retire? This is not because they/we are irresponsible romantics, wild spenders, or layabouts. How acquainted are you with the real-world costs of running a micro-enterprise of this kind for a living—without the benefit of a well-paid spouse (or at least a spouse with what are now called “benefits”), trust fund, or other support?

      It’s precisely because I do care so much about this that I wrote Making Things Work. It takes serious caring to put in the time to write such a book and to share this kind of lived experience publicly. Your comment is a good example of what keeps most people from addressing such matters honestly. We live in a world that values popularity, sales figures, and comfort over truth (note the lower-case “t”). But I’ve been doing this long enough that, while in no way arrogant, I do at least have some feeling of solid ground beneath my feet. (It may also be worth mentioning that my academic background is in ethics, a field not populated by people who “could [not] care less.” Please note, the word “not” is essential to your point—and I am adding this by way of honoring your comment, not insulting you.)

      All of this is a necessary preamble to what you say about my unwillingness to share information about what constitutes a “fair price.” Those two words, in this arrangement—“a fair price”–speak volumes and deserve their own post, which you may expect to see in a few days. I’m being honest when I say that I really do appreciate your comment. I take it you’re coming from a place of respect and concern for others. You and I have that in common.

  3. Good thing he didn’t ask me. My answer:

  4. People are weird, that’s a very strange question to ask of someone whose design you stole. And by strange I mean a statement with great gall.

    • snwoodwork, the writer did not steal the design. The plans were published, and I was paid for the article. People are free to build the piece, adapt it for their own uses, etc. They can build this piece for sale. Not an issue. But asking me for pricing help is another thing, as I began to explain in my comment to Drew. For what it’s worth, I understand where you are coming from and appreciate it, just as I genuinely appreciate Mr. X’s enthusiasm for the design. But “stealing” is another matter.

  5. So he ripped off her design, albeit with some changes. Kept the basic design tho. Is using that design without any request for permission nor offer of recompense and then has the audacity (gall? whatever) to request she provide him advice, for free, on how to price it.

    I’d expect she gives a shit. Perhaps about her effort and work regarding the design being appropriated.

    I also respect the nicely parsed and civil answer she provided. It’s not her responsibility or role to help him out, and she chooses not to.

    That someone else chooses to provide such information is irrelevant.

    She’s put much time and effort into acquiring knowledge and skill. She makes her living via that knowledge and skill. It’s not something that I would expect access to for free.

    S

    • For Scott:

      “That someone else chooses to provide such information is irrelevant.” Thanks for understanding this.

      “She’s put much time and effort into acquiring knowledge and skill. She makes her living via that knowledge and skill. It’s not something that I would expect access to for free.” The article and design are published. The writer didn’t rip off my design. The problem is (and I think I responded to Mr. X directly in a respectful way) the notion that there is such a thing as a “fair price.”

      • I stand corrected. I realize it was published but from my perspective I didn’t think that made it open to being used to copy for commercial purposes. Thank you.

      • Scott, there’s no legal prohibition on using a published design for one’s own commercial purposes (at least, none of which I am aware). However, there is an arguable obligation on anyone who builds someone else’s published design for commercial purposes (and even not for commercial purposes) to acknowledge the origin of the design. Chris Schwarz has written lots on this, and I agree with him wholeheartedly. Mr. X did not say anything about this dimension of the issue, so I would not assume that he was going to pass the design off as entirely his own.

  6. He might have been told to begin with the cost of material, which would depend on wood used and then figure how long it took to make the original and decide what an hour or that time would be worth to him – probably the greatest variable.

  7. Put me on a retainer and I will help you figure it out. Very fair answer from you Nancy. If you are going into business you need to break down all of costs, trucks, insurance, tooling, tooling maintenance, shop overheads, advertising and all of the taxes. This is all split over 2400 hours of yearly work. Now add in repairs, waste, etc. Arrogant on Mr X to expect you to know all of these variables…,

  8. I disagree with Drew. Here’s a person who took your design and tweaked it and is now selling it, but not offering you a % of the money he will receive from it. Then he has the nerve to ask you to do further work by supplying a pricing guideline without offering remuneration.
    I’d say No too.

  9. A few years ago I built a picnic table. Not a run of the mill picnic table. Though it is based on a plan from one of the woodworking magazines, it remains quite unique. I get lots of favorable comments about it, and more than a few inquiries, “How much would you charge to make me one?” Regrettably such questions strained friendships because my short answer was, “$8,000” when it should have been, “I really don’t have the time.” $8,000 may seem a lot for a picnic table, but it would have preempted all other work in my tiny shop for at least 6 weeks and consumed all of my “legotime” with my then very young children for as long.

    The circumstances of the maker matter.

    These days I teach shop at a middle school and also have a moderately large, well appointed shop of my own. I still have all the patterns and jigs from the construction of the table and could probably knock one out in an aggressive, well-planned weekend.

    If I make any money building woodworking projects, I roll it right back in tools, supplies, books, and materials for my students. So if someone today asked me to make them the same table, I’d still say “$8,000” because that’s the amount my students are trying to raise to buy a laser cutter.

    The circumstances of the maker matter.

  10. I think it was very professional and generous of you to take the time to reply to Mr.X, notwithstanding that he behaved like a vulture. Your answer could not have been more appropriate.

    • Pascal, thanks very much for your comment. I don’t feel as though Mr. X was behaving like a vulture. He was gracious in expressing his appreciation of the design. The piece he built (he sent pictures) is lovely. But the only people who can determine what constitutes a “fair price” are the maker and buyer.

  11. I do this all the time. I can’t find plans and the one I do are “almost ok”. I use the plans as a starting point , if I can find them, and then make it wider / taller / deeper / add drawers etc. Or I just draw up plans. I didn’t think it was a big deal. Making your own plans just seems to add a bit more to the stuff you build.

    • The issue here is not about tweaking the plan, but about asking the person whose design you are using (whether or not you have adapted it) to tell you what you should charge. Mr. X asked quite innocently, and I responded respectfully. The real firestorm in these comments seems to be in response to the one taking me to task for not sharing a figure that the writer considers a “fair price.”

      • I agree. I’ll start reading closer next time. 2 things.
        1. original vs published work & acknowledgement. If plans are published in a book or magazine do you contact the author for permission and rights to use the plans, or are the plans in public domain? I suppose it should be the former, but I’ve never done that. What about private use vs. commissions? I suppose if it’s paid work you should probably contact the author.
        I understand this, my sons are artists and publish their stuff on the web. They’ve complained, more than once, that someone has hijacked a piece and used it or worse, claimed it as their own. Since they don’t have deep pockets all they can do is politely ask for credit or not use the piece. Sometimes it works sometimes not. When all they had to do was ask and they’d gladly give permission, anything for more exposure.

        2 Pricing work is a ‘delicate’ task. I agree with you and Christopher Schwarz. I’m trying to sell cutting boards and stuff on Etsy. I see boards from $20 to $150 for the same type of board. So far none have sold. Second example: I priced a cabinet and 4 mirror frames at a reasonable price for a potential customer. Her response was — “I see them at Target/Walmart for $150 total can’t you make them for that”? Well, no — I didn’t get the job.

        Thanks for your patience and thoughtful comments on everyone comments.

  12. I fail to see why you should be expected to share anything! I’m just thankful that you are so generous and respectful.

    As a wood carver I get similar requests, which I also respectfully decline. Your generosity has inspired me to offer a seminar at our local carving club/guild on how to price for people who are interested. Everyone’s market and circumstances are different, which will be reflected in their prices. I couldn’t presume to know their market or their circumstances, so I refrain from pricing for them.

  13. I recently was given a picture of a Tuscan style table with instructions to ‘make it look just like that’. My response was, “What is it that you want customized? Dimensions, finish, material/species, hand carved embellisments….”. “I want it made from oak.” That was the only ‘custom’ request. So I went off and replicated the table in SketchUp, priced out premium red oak from my local lumber mill, and estimated $3090 dollars, figuring 30 hours of labor. I haven’t heard back from the potential client. The website was selling for about 1/2 of my estimate.

    There are two big considerations that go into building an estimate. What is the material worth? What is your time worth? Where I’m at, I can get premium 8/4 red oak for $5.75. The mill is about an hour away. I don’t charge those 3-4 hours for a ‘mill run’.

    What is your time worth? This is a very broad question, and it’s different for everyone. I’m not a full time woodworker (yet) unlike Nancy. I take my hourly rate at my real job and use that as a basis, a start. Then I add in overhead, (insurance, cost of tools, cost of schools where I learned specific skills and styles, you gotta pay your webdesigner, the domain hoster, etc, cost of books, cost of KNOWLEDGE). If I have to do any sketchup work, I charge a design fee. If the client is going to be ‘difficult’, I pad the estimate by a few hundred or so. That does two things: it may price me out of the job, and it reminds me when I accept the bid that there actually is a price where I’m willing to deal with the client. Sometimes I underbid that client appreciation fee by mistake. 😉

    Other estimation/pricing factors. How hungry are you? Do you have a 12 month backlog, or has it been a month since you’ve gotten a commission? Are you willing to take a haircut on your time in order to get your work out there? What are your woodworking business aspirations? Are you working to pass time, or are you planning on being the next Maloof/Greene&Greene/Townsend?

    Price
    Speed in Delivery
    Quality Craftmanship
    Pick two.

    Drake
    DDDaggett Woodworks

  14. Nancy, do you copywrite your original designs?

  15. In my former life, I ran a theater company in Philadelphia. Depending on one’s point of view, we were either the smallest large theater in town, or the largest small theater. We occupied the sweet spot, in other words.

    My company, Mum Puppettheatre, ran for nearly a quarter of a century before the economic downturn made me realize how tired I was of soliciting money so I could I hire other people to do the very work I had started my company to do. And lest you get any ideas, Mum was not a kid’s theater, or a Punch and Judy palace, or any of the like. I work with puppets and masks and magic and the human body, etc., and my work took us all over the world, especially in the days when theater was recreating itself out of the minds and bodies of young radicals and not from the pages of playwrights.

    As a puppeteer I designed, engineered, built, and performed objects that I need to do more than look like they were alive. As a theater creator, as an actor, I needed them to do the things that humans cannot do; as edited versions of reality, I needed them to show humans what one can do with life when it is not a matter of fact but something one has to think of every moment… to wake people who “don’t know they’re born,” I guess.

    As a puppet master in Philadelphia, I was often called upon by other theaters who had eventually lost their distaste and distrust of puppets to realize what they could gain from them. Many a time I was asked to sprinkle the magic fairy dust of puppetry over an otherwise pedestrian production to make it “special.” I’d usually refuse, as those who asked rarely understood how much of myself — my training, my ideas, my life — would go into their request. Sometimes, though, I’d line up with another artist and we’d create something greater than the sum of our union.

    One day, years after I had worked mano-a-mano with the artistic director of one of the LARGEST theaters in town to create a pretty special production, I got a call from that theater’s new prop master, asking if he could come over to my studio (a block away from him) to see how I made puppets. You see, they were about to embark on a production of Sondheim’s “Pacific Overtures” and needed a _bunraku_ puppet as called for in the script and that they’d known they needed for at least 14 months. And now he needed to make one.

    Japanese Bunraku puppetry is my specialty. I’ve trained in it. It’s what fuels the work I do. I would have gladly built a puppet and trained the cast for free to be able to work on a show like this. But now… 

    I explained that as I had, in the past, built puppets for this particular theater and been paid for it, it hardly seemed fair that I should now give away my knowledge for free. I told them, as he was new, he wouldn’t necessarily know that history, but… Then he told me that the artistic director I’d worked closely with had told him to call me, instead of calling himself. I gently explained my belief that perhaps it was best if one artistic director (his) called the other AD (me) since that’s where the relationship had begun.

    In the end, I was offered $500 to design and build an authentic Japanese bunraku puppet, costume it, train the cast in how to manipulate it (bunraku requires 3 people working in seamless unison to operate a single puppet), choreograph/direct its movement in the show, and then attend rehearsals to oversee. Oh, and that $500 wasn’t the fee… it was the total amount available. Whatever I didn’t spend on materials I could keep for myself.

    Surprise! I didn’t do it.

    Nancy, the discussion about your reply brought this all back to me. At any given time, the dollar amount assigned to an artist’s work is all about that artist and their relationship to the person who would pay for the work. There is no hard and fast about it. The important thing is to evaluate why you’re doing the work to begin with and whether the rewards (and not all of them are financial, clearly) are worth it. I believe your answer was beautiful: it opens the possibility that, if having the opportunity to build something for the experience is worth it, build it for free. Build it for a million dollars. Build it for all the right reasons. But figure out what those reasons are _and stick to them_.

    Best regards,
    Robert

  16. You put this so well, Robert, and thanks for seeing what underlay my concise reply. Your experience in the theater sounds fascinating, especially the work with puppets. Years ago, when I lived in Vermont, I was invited to an event where Bread and Puppet Theater were going to perform. At first I thought “puppets? not really my jam,” but fortunately I went. It was eye opening. I want to learn more about your work.

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