Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Why I enjoy building custom furniture

I get to write letters like this:

[names have been changed to protect the innocent]

Dear Jane,

I want to thank you for your time this morning. It was very kind of you to welcome me into your home, and I appreciate that. And while I think it falls into another kind of category, I want to thank you for welcoming me into your project. One of the joys of building (or commissioning) custom furniture is that you’re allowed to design and have built exactly what you want, the way you want it built. I realize that this can be hard sometimes, and very intimidating, because the visions in our mind’s eye aren’t always as thoroughly detailed as we’d like.
If the image you have in your mind is of a wooden table with wrought iron legs, I’d like to help you flesh out that image, and help you fill in some of the details. I liked the sketches you had for the legs, and I feel like I owe you an apology if you felt like I was dismissive of the idea. It didn’t occur to me until now to ask or offer this, but if you’d like, we can sit down again (at your house, or mine) and play with the details a little more. I can sketch out variations on the design you showed me for the legs, with different curves and proportions, both on their own, and with a mocked-in top. That way you can see how different proportions work against each other, and with the table. It’s hard to offer a concrete “I want THIS,” sort of answer sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I can’t provide some options for you to choose from. It’s easier sometimes to figure out what you like or want by ruling out the things you don’t like or want, or which ones you like more. And once we have a better idea of what that is, we’ll have an easier time with the wrought iron guys, because I can give them a full size working drawing of the curves you decide on, for both tables. It gives us a better working position if we can give them all the details when they’re commissioned for their part. Please let me know how your meeting goes with them.
In a similar vein, I can come back with some corrugated cardboard pieces once your chair comes home from the upholsterers. We can cut the cardboard up to play with the angle for the wedge table, and figure out what shape you’d like it to be.
My hope is that we can arrive at designs that you really like. The way this is supposed to work is that with your inspiration, and my perspiration and know-how, we come to a design that really makes you feel good about the process. I’d really like to be able to build tables that are genuinely yours. If I build them, I’d rather deliver something to you that is made from your own ideas and decisions, instead of something you had to pick out of what was offered. I’d like you to be able to be proud of these tables, and happy to see them in your home.
Don’t hesitate to contact me with any questions.

All my best.



This is the joy of the custom furniture builder... and of my life as a builder and educator. I get to help people to create elements of a life that they envision for themselves. For clients, I am the hands and the process that helps to manifest their ideas. As an author, or a teacher, I help people understand how to care for and use their tools to pursue a life or hobby where they are empowered to shape and craft the world around them as they wish to shape it. I get to be the link between the idea and the realization of people's desires. I get to help them find their way to making something that's theirs.

It's a nice idea that all men are created equal, but the truth of it is that we all have different strengths. I get to be the guy who helps people figure out what they want, and helps them to get it. It's a pretty rare gift, and I think it's pretty cool.

Happy Wednesday.

Friday, January 25, 2008

The forest, and the trees

As I said, this Blog is going to be one thread of three. The others will come later. This one pertains to business, philosophy, life, and why I enjoy building the things that I do.

Today will be a pretty odd entry, and it's just as much a confessional as anything else. It's about details, and the bigger picture.

I love building things because I'm predisposed to see into the details, and to solve the puzzles of how things are supposed to go together. I really enjoy working with wood, because it has its own rules. It's not a static or predictably plastic material. It bends in certain predictable ways, and moves in unpredictable others, and the process of building a good piece of furniture is also a process of helping the piece as a whole to exist as a stable unit, or as a compilation of stable parts. Every board in a drawer is capable of warping, cracking, and moving towards something less useful than it was. The geometry of the drawer is such that each board restrains and stabilizes the others, and enables the unit to move forward... and this is really cool to me. As the seasons pass, the boards will swell and shrink a little bit, but they'll all swell in the same direction, so none of them are acting against the others. And the process of cutting the joinery requires a quiet mind and good concentration skills, or you'll end up paring wood and correcting badly made cuts for hours.

It's very easy for me to get into these details, and to wedge my head firmly into a problem-solving, particular puzzle mentality, sometimes to the point of distraction. But I've discovered in the process of moving forward with the business, and the shop, and trying to design and move forward with individual projects, that there are so many details to keep track of, that it's almost impossible to keep them all in my head. And it's very hard to get a solid grasp on the bigger picture, such as the direction of the business. I get so wrapped up in how I'm going to solve a particular problem on a particular piece that sometimes it's hard to even conceive of how this one little problem will affect productivity, or profitability. I've had a hard time seeing the forest for the trees.

The most recent example was a picture frame for a friend of mine who makes stained glass pieces for a living. It was a round frame, made of ash, which isn't terribly expensive, and I bid way too low to make it profitable. I was so wound up in how to put it together, how many pieces, how to shape it efficiently, etc, that it wasn't until it was done that I realized my mistake. I based my price on those charged by stained glass supply places online, which was my first mistake. Online supply places can charge a lot less; I only charged him $70 for the frame. And in a way, that seems fairly reasonable, because it was just a frame.

But it also translated into roughly 3 solid days of work. Or, $23 a day. It was money, and it was the first paying job that went through the shop, and the best case scenario is that for 3 days the shop was able to pay for itself, and I had a couple of bucks left over. Not exactly a recipe for success. But the frame was round, and the stained glass piece fit into it perfectly, which is also good. But it was still $23 a day.

I've had to grow up a little bit, and get organized a little, and rework my thinking a lot. I'm not saying this to show that I'm growing up, or that I've figured everything out yet. I'm saying it because it's one of the challenges I'm facing as a businessman.

Well, that, and facing the idea of myself as a businessman.

Maybe this is weird to read. I'm sure relatives will read it and go "duhhh... you're one of the most disorganized people we know. Remember 5th grade when you lost your assignment book every week?" But the point of writing it all down is for other people to read, outside of the family, to hopefully learn from my experiences.

In a way, this Blog will be, in part, about setting up a small business. These are the mistakes and challenges that I face, and they'll be picked apart in here. I get a lot of questions when I tell people that I'm striking out on my own and trying to make a business work. It's hard to encapsulate all of the challenges I face in one simple answer. I get questions about everything from "how hard is it," to "How do you find your clients... how are you going to make this pay," to "Can you help me learn how to sharpen? I can't figure this out." So I'm going to try to write everything here, for posterity, whatever that means, and to get it all out of my head, so I can get back to work. Friends and family, are all very well familiar with watching me amble along in a scattered fashion, trying to figure this out. And a lot of them are familiar with those questions... and with my sharp tool fetishes.

... you can see what I mean with my detail problem. I was going to try to expound on how I was making the transition from "nutty student woodworker," to "organized (HAH!) businessman with some sort of vision." Instead I got caught up in worrying about my audience, and it devolved pretty quickly into a ramble.

These are the challenges I'm currently facing:

I need to be both nearsighted, and farsighted. I need to see the forest, and the trees. I need to understand how to set goals, instead of pile up lists of tasks to be done. It's a new thing for me. Every project has its quirks, and details to be concerned with, in the effort to carry the project to completion. But broader topics haven't been my concern.

My roommate Seth put it best. He explained to me that goals have priority, not tasks. At work, he says he has 10 tasks at any given moment that all have #1 priority, because very few people are going to give you something to do, AND tell you that it's not really important. Goals provide the criteria to make decisions about which task has a higher priority.

I'm working on understanding the process of setting goals, so I can see where to steer the ship that is my business. I'm having to work at it, because I'm so task-oriented sometimes. I'd rather be working with wood, and concentrating on the task at hand. I'm not used to worrying about where it's supposed to take me, or how it's going to impact my ability to pay rent in the future. But I guess that's one of the differences between being a worker, and being a boss. I've already learned that it's very hard to work for myself, because my boss is an organizational train wreck, and he's not always sure from day to day what he wants me to do. But he does need to get his shit together, and figure out where the ship is headed. Once he's figured that out, I'll have a better idea of what I'm doing. And I think that transition is in process.

I'm trying to see both the forest, and the trees, so I can keep from getting lost in the woods, as a woodworker.


I promise: Next time, no stupid metaphors.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

9:08 AM on a Wednesday

First post.


My name is James Watriss, and this is my blog. I'm a custom furniture builder, and aspiring woodworking author. In coming months there will be content here on the furniture I build, and at some point, there will be companion blogs that talk about the details of woodworking techniques, and the content of the upcoming book.

In essence, the three separate threads will expound on philosophy, practice, and education, because I see these as the three pillars of my business. The philosophy guides my work. The work is the physical manifestation of that philosophy. And writing about what I do, and what I've learned, will hopefully contribute to the craft, and to a wider community.

About me:

I graduated Boston's North Bennet Street School about a year ago. I spent some time in a shop with other woodworkers, and moved out last July, and opened the doors of James Watriss Designs last August. The first few months were spent in getting set up, and working around delays in getting set up, and now the shop is ready, and it's time to bring the word to the people. I'm in business!

About the woodwork:

North Bennet Street School (NBSS from here on) is a very intense place to go to school, with emphasis on hand skills, machine know-how, and not settling for simple, boring work. I have a passion for beautiful wood, and fine design, but the fuel for the fire lies in the design process, and figuring out how to get all the elements to come together in the shop. Cutting dovetails is fun, fitting joinery together is rewarding, but no two projects are ever the same, and every one is a puzzle.

North Bennet taught me several things, but the most important lesson I came away with was this: A good artisan makes the best use of any tool at his disposal. Anyone can push wood across a table saw. And as technology has advanced, it's been shown that anyone can push a button on a CNC machine, too. But not everyone can come up with an idea worth building, or replicating. And not everyone can design a process to bring that idea into the living, breathing, material world. Automated and powered tools have demonstrated the ability to duplicate, but not necessarily to create, or to have an eye for art. It's equally possible for someone to make ugly, misshapen things on a CNC machine, with equal speed. It takes more than production capacity to make something beautiful.

About my writing, and desire to teach:

I can expound at length about the deficiencies of modern education in the US. I can offer opinions on our ability as a country to produce some of the highest level technology in the world, and our inability to produce a comparable number of trained and competent engineers. I can lament the downfall of shop and art classes in schools, and the inevitable lack of hands-on learning that has resulted. Mathematics is taught in a vacuum, separate from the Physical Sciences that math was designed to describe and explain. And science in schools has been placed paradoxically in opposition to faith.

All of these are reasons to be concerned, but discontent and despair are not reasons to teach. There's really only one reason that makes sense, and matters to me:

Woodworking is fun. And the process of making things is rewarding.

Evolution has gifted us with a brain, and opposable thumbs, and an inherent desire to create and make tools. It doesn't matter if you're renovating your house, or working with napkins and sugar packets to take the tip out of a cafe table: The ability to work with our hands is the grace that allows us to improve our lives, and make our world a better place. Thousands of years ago, humankind started with rocks and fire, and learned how to make metal. Now we have airplanes and cell phones and skyscrapers and computers. Maybe you're the next Frank Lloyd Wright. Or maybe you're just trying to get the silverware drawer in your kitchen to slide smoothly. There's something satisfying about working with your hands, especially when it can make your day to day life a little bit better.

But not everyone knows how. Many of us were taught that some of the most fundamental implements, and anything with a sharp edge, are not useful; they're scary and dangerous and have no place in schools. There's a dearth of information, and a fair amount of disinformation. (Boy is that an oxymoron) And that's getting in the way of people doing things that are fun and rewarding.

I want to change that.



Hyperbole and lovely rhetoric are all fine and good, but for the purposes of this blog, this is only day one. There's a lot to do, and a lot to write, and while I could do this all day, I have work to get done.

It's now 10:28 on a Wednesday, and I'm signing off.