How much time?

Prospect door by author, maple burl raised panel.

Wow that’s gorgeous! How much time did it take to build that? Do you get asked this? How many hours do you have wrapped up in your latest furniture project? I’m always skeptical about the pieces in the gallery section in the magazines where it states that “Archie Kleptack took 700 hours to build this armoire”. I’m sloppy about keeping track of time building in my shop. Maybe it’s a backlash from all those years in industry where an army of accountants tracked costs out to three decimal places. That doesn’t stop people from asking the inevitable. The answer is, I don’t know. I enjoyed reading the comments by Larry Williams and Don McConnell from Clark and Williams in the latest issue of Popular Woodworking Magazine about making wooden hand planes.  

“The honest answer is: We don’t know how long it takes to make a set,” Williams says.

“The truth,” McConnell adds, “is that we really don’t want to know”

 The real time it takes to build something is the actual build plus all the investment of resources it took to arrive at a place where you have the capability to bring it about. How do you quantify that? It’s inescapable though, especially for those brave souls actually trying to eke out a living building with their hands. Being able to quantify our time and turn that into money is the age old question artisans have been battling with since the first cave man invented a better club. Do I just charge for time and materials or do I account for my uncle Thag who got eaten by a saber tooth tiger testing out the first prototype?

One nugget I see often repeated from historical design texts is that it seldom costs any more to build with pleasing proportions than it does to slap something together irrespective of design. This is especially true when it comes to one off furniture production. In a world of shifting sand where so many things may be out of our control, design is one skill we can use to place our mark on our work and set it apart. It may be your goal is just to please yourself and posterity. Or you may be fighting to stay afloat in a very hostile economy.

Prospect box interior drawers, by author.

 At its simplest level, I have just a few maxims I try to stick to:

1. Do good work.

 2. Strive to make something that will be appreciated generations from now, perhaps even inspire others.

3. Keep that delicate balance of beauty, function, and sturdiness.

George R. Walker

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About walkerg

Woodworker and writer
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10 Responses to How much time?

  1. joe sullivan says:

    George:

    Your work really is beautiful. I aspire not only to learn design from you, but t get to where I can execute it nearly as well.

    Joe

  2. Jack Plane says:

    Lovely work George! One thing that sets true artisans apart from mere labourers (laborers to you?), is that they never let their standards slide… even towards the end of a job when it becomes patently obvious they’ve grossly underestimated the costs involved.

    Good ol’ Uncle Thag, he’ll be sorely missed.

  3. John says:

    Thanks for the blog. I am so terrible at design. With your help maybe I can learn a few things. Your work is out of this world. Thanks John

    • walkerg says:

      John,
      Thanks for your kind words. You probably know more about design than you give yourself credit for. One thing I’m certain of is that design skills can be improved with a little effort.

      George

  4. Rick says:

    George, excellent and timely post for me as I was in this discussion yesterday at my “day job” when I was asked how long it took me to build the 6 dining chairs I made for our son and daughter in law. My answer was “too long” . I do not attempt to make aliving at this but I have sold a few pieces to make enough for greens fees and club dues and perhaps a new (hand) tool. I had at one point obsessed over the various methods to estimate the selling price (3x to 4x the cost of the materials) but later learned I enjoy the process of making the piece and the money was secondary. None the less, thanks for the post.

  5. Ron Brese says:

    George,

    The nicely fitted White Elephant. Aspiring woodworkers have often shown me their latest piece extolling the virtues of it’s tight fitting moldings and joinery, and the whole time I’m thinking” the proportions of this thing are dreadful, all that wasted effort.”

    I see this over and over again. People have a notion that they can re-invent good design. This is not abstract art, it’s furniture making.

    Ron

  6. Jack Plane says:

    “I see this over and over again. People have a notion that they can re-invent good design. This is not abstract art, it’s furniture making”.

    You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din! I have often thought the same, but I haven’t the notoriety to voice it.

  7. Tico Vogt says:

    George,

    What does a “prospect” door mean? That figured maple looks fantastic. Can you talk about the planes(s) you used working it, blade pitch., etc?

    One of my favorite overheard comments was from a husband to his wife while looking at a dining table I had at a furniture show: “I could make that in a couple of weekends.” Not only can we designer/builders not have a good idea of how long it takes to make something, especially a one-off, but the public has many decimal places in the negative idea about it. Let’s face it, to the real world what we are engaged in is serious self-indulgence, being fussy about this or that proportion, wood choice, grain composition, joinery detail… The big question for me is, how much more time will it take making end tables before I can buy a Brese Miter Plane?

    • walkerg says:

      Tico,

      Someone who knows furniture history better than I may be able to fill in the gaps on a prospect box. On period desks which contain a gallery drawers and pigeon holes they often contain a central small chest called a prospect box. In many cases they are removable to reveal some secret compartments. That’s the case with this piece. The inner box pulls out to reveal several hidden drawers. As to working the maple. The reeded pilasters that flank the door was created with a scratch beader. They are actually boldly figured but the reeds kill the the figure. The flat surfaces on the burled panel was finished with a #4 Lie-Nielsen high angle plane. If I remember right I fielded the square parts of the door with a bevel up rabbet plane and had to resort to chisels to carve the arch by hand. Not really too bad on a small door. The biggest challenge was to get the burl to settle down. It was some turning stock that was wet when I started. Cut some rough blanks that curled up like potato chips as they dried. Wouldn’t work well on anything large but a small panel or drawer front worked fine.
      In general I find I can plane just about any domestic hardwood with either a standard pitch or a high angle frog #4 smoother. The only exceptions I have found to that yet is Birdseye maple and walnut crotch material. All this assumes a really sharp iron.
      I totally agree about most of the publics awareness about hand work.

      George

  8. Scott says:

    An afternoon to make a painting but a lifetime to learn how to paint…

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