By: Ethan Sincox
I became interested in woodworking back in 2003. I bought the tools everyone said I needed – table saw, jointer, bandsaw, routers – but I was never very comfortable with any of them and I didn’t always feel like I was having fun. Constantly wearing ear protection and a dust mask and worrying about rapidly spinning sharp objects took all the fun out of it.
I got woke in 2011, which was right around the time I folded kilts into the mix and launched The Kilted Woodworker. It was also when Chris Schwarz published his book, The Anarchist’s Tool Chest, a book I have reread every year since. Because of his book, I sold my table saw and jointer, gave away some of my other tools, and started using better quality hand tools. That’s when the fun began! But high-quality hand tools come at a high price! I mean that literally; they cost a lot of money. I had to figure out a way to pay for my new hobby.
One of my first ventures into making that money also involved kilts. I gave my best friend a sgian dubh, the small black-handled knife you keep in your right stocking when you wear a kilt. I found a guy in Scotland, named Rab, who makes them and ordered a pair (one for me, too!). I made a presentation box to go with his, using 125-year-old reclaimed white oak and 5,000-year-old bog oak from Ireland. I sent pictures of the sgian dubh and box to Rab. He really liked them and posted the pictures on his website. A few months later, I got an email from someone else who had purchased a sgian dubh from Rab. He saw my box and wanted to know if I would make him a presentation box, as well! We came to an agreement on the price; I made the box and netted myself a nice profit.
This continued for a long minute, with Rab directing customers my way while others found me through my blog or social media. To maximize profits, each of these boxes was completely custom. It led to a consistent supplemental income for the next couple of years. I wasn’t even actively marketing them, yet I had plenty of work to keep me busy and made enough to cover the costs of new woodworking tools.
Making sgian dubh presentation boxes is a bit of a niche market, I’ll admit. But nobody else was out there making them, so I had no competition. And the service I provided was easy to find on-line. Even today, if you search for “sgian dubh presentation box” in google, 2 of the first 4 images on the results page are mine and 4 pictures of boxes I’ve made show above the fold in the images view. In the top 5 image rows, a total of 13 pictures of boxes display nestled in with a variety of sgian dubh; 10 of them are mine.
If you are just looking to supplement your income, I see no reason why you can’t do the same thing. I don’t mean make cool boxes for Scottish knives; that’s my gig. I mean you should be able to examine some aspect of your life you enjoy and find a need you can fill. That is how you can make money doing something you love.
To help you on your journey, I’ve learned several takeaways over the years I want to share…
- Find a need! It doesn’t have to be a big market or a big product to make a profit, it just needs to be something that someone wants!
- Don’t undercut yourself with cheap prices. I learned this lesson from my day job at a software company. We do not have the cheapest product on the market – in fact, we are one of the more expensive options available – yet we have over 60% of the market nationwide because we offer higher quality and better customer service than the competitors. This is what matters to our customers.
- Pay yourself a fair wage. In woodworking, your profit usually comes from labor costs. How much do you value your own time? Pricing my work is easy. I recover all material costs and then I add in my labor (hourly rate x time spent) it’s that simple. The hard part is believing in yourself and charging what you are worth.
- Do not skimp on quality with the work you do or the materials you use. The locks I use are hand-assembled, made in England, and cost $50 each. The hinges I use cost $40 a pair; they are extruded brass, not pressed. You can see and feel the difference in quality. My customers do, too. I’m upfront about these costs with them and, believe it or not, that information usually results in me getting the commission more often than not.
I still make a presentation box every now and again, and they just keep getting better and better; I’m constantly challenging myself to do so. The last one I made was solid 4,000-year-old bog oak. I constructed it with dovetailed joinery, inlaid a stone cabochon from the Isle of Skye into the lid, and lined it with Spanish Cedar, a pleasantly scented wood used in humidors. I can’t wait to see how I’m going to improve upon that!
Ethan Sincox has been a woodworker since 2003. You can read his blog and find out more about him at http://thekiltedwoodworker.com and you can see what he’s currently working on through his Instagram account, @thekiltedwoodworker.