Friday 6 July 2018
To those of us in the business of making a living from our furniture making, success depends as much on selling skills as on making skills. It is not enough to make good work, you must tell people about it. Here are some of the ways I have gone about selling my work.
The most important selling points for my furniture are that it is high quality, individual and bespoke. Its function and form can be decided and tailored to the requirement. There is choice, of size and shape, timber and finish.
Attitude of mind
The drawer sizes, shelf spacing and door access can all be made to measure. Features can be included as the client desires. Design and construction advice is available from the maker.
Selling one’s work is an attitude of mind, taking as much ingenuity and effort as the making.
High-quality work, reliability, courtesy, a clear straightforward approach, and an enthusiastic can-do attitude should have the stuff walking out of the door. And remember that the most valuable advertising of all is word of mouth.
Clients wanting an individual piece often favour the more unusual timbers, once they have been shown them, such as burr elm, sycamore, zebrano and fumed oak. A mix of contrasting wood, such as mahogany and cherry, or sycamore and fumed oak, is also popular.
Of course it goes without saying that the work should be of the highest quality. I mark my furniture in an inconspicuous place with a label and my signature, burnt in with a branding iron. Clients are very keen to have this mark; it equates to the artist’s signature on a painting in their minds.
The Arts & Crafts makers were fond of showing the quality of their work with visible joints such as through tenons, pegged or wedged with contrasting timber. I have used this as a selling point but it does increase the time taken and therefore the cost.
I always make the point that drawers are hand dovetailed and clients do seem to appreciate it. Drawers must always be a good fit, sliding smoothly home, with the lightest of pressure. A little candle wax on the running surfaces helps here. Doors should close cleanly and positively onto the catch with an even clearance gap all round.
The finish is critical because it is the first thing the client sees. They always want to stroke the surface, and feel the wood, and a light waxing can enhance this.
One sense often ignored is smell. People love the scent of cut wood. I sometimes supplement this with a light coat of lemon oil on the inside surfaces. In items for clothing storage I offer cedar of Lebanon for drawer casings and internal shelves for its lovely scent and insect repellent qualities, very popular with female clients.
Reassurance about cost is often needed. I advise clients to tell me exactly what they want then, if it goes over budget,
we can work out the best compromise. Often they are surprised to find that a small, relatively unimportant detail has high cost implications, and are happy to change the specification.
I give a firm price, in writing, together with specifications, and scaled, dimensioned line drawings, after I have had plenty of time to consider the project and the client’s brief in detail.
Some clients are prepared to tell me their budget and ask for options.
I never use a hidden dovetail where a biscuit or Domino will do the job at a fraction of the cost. I feel a responsibility to the client, myself, and the craft to do things cost efficiently. Neither do I undervalue my services; some makers don’t charge as much per true hour worked as they pay to get their windows cleaned.
I always emphasise that clients are buying direct from the bench maker with no middlemen, showrooms or stock, and low overheads. All their money goes into the making and materials and the time they would have spent searching for, and not finding, what they want is saved.
Dealing with clients
The design of a piece should evolve from a pleasant exchange of ideas, and exploration of the possibilities and requirements of practical function and visual aesthetic between the client and the maker.
The process is structured by an initial stated requirement and joint discussions of the options, alongside financial considerations, until slowly a picture begins to emerge.
Clients may have a clear idea of what they want and have difficulty in communicating it, or a vague idea that needs development. I try to put them at their ease, show them plenty of examples of my work in different woods and finishes, both actual pieces in the cottage, and photos. I can usually quite quickly get a feel for their likes and dislikes, and slant my contributions accordingly.
I try to make the whole process a pleasant experience by being enthusiastic and patient, listening to their wishes, trying to avoid imposing mine, and assuming nothing.
My clients are my most important asset. I want them to enjoy the experience and take pride in their contribution to the design, of which they can take ownership. Then they come back and, hopefully, bring their friends.
Drumming up trade
Most of us have workshops in places with little passing trade so we must advertise our presence. To get free advertising put yourself in the place of the poor reporter/editor with a deadline, then find something interesting to say or show and see if you can help them out.
My departure from the RAF regiment had been featured on local TV and in the local paper. Six months later
my suggestion of a human interest follow up about my change of career was well received. A walnut bureau with 22 drawers and 13 secret compartments, made as a test piece, was particularly effective on TV as I demonstrated some of the compartments.
A good photograph of an apothecary’s chest in burr elm, made as a speculative piece, was offered to Homes and Gardens which published it with a short description and my contact details. As a result the chest was sold from the photo, and an Arab sheik ordered some furniture for his London flat. His furniture was in fumed oak with contrasting sycamore drawer fronts, ideal images for a black-and-white medium such as a newspaper, so I approached several local newspapers and more exposure was gained.
I have had several features about my work with photos and contact details in national and county glossies, all with very little effort. I found the county glossies such as Shropshire Life and Yorkshire Life better because they are relatively local and tend to be read by the right income group. They also have a long life in waiting rooms.
Read a copy of the publication and approach the features editor with a good short synopsis of what you have to offer. If they are interested then they will take it from there.
Newsagents windows, free display boards in supermarkets, leaflet drops into houses in the right part of town, or with the right sort of car parked outside, are worth considering. Leaflets are easy to make on the home computer.
Linking up with related, but not competitive, other trades can be mutually beneficial. When I spotted a local fitted kitchen firm I asked if they did freestanding solid wood pieces. They did not so I offered to put any fitted kitchen enquiries their way if they would reciprocate with suitable furniture leads.
I recently discovered a site that makes it very easy to create your own website with a free address, so I made a site containing photos of my work with links to a photo album of more than 100 pieces by clicking this link.
I try to make display pieces that will get people to stop and look. Sometimes it can be placed in a high street window where it is likely to complement or even attract more attention than the products on sale. Building societies were my favourite and I had many free weeks in windows in local towns. Tourist information offices are another good option though they tend to charge a small fee.
On its opening day a local craft shop displayed my walnut bureau and I offered a bottle of champagne to anyone who could find all the secret compartments. The local newspaper was alerted and agreed to send a photographer. I persuaded a couple of attractive girls who were having a go to stay until the photographer arrived and he got some great shots.
The craft shop and I received publicity, the paper got copy and photos, and the girls got their photos in the paper as well as some bubbly.
Craft and produce shows
Displaying at shows can be costly what with the pitch rent, your time, transport and accommodation so I restrict myself to local craft and produce shows in village halls and the like. I enjoy the social aspect and people admiring the work.
It is nice to make the sale of a big item from a display or a show but it is rare. I always take small pieces, bread boards, coasters, mirrors and the like, all made from scrap that people can impulse buy and carry easily. The sale of these usually at least covers expenses.
It is important to have work available for clients to view when they visit to discuss a project. This could be located in a dedicated display area. My workshop is too small and not very pretty, so over the years I have furnished our cottage with examples of my work.
I have tried to include as many distinctive details in the pieces on show to demonstrate the possibilities. Sometimes, when times were quiet, I have made speculative pieces that have been displayed in the cottage until sold.