Chris Schwarz's Blog

Pricing Your Work – You Can’t Win

I typically keep a few pieces of my work in the window at my workshop in Covington, Ky. Right now I have a couple chairs on display, plus an aumbry. The pieces do attract attention – and also some uncomfortable conversations about the prices on my work.

Recently Patrick Edwards visited my workshop, looked at the aumbry and said: “It’s too cheap. You should be charging three times as much. Plus, get that crappy easel off the top of it.”

One of Patrick’s points was that if a piece of custom furniture seems too cheap, it won’t sell. Perhaps (and this is my interpretation) the psychology is that the customer unconsciously assumes something is wrong with it.

A couple weeks later, Brendan Gaffney was helping me drill spindle holes in a chair and a woman walked in the shop off the street. She had seen my chairs in the window.

She wanted to know if I could fix her kitchen chairs. (Sorry, I don’t do repairs.) Then she asked how much new chairs would cost. When I told her $800 each (for starters) she looked panicked.

“How much for a regular chair?” she asked. Like many of my encounters with people in the neighborhood, they were looking for thrift-store pricing. Somewhere between $20 and $50. In the end I gave her the name and number of a colleague who repairs chairs.

Pricing my work isn’t a struggle for me. I know exactly how much my materials cost, and I log my hours on every piece. I charge a shop rate of $60/hour, which is typical here in the (very inexpensive) Midwest for skilled work. I add that amount to the cost of materials. And that’s about it. I might lower the final price if the piece was featured in Popular Woodworking Magazine because I already got paid for writing the article.

This pricing scheme allows me to eat – about one-third of my income this year will be from furniture commissions. And sleep – I decline to raise my prices on my work just because I can.

I also need to add that my prices don’t exist in a vacuum. They are part and parcel to the way my wife, Lucy, and I have chosen to live. Zero debt. Low overhead. And low to the ground – we don’t own a boat, a lake house or any of the other trappings of our neighbors.

If you don’t need a lot of money to live happily, you can say “no” to almost any project or proposal that you don’t want to do. I say “no” a lot. And instead, I get to say “yes” to things that that engage my heart, hands and mind.

There are lots of ways to price your work. This isn’t the best way. Heck, it might even be the worst. But it definitely works.

— Christopher Schwarz

38 thoughts on “Pricing Your Work – You Can’t Win

  1. Wilson

    Many, many years ago (like 50 years) I was working as a professional photographer. I was very busy one week, and just didn’t have any time at all. I was approached to do an assignment that I didn’t want to do as I didn’t have time, and wasn’t interested. So I quoted a price 5X my normal price for this type of job. They jumped on the wagon, hired me, and I made more money on that job than I had in the past 6 months. So… I raised my prices 3X what I had been charging. Had so much work that I could pick and choose after that. There are those that shop thrift shops, and those that want custom quality work done. Which would you rather be doing?

  2. curiousdork

    Not a woodworking related story but pricing and salary are both subject to have some heavy handed negotiations. People seem genuinely surprised when they hear how much I charge per hour as an engineer for side work (read: it ain’t cheap).

    Once I came across an ad on a freelancing website for software engineers, a guy who thought he had a great idea (n.b. it was awful and unoriginal) and wanted someone with software skills to build it. He wanted to pay, get this, $500 for the whole thing. To give you the scope, he wanted a developer to build something that rivals Netflix, for $500. There are teams of people at Netflix who built and maintain it, I’m sure $500 is more than what Netflix paid for it.

    But that brings me to the point: many have unrealistic expectations about the cost of things. It’s why people balk at my consulting fees because they have an unrealistic expectation about reality. I find that a lot of my artist friends who do commission work run into the same thing. My friend who is a talented artists charges a lot for portraiture work. It takes a lot of effort to draw something life like and requires precision and long hours. They want his incredible gift to come at $50 for an 8 x 10 oil painting. This is why I love and hate that big, blue Swedish furniture store because people are expecting all chairs to be $20 whilst expecting furniture and chair makers to charge the same for hand-made, solid hardwood products. It’s a shame, really.

  3. billmurr

    I was introduced to a woman who had some broken drawer boxes in an older, but very nice kitchen. ( She brought a picture) She said she needed them repaired, but I said they were not repairable, and should be replaced with new studier boxes, and the fronts reapplied. I also said that it was not a job I was interested in taking on, as I had too much work in front of me. Around our area, a drawer is a $40 item for commercial casework. She was insisting on a price, so I told her $125 each- thinking she would go away. She brought the first drawer over the next day. She couldn’t be happier. She wanted only a repair, but got boxes that were 7 ply Birch, not the original 3 ply Fir, the bottoms a full 1/4 inch Birch Ply, not pressboard. I believe in pricing for quality, because the quality will be remembered long after the price is forgotten.

  4. trs

    My daughter-in-law told a friend of hers about me. She contacted me and wanted some mirror frames and shelves for her bathrooms. We spent quite a while exchange emails about the style of the frames and the shelves. After she settled on something I quoted her a price and never heard from her again. I tried contacting her several times but never got a response. I figured she thought my price was too outrageous. When in fact I was doing was covering materials and charging very minimal shop time.

  5. pathman98

    Pricing depends upon your objective. If you need to sell items to eat, you have a different set point than those that really don’t need the money but sell items for a large number of different reasons including ego, interest, generating confidence etc. Also, it really depends if you are designing or reproducing an item. In general, people will pay more for something unique. Also, the price you get depends on your presentation, personality and demeanor ie people don’t like doing business with nasty people. Hard and fast runs regarding $/hour don’t always work. If you are at an art show with craft items the clients aren’t going to pay you $300 for a fancy box….. but if you have boxes that took less time and for $80 and actually sell 10 then you are far ahead of the game. If you have a nice place then it helps. Lastly, if your objective is to be paid for your work, spend some time to become friends with 2-3 designers. Your first job doesn’t have to be a home run but over time it will pay off big time, if you can deliver on time!!!!
    Good luck

  6. Mark Fisher

    Pricing your work whether a woodworker, fine artist, or product development consultant (yeah, I’ve done all three) is a very personal choice. Living a frugal life gives you choices on the kinds of works you want to do and what you need to charge. For my product development work, I charge a fair amount to my for-profit clients simply so I can charge less for my non-profit clients. I can take on as many non-profits as I want because I have little debt, a small house, etc. Good life choices give you a lot more freedom.

  7. Kelly Craig

    Around 74, I entered my first arts and crafts show. It was early in my woodworking career [and hobby]. Things weren’t moving too quickly, but it was fun and I got some advice I remember to this day. An old man (now years younger than I am now) came up to me and said: “Kid, I like your work. The prices are really good, so I’d probably buy something, put it up on my wall for a few years, then replace it with something else and sell it in a garage sale. Now, if I was to pay at least three times the current price, now I got me some art. It’d go up on my wall for years and years and I’d drag my neighbors over to show them my art.

    About forty-five years later, some of my work had been hanging on the walls of my studio for a couple years. One was a favorite. On a whim, I tripled the price. It sold within a couple weeks, to one of about twenty people who’d seen it once a week for a year.

    For a change of pace, I make walking sticks/staffs. Looking at most on line, forty is a high asking price. However, that would not begin to reflect the cost of sanders, routers, table or band saws and a living wage. I raised mine to around eight and that may be too low for some of them.

    _______________________
    Life is interesting: Decades later, I live in that little, in the middle of everywhere place (you have to drive about an hour in any direction to get to a town or city of any real significance) I had to drive five hours to get to.

  8. wolfscott

    I would suppose it really comes down to how we view our work. Are we creating an object to make a few dollars and slapping a few sticks together, or are we building a legacy of work which showcases the material of our passion and letting our craftsmanship help that material become a beautiful work of artistic beauty.

    There are “Lights” pieces and there are “life” pieces. “Lights” pieces are those we build to earn the light bill. The “life” pieces are those we invest our life into and are proud place our name upon.

    If we consider how many “life” pieces of true beauty we will be able to craft in our short time on this planet, shouldn’t each be noteworthy and something we would be proud to place our name to? Who will leave these pieces for our coming generations to admire and study? Art lovers.

    Fine art is in demand by only a select type of person and value is perceived at multiple levels, price being a major factor (and lower is not better). These persons appreciate the art and craftsmanship and value the story and passion of the craftsman. If we consider our work as art, our view of price changes, as does the value – it opens possibilities.

    \\//\\//olf

  9. DLawson

    I want to thank you for these occasional sharings of what it is like making your living off of your hands (and other required bits).

    I am one of the many who enjoy the romantic daydream of living that life. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), I know that I am constitutionally unsuited to being an independent workman. I have no customer related skills, among other reasons.

    Still, I enjoy seeing behind the curtain into the lives of those who can make realities that resemble my vague dreams. I also suspect that these posts give perspective to others who can join you on the field. And that, for me, shines a hopeful light on the future.

  10. Periodcraftsmen

    Chris,

    I understand your pricing process. I also understand you must know your market. But I also know you are worth more than $60 an hour. In business I think owners need to add a profit margin to their hourly rate. For example $75 an hour plus 40% profit margin will result at a hourly rate of $120.
    To determine my hourly rate I add up all the insurances, overhead, utilities, and what I would like to pay myself. Than I add the profit margin. This allows the profit margin to cover unforeseen issues or screw ups. In the end the goal is to take that money and set it aside for rainy day fund or to update your shop.

    Thank you for the post. As always I enjoy them. Lastly I often agree with Pat.

    Cheers,

    FR

  11. bedrock608

    Greetings, Chris!
    I have a side question: The person you mentioned whom repairs furniture, does he/she have a web site or email. I would like to ask him, or her, a repair question about a chair I have received from an elderly friend. It looks like it fell off the back of a truck and now has some structural issues. I have repaired other pieces of furniture for my friend, usually for free or just the cost of materials, just for the learning experience (and to help out a friend on limited income), but this chair has some challenges for me.
    Regards!
    Don

  12. pearlsb4swine

    I have a friend that makes expensive (well into four figures) custom artisan jewelry. If it doesn’t sell she increases the price and continues to increase it until it sells. Which it does.

    I have another friend that makes custom made-to-order cowboy boots. She struggled to make her living at that until, in one leap, she doubled her price. Now her boots sell for five figures and she has over a year-long waiting list of buyers. Her prices continue to rise and so does her waiting list.

    Of course this strategy only works if your skills and craftsmanship live up to those prices.

  13. pirollodesign

    I first experienced the pricing psychology 18 yrs. ago or so. I was making high end jewelry boxes. At the time, I literally tripled my prices over a 3 year period. A couple of clients even mentioned my prices were too low 🙂 So from 295.00/box to 795.00/box and sales never let up. they actually increased. People like to pay more for custom work with the knowledge and cachet that they own something unattainable to the masses? Of course, they appreciate the quality and detail of the work. So a big fan of increasing pricing until you, the maker, is at the very least content with creating the piece and have factored in your time, materials, overhead, etc. Norman

  14. blefty

    A few years ago a friend asked me to make a replacement stretcher for an old chair. He gave me the broken one and I found a good piece of oak in my wood supply. I set up my lathe (I had been using it to turn something different) and made a perfect replica of the old stretcher. I spent an hour or so through a final light sanding. He asked what he owed me and I said $5. I thought he would hit the ceiling.

    1. keithm

      I understand that. I had someone come to me with a broken part on a patio chair. I asked her if it would be OK to use white oak (a perfectly good outdoor wood) for replacement, because I had that in stock and would not charge her for material. She got her nose up in the air, “Oh, this is for a home in [richest suburb in town, if not the whole state.]” Ok, teak it is. So I spent $20 for the wood, a trip to the lumber store and I don’t know how many cuts (many of which were curved or beveled. I think I charged $40 or $50 and thought she was going to hit the roof. RIch, but cheap.

  15. Bill Rainford

    +1 for that whole experience
    I’ve had to apply similar methods of pricing and educating the customer and trying to live debt free and still have feelings of angst when doing it. On the craft fair/studio woodworking circuit I’ve seen folks saying the same thing about higher prices selling better and issues around perception of price.

  16. drm

    Thanks, good read. 3 or 4 decades ago when we were starting off in computer support we found many clients would rarely take our advice. It occurred to me our consulting rate was perhaps too low. As a result we increased our hourly rate by 50% and found the advice was then appreciated and valued. Cheers, David.

    1. keithm

      Same with a few companies I worked for. Could never convince mgmt of a change. Then an outside con$ultant would come in and suggest the same thing and it would get implemented.

  17. timmyt

    Chris, have had exactly the same experiences, except pricing ended up driving me crazy. I think you have it spot on in your approach, earn what you need, not what you potentially could earn. Keep it up, really like reading your blog.

  18. Pragmatic

    I agree, It is a tough proposition. I think most woodworkers undersell their work because we in society are bombarded by the Wal-Mart pricing comparisons contrasted by over the top artsy fartsy 5th avenue paints and sculpture. Where does the custom one of a kind wood artist fall? I am a great carpenter. I am just now after 40 years arrogant enough to ask my price.
    Let’s face it, woodworking is labor intensive, period. Tiny little adjustments and changes that take time. We feel guilty for charging for head scratching time. I no longer do. I follow right along with Chris, $60/hr and I am up front with head scratching, witj some adjustment for complexity. I keep logs and present it at variuos steps. Hard part is estimating how many hours for one of a kinds. Honesty up front makes them run, either away or towards. Be arrogant…if you are good, you deserve highest dollar. Woodworking is a valuable commodity, don’t undersell.

  19. truspark

    what is it that makes one piece of furniture under $100 and another over $1000? Obviously the design, type of wood and finish make a difference, but will an exact same piece made with pocket holes sell more than one that was put together with mortise and tenon? Would love to know what you all think biggest factors are in raising the value of a piece.

  20. Mark Maleski

    The value of pieces featured in Popular Woodworking would go up, not down, though I suspect you already considered (and disregarded) that when deciding to lower the price.

  21. fabe_himself

    There really is something to be said about the “inexpensive” Northwest. People up here in North Dakota are downright cheap sometimes. I (thankfully) don’t build furniture for a living, and instead have a full time job, so building commissions can be a hobby/side. That has also allowed me the privilege to say “no” a lot.

    When I first started woodworking, it was my dream to have commission work. When that work came in, I found myself constantly underpricing my time to “get comissions”. That really led to a lot of resentment, and honestly I feel that my work suffered from it.

    When I learned to finally say “no” when a customer isn’t willing to pay my prices, I learned that:
    a) I could take on only commissions I was excited about (as you mentioned)
    b) I learned to cherish the work I was getting paid for, and my craftsmanship improved because of it.

  22. Spoiler

    I wonder if printing up a glossy catalog would help you in these times of furniture price angst. I think it is just simple psychology. When I pick up a Thos. Moser catalog I can quickly get in the mind set of how expensive the prices are going to be if I choose to continue looking at the selections. Same thing with a Lie-Nielsen catalog. Once my mind is right about what I’m looking at I settle in for the ride. A $10,000 wardrobe?…. a relative deal compared to the $1,300 bar stool. A $60 chisel? Wow! That’s a steal compared to the $500 shoot plane. If I see a $3,000 coffee table at the flea market I’m confused because it does not fit into my sense of place. I’m certain I’d be stunned at the costs involved with printing a catalog but you of all people should be able to strike a deal with the publisher. People need time to convince themselves into a big purchase… days and months even. Especially those who long for quality but are unaccustomed to seeing it.

    1. keithm

      There’s a famous marketing story about a store that could not sell some countertop appliance for $295. Then got another model in and sat it next to that one and listed as $450. They never sold the $450 one, but started to sell a lot of the $295 ones.

  23. pmac

    There’s some truth to people thinking there is something wrong if the price is too low. A friend if mine was trying to sell his home fast and priced it accordingly. Lots of people went through but no offers. His Dad, who had been a salesman his entire working career, told him to raise the price to be in line with what had sold in the neighborhood. He said people think there is something wrong when you are priced considerably lower than what is around you. So he reluctantly raised the pric and got an offer within a week of doing so.

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