Planning for the future
Every worthwhile endeavor in life, whether it be raising a family, buying a home, attending college, climbing Mount Everest or starting up a business, needs to begin with a plan. Yes, there are those that wing it and yes, there are some who are successful due to no fault of their own. There are even some with no desire for fame and fortune and yet it finds them. Perhaps it is because of divine intervention or the planets having come into perfect alignment or just plain old being in the right place at the right time. We all know one or two of these people who just seem to have the golden touch.
Grinling Gibbons, reputed to have been one of the greatest woodcarvers in history, was toiling away, unknown, in a small shop in the backstreets of London. He was newly married and was struggling to make a living. There was no sign hanging in front of the shop to announce the woodcarver. A friend of the Kings was walking thru that part of town and happened to glance in the window and was most amazed by what he saw. He begged to be let in and after being granted entrance, the stranger inquired as to the piece that the carver was working on. Gibbons quoted him an exorbitant price, equal to 2 years the average salary. The stranger did not buy the piece but the next week, Grinling Gibbons and his carving were summoned to appear before the King. The King was most impressed but left the purchasing decision up to his wife. Gibbons did not make a sale that day but over the course of his reign the King commissioned many trophies and fine decorative carvings for his palaces. It was this royal relationship which cemented Gibbons reputation as a master carver. He soon had many apprentices working under him and an endless backlog of orders to fill.
I don’t know about you but I have never been one of the lucky people. I have always had to work for what little I’ve gotten. It is a nice dream to play the lottery and win just enough to cover my bills and keep me home carving. But as with all dreams, reality hits when I open my eyes in the morning. If you want to eat, you’ve have to work. If you want nice things, you’ve have to pay for them. That means that we must have a job, a career, or a livelihood. We have families to raise, mortgages to pay, standards to keep, and retirements to save for. Being stranded on a desert Island, living off the land and never having to work again probably isn’t as glamorous and romantic as most of us think. There is a basic part of my psychological makeup that rebels against having to go to work everyday. But I understand basic economy. I understand the value of a paycheck.
A deserted Island
The mere twinkle of an idea began forming in my head, the idea that perhaps, I could finally do something that I wanted to do, something that I loved to do and perhaps find a way to support myself while doing it. It was an exciting thought but so inviting that it became scary. What about medical benefits and pensions? There would be no paid vacations, no holidays. What would happen if I got hurt or sick and couldn’t carve? What if I couldn’t find customers? What if I couldn’t deal with customers? How and where would I set up a studio? Where would the money for start up costs come from? What if I wasn’t good at marketing and networking? What if I couldn’t manage my time well enough to be cost-productive? What if my attempt ended in financial ruin?
There were so many weighty unanswered questions. But there were so many reasons to pursue the idea. First and foremost, was that I could control my own destiny. I would for once stand on my own two feet and hold my head high. I could set my own schedule. If I wanted to work till 3 in the morning I would. I could create with my hands. It would give an outlet to my creative side, to my need to do something to make life more meaningful. Carving is peaceful and contemplative. Never mind the prestige of just being able to say that you are a woodcarver. Think of the conversations that it would start. And it certainly would be an interesting intellectual pursuit. After 25 years of holding conventional jobs, of working for other people, in inefficient, uncreative atmospheres, I needed some kind of change. But was I confident that I could produce results. Would I be happy to carve when I had to carve? Was being a woodcarver an unrealistic dream?
How did a person decide where they would fit in best in the carving world? And how did one go about making a living as a professional woodcarver? Could one become a profitable professional artist in the 21stcentury? I didn’t know. But my future as an artist/carver would depend on the answers to those questions. I began to formulate a business plan; I called it my five year plan. I set goals for myself for each year of the plan. At the end of the 5 years I wanted to at least be producing some sort of income from carving.
My five year plan
My first year was to learn about the world of carving, about tools and woods, techniques and styles. My second year would focus on actual carving. My third year would concentrate on the inner world of carving, learning the ins and outs of carving shows, getting my name known among other carvers, perhaps winning a ribbon or two along the way, and on getting my carving resume beefed up. The plan for the forth year was marketing, to try and understand why some carvers sold well and why other carvers barely made enough money to cover the costs of their materials. I wanted to learn about locations and why certain carvings sold well in some areas and wouldn’t sell in other areas. The plan for the 5th year was to bring the other 4 years worth of knowledge together and to do something with it. I would be successful in my carving plan if, at the end of the five years I was viewed as a serious carver by other woodcarvers and if I was making some type of income from carving or carving related activities.
There are many different ways of making money as a woodcarver. I don’t believe that I’ve ever heard of a professional woodcarver who actually makes his living just carving. It would be nice to think that you could get up in the morning, go to your studio or workshop, and carve until the sun went down. It would be nice to be able to create such unique works of art, which would sell themselves. And it would be nice if woodcarving was more accepted in the mainstream and customers were lining up outside your door.
It’s time to wake up from your dream now. Perhaps out in middle America, carving is more out in the open than it is here in New York City. After 3 years of carving, in a city of six or seven million people, I personally know of less than 30 carvers. I know of a few businesses that employ carvers and even if I wildly exaggerate how many carvers are connected to these businesses, I would still come up with a number of less than 100 carvers in NYC. Divide that into 6 million people. It is a staggeringly small percentage which in wildlife terms would put woodcarvers in New York City, on the verge of absolute extinction. I wish that I could give you some exact figures on the number of woodcarvers in New York City and elsewhere in the country but there is no where to get those numbers from. Just on general principles, there have got to be more than 100 woodcarvers in this city of 6 million, but if there are, they must be quietly carving in their homes or only doing low level fairs which never get any publicity. Even if I could come up with an exact number of carvers in New York City, it would still equal only a small percentage of 1 percent of the total population. In relation to my desire to make a living from woodcarving, this could be a huge detriment or a huge benefit. If there are so few carvers here, perhaps there is enough demand to go around. Or it could be the other way around. There is no real demand for carving, therefore only a handful of woodcarvers can be supported by it.
Part of me wants to disregard both of those equations and say that anyone can succeed at anything, at any place or anytime. We all see examples of this principle played out in our culture at large. Someone invented the Barbie Doll™ and made millions from it. Some one else made the first Frisbee™. And someone in Japan, produced playing cards with made up monsters on them which soon had our children shelling out every dollar they could beg or borrow. What do all of these items have in common? First of all they are all absolutely frivolous items. Unnecessary by anyone’s definition. But yet they were all overnight sensations and they all made their creators quite wealthy. None of them have anything to do with the basics of life, food, shelter or clothing. All of them are impulse purchases. They were all comparatively cheap to produce. And all of them were widely and competently marketed. I remember in high school being very interested in subliminal messages that were sent through advertising. Advertisers knew that if you could connect with a person emotionally or psychologically, you could sell them anything. Especially if they didn’t need it.
With woodcarving as an art, I definitely think that this is true. We have all heard about those woodcarvings that command prices over 100,000 dollars but they are few and far between. Most exceptional carvings can command prices between 1,000 and 50,000, again these are rare carvings created by a handful of highly skilled artists. You can take those very same carvings and present them to the public in an inadequate way and they won’t sell at all.
Most of us do not have a workshop or a studio on 5th avenue in New York City. We don’t have thousands of people a day streaming by our places of business.
New York City
We have to spend the time, getting people to even know that we exist. Word of mouth only goes so far. If you want to just make a few dollars on the side and you already work a full time job or have a pension coming in, word of mouth may give you just enough exposure to keep you busy.
My first couple of years, a lot of time was spent making gifts, Christmas gifts, birthday gifts, shower gifts and love tokens. Yes it took up a lot of time but if it was all added up, I’m sure the total money that I had saved would be impressive and well worth the time that would have otherwise been wasted. What it also allowed, was time for me to gain experience. With paying customers you must live up to exacting standards but when making things that you are to give away, the standards relax a bit. You can experiment with new techniques and try unfamiliar subjects and styles of carvings. Giving small things away, not only brings you free advertising on a smaller scope but also allows you more room in your display area for those pieces that should bring attention. Eventually you will build up a nice inventory of items that you can think about selling to the public.
How do Professional Carvers make a decent living? Besides selling carvings from their studios and doing commission work, a good percentage choose to teach. Some cast copies of their own carvings or sell the rights to a certain piece to other companies to mass produce. Others do mill and restoration work. Some write books and produce cd-roms, videos and DVDs on carving related subjects. Some enter shows where there are cash awards. Some carvers get into the merchandise arena where they may sell carving tools and supplies, books and videos, blanks and cut-outs. Some deal with galleries, consignment shops and gift shops. And some work large and/or small craft shows. The most financially successful artists do all or most of the above, in some combination. It is rare that you just get to sit quietly and carve. This is one reason why some carvers choose not to chase the dollar. If you are going to be financially successful, you must learn the importance of budgeting your time, because you will have a lot of irons in the fire. The business of selling your carvings may become so burdensome that you find yourself fighting to try to find time to carve. You have to strive to find a balance between the two worlds. You must create, first and foremost, or you will not have any product to sell.
Vincent van Gogh
There are those to who artistic expression is a real passion, true artists, who only have it in their blood to create. Vincent van Gogh was one of those artists. He never tried to understand and deal with the business of selling his paintings. His brother Theo would take his paintings and sell them for whatever he could get for them. Theo saw to it that van Gogh had a modest roof over his head and food to eat but not much else. Vincent died penniless and who’s to say if he had only learned to sell his own work, things might have turned out differently.
We have all become accustomed to living our lives in a certain manner, to a certain standard whatever that may be. We have been taught from a young age the importance of earning a living. We need a way to pay for basic things, a roof over our heads, clothes on our backs and food in our bellies. Beyond that there are many other possible expenses of supporting our selves and our families. We need to pay utility bills and medical insurance. Car payments and car insurance. We need to pay taxes and college tuitions and for all the non essential niceties of life. We need to put money away for emergencies and retirements.
The Thinker by Rodin
Thinking of becoming a full time woodcarver is to be taken very seriously. Are you the kind of person who can make it work? Can you budget your time in order to be profitable enough? Are you willing to struggle for years until you learn the ropes? Can you learn to deal with galleries and shops; can you perfect your carving skills enough or get your name out to enough people? Can you deal with the public and keep your own books, do your own advertisements, network with in the art world, figure out your own taxes, deal with the legalities of owning your own business? Can you do a million things at once and have them all successfully converge to produce a decent income? Do you have the drive and determination to be a woodcarver? Can you sustain yourself over the next 30 or 40 years? Do you have the passion?
It is a nice dream to think of yourself in a wonderful modern studio with a receptionist, assistants to deal with clients, apprentices doing all your grunt work, accountants to file your taxes, lawyers to handle all legalities, agents to handle publicity and advertising and someone who sweeps up and organizes your shop at the end of each day. Make sure you get a lot of rest because all those people will be you, at least in the beginning, and most likely for your entire career. So do you still want to be a professional woodcarver? Did you think it was going to be easy? Do you have what it takes?
You must make a plan and try to stick with it. When I look at my five year plan, I see that I am way past where I had hoped to be in some areas and lagging behind in other areas. It is a constant endeavor on my part to plan to do at least something each day which will further me along on my journey. Nothing can happen over night. And each accomplishment is comprised of a thousand smaller steps. What did you do today that will be of value to your woodcarving future? Did you carve? Did you try out a new tool? Did you introduce somebody new to your carvings?
I liked the idea of being able to carve what I want, when I want. That is very important to me as an artist. As a commercial success, the ability to carve anything that a customer is willing to pay for is also important. One needs to be versatile but also needs to specialize in some area. You need to be known for something that stands out from the rest. Don’t kid yourself into thinking that people will remember your name. They will remember you for what you carve, if it is worth remembering.
You also must consider the type of things that you are carving and put them into an economic equation. How many $50 carvings do you have to sell too make a decent living? How many $10 carvings? The problem with making items that will sell cheaply is that you have to sell an awful lot of them and if you put it all into perspective you would probably not be able to produce enough smaller carvings in a given time frame to produce enough income on a continuing basis. How many $5, 000 or $10,000 dollar carvings would you have to produce to make the same amount of income in the same given time frame? Here in New York City, the standards of living cost more than in most parts of the country. For arguments sake, let’s take $40,000 as an income that most could live on. In some parts of the country $40,000 would be a generous income. In New York City, it could border on only a subsistence wage. It will take 4,000 $10 dollar carvings, 800 $50 carvings, 40 $1000 carvings or 8 $5,000 carvings to reach that $40,000 mark. 99.99% of us would not have the time or skill level to produce what is required to give you a $40,000 income. We have not even considered any of the overhead involved in selling your carvings, whether it is wood, tools and supplies, income and sales taxes, show and traveling costs, or the costs of running your own business establishment. You would have to raise your prices or your production from between 25 to 100% and ever be on the lookout for ways to decrease your costs. Are you ready to give up the thought of being a woodcarver yet?
For those of you, who have just answered no to that question, read on. To become a profitable woodcarver, you must open yourself up to the idea that you will not only be carving. You must pull in income from other sources. You must become proficient in all areas of marketing and networking. You must get your work out in front of the public, not in one or two shows a year but in a continuing and constant effort, in large and small venues in an ever widening circle from your home base. You may want to seriously consider teaching carving as it can bring a fairly steady income. Writing, producing and selling books, cds and DVDs can also bring financial gain.
You must have the determination, motivation and conviction to keep going, to keep carving, to keep presenting, to keep selling. Ask yourself if you are only carving for fun or if you truly have a passion for what you are doing. Sorry to say but only those who can say that they are consumed by carving have any real chance of succeeding financially. Right now, most of us only carve when we want to. Would carving be as satisfying if you had to do it, day in and day out? Are you willing to work long hours, around the clock if a deadline demands it? Are you willing to sacrifice social activities and free time? Will your family put up with your draining schedule? I have no official statistics but I have heard that divorce is not an uncommon thing among professional woodworkers of all types. It is hard to sustain a relationship when you are rarely available to your family. It is hard for others to buy into your dream when it means years of struggling financially. The majority of your time will be spent working in your shop or out on the road as a professional instructor. You will be traveling to shops and galleries, perhaps attending the larger woodcarving shows in various locations around the country. Is your family excited about your carving? Are they willing to invest themselves into making you a success? Can they assist you with some of the grunt work or help with the business side of it. Are they willing to travel with you and help at shows. Are the people in your life supportive, resentful or indifferent to what you are trying to accomplish?
There are some who seem born into woodcarving. Those rare carvers who start as children and from very early on, know in which direction that they will be heading. But for most of us, we find woodcarving in our middle age or retirement years. Some of us come to it after having experienced some traumatic physical or psychological event in our lives. The great majority of carvers are already headed on a different path in life and well established in their careers when they discover carving. You’ve all heard about those miraculous change of life scenarios, where someone throws away most of what they have accomplished and risks everything in order to pursue a dream, but for most of us that is not a real option. We have children and families, houses and other possessions, pensions and other financial considerations that we are not willing to part with. For most of us carving will never fit into our lives as anything more than a hobby.
If we could only start over and go back to those early years when all avenues were open to us, before we, ourselves, slammed shut those other doors in pursuit of what it was that we thought we wanted. I wish that in those early years someone had presented the option of being a professional woodcarver to me, I believe I would have ran with it as I do now.
Most of you who are reading this are either content or resigned to be a hobby carver. And there is nothing wrong with that. It is a personal decision. There are those among you who are happy to sell a carving from time to time for a little extra income and those who are quite satisfied if they can make their hobby pay for itself. But there are those among you who hunger for something more, those who are willing to make whatever sacrifice it will take, in order to pursue full-time carving. There will always be hobby carvers as it is a most relaxing pastime but it is those who seek to reach to a higher level who will guide and shape the future of woodcarving and propel it into the next century. You will only get out of woodcarving, the energy that you are willing to invest in it. Think carefully and plan for tomorrow.
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