What are the pitfalls of being in a workbench business? This is not your everyday question but is something I was asked recently by a chap who is interested in setting up just that and hence it’s a question I’ve been giving of thought.
Most of the time I don’t really consider our business to be all that businessy, and what I mean is if you wrote it all out as a proper plan on paper you’d probably learn to stop before you started. By my nature I like to build things as well as possible but when you put this it to a business that builds workbenches; a utility item it doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense. And when that utility item requires a lot of materials – we’re talking heaps of wood, then working out the right price to sell at is particularly difficult. Building to a very high quality will never work out cheap and people can be staggered at the cost of some of our benches but what surprises me the most is how often I get told they are under priced – and that’s from our own customers! The reason they can be considered this way is because fellow woodworkers can appreciate the amount of material costs that go in to them and also see that building something of this scale to a high quality is going to take a fair amount of time. Compared to building a dining table building a workbench takes more time, more wood and yet if built well the handmade dining table could command a higher price because it will take centre stage within the home and not be hidden out in the garage or workshop.
So perhaps then that is the pitfall of building workbenches, they’re utility. But then that could be said of almost any tool and we all like dependable, quality tools. Where workbenches do differ is their size; they’re just so big and I feel this is where the more specific pitfalls come from. Large items need a large space to be built in, large equipment to build them and a lot of material costs up front. All of this means it’s certainly not the cheapest business to start up and you can’t avoid the need to build and test various prototypes of everything. Once up and running you need to keep maintaining all of that space, equipment and stocks of materials so it’s a continual process which to some part we’ve controlled by really minimising the equipment used. Our structure isn’t typical of any woodworking firm today as it depends so heavily on me becoming efficient in my approach to building. In terms of machines I can get by with nothing more than a planer, a small bandsaw, our Wadkin cross cut and a pillar drill. Besides the Wadkin the other items are not particularly large and certainly not fancy. The benefit is keeping tooling and maintenance costs to a minimum which could otherwise be a huge expense. We’d had an enquiry earlier this year from a school that required several workbenches. They were just working out all of their costings at the time and asked how we go about flattening the tops as they would do this in the future by putting them through their enormous belt sander. When we told them the tops were flattened by hand they were bemused and asked “doesn’t this make them very expensive due to the time?” It doesn’t make them expensive or slow as I will flatten within 15 minutes by taking my number 8 plane over to the bench. If I had a belt sander not only would there be all of the setting up time, costs and space required but I would need to have someone help me take the top to the tool rather than the other way around. Besides this a planed finish is much nicer, perfectly flat and with just the right level of friction left due to the plane strokes on the surface.
With the pitfalls has to come some benefits and I find the biggest one to be our customers. After building much furniture for commissions earlier on I am really grateful to be able to sell to woodworkers. People who understand the product or are incredibly excited to learn about it and I don’t receive strange requests like I did with furniture where people can think it’s easy to just add a bit on here, there and everywhere.
There’s endless amounts that could be said but it’s difficult to know how much would ever be relevant to someone else as they may take a different approach entirely. Something I can be sure of is that success isn’t always measured in money. And remember… with any business, one thousand steps starts with one!
Well said indeed Richard,
the practical elements of work don’t always have to be merely utilitarian they can be beautiful with it. Your benches define both equally, the function is met perfectly by well considered proportions, this means the bench isn’t just the means to an end it has some intrinsic value beyond that….we humans have something inbuilt that instinctively tells us when somethings right or wrong. Like when a picture frame hanging on a wall is just a millimeter or so out frame square, we don’t need a spirit level to convince us we just know and readjust it by eye.
These benches have such a presence and authority to the eye that they’ve become dare i say it without sounding a wee bit pretentious but a design icon….they pull on the history that all woodworkers love, but they’re made with integrity now by muscle, judgement of eye and the feel for good scale.
They’re practical but with enough style and bulk to make them the Rhino of the bench world……ok maybe i’ve gone too far but it’s still the gist of why they’re loved so much…..oh yeah and they don’t move one bit on the shop floor either!
A big thanks for being out there and continuing the great work Richard
Respect as always
Selling to woodworkers is something that I would think is hard to aim for, your skill, design, precision & passion must match that of even the most avid woodworker while meeting their standards and quirks, if you can do that then I would say you are an artisan of artisans but wait…. you already do that!
It’s like making cars and selling them to a car manufacturer, thats just crazy thinking who on earth would do such a thing!
Very interesting article. Perhaps many think of the pieces built at the workbench as being art but never consider how important a good workbench is. A well made bench makes woodwork a pleasure and the return of investment is significant in my opinion. I’ve faced similar challenges making cricket bats and you’re right about the element of “utility”. However the price and your commitment to quality will convince people it’s more than that. It’s an heirloom that’s treasured, but hopefully one that’s used to make more heirlooms.