Many woodworkers contemplate making the transition from dedicated amateur to professional. But the realities of marketing one’s skills, getting commissions, keeping the books, paying the bills, working with clients, and meeting deadlines are daunting tasks – even for professionals.
Just ask Richard Jones, an English-born and trained professional furniture maker now living in Houston, Texas. Richard has established himself as one of the preeminent craftsmen in the United States. Known for both his innovative design and his woodworking skills, he’s also a well-respected teacher and a writer whose work has appeared in woodworking magazines on both sides of the pond.
How did Richard make the transition to professional? It was really more a logical process than a decision. Born and raised in Shrewsbury, England, Richard always enjoyed his woodworking classes. So, when he left school in 1973, it was natural to get a job as a joiner in a local shop. In those pre-prefab days — and more so in England than the U.S. — most doors, windows and built-ins were still individually built for each job.
“It was traditional work with frame and panel door. It wasn’t cheap, but it was considered part of our standard line ? now it would be considered custom work.”
Richard went back to school in 1975 and studied market research. But with no work available in that profession, he found himself back working at cabinet shops and decided it was time to get some formal qualifications in furniture making. When he applied for a three-year course at Shrewsbury College of Arts and Technology, he was given two year’s years’ credit for his previous work and only had to complete the last year of training. That earned him a City and Guilds certification that told any employer there was no question about his furniture design and making abilities. Again, Richard worked at local shops; eventually, he went into business for himself.
In 1984, he moved to Scotland and began a nine-year hitch as a furniture technician at an art college in Edinborough. He spent much of his time working with students ? getting them to figure out technical and design, even shop management problems.
“It was an interesting role, but I still felt stuck in my career. Then I met an American girl who had moved over to Scotland. We got married, and when she started missing living in Texas, we decided to move to Houston in 1993.”
Houston was a bit of shock. When Richard says he got a “wee sort of jobs” in a Houston sweatshops, he literally means it about the sweat. None of them were air-conditioned, and not being a native Texan, the sweat rolled off him. After a stint at the Children’s Museum, he decided it was time to start his own business again.
“It’s tough here in Houston to turn over a lot of money.” Richard explained, “I’m not all that great a salesman and it’s hard to get your name out. I am expensive, but on the low end in for what I charge per hour ? but then I put more time into each piece than a production shop. One of the marketing problems with furniture makers is that people look at a chair and just see a chair. We need to persuade them that it’s a piece of art that has a function rather than a functional object that happens to be attractive. Once they begin to understand the design and craftsmanship that goes in, I can give them a price of $6,000 or even $9,000 for a chair, and they say go ahead and make it.”
His web site serves more as an online portfolio than as a selling tool. Most of his commissions come from Houston, and he’s never had an order come in from someone who’d seen the site. And that’s understandable to Richard, who feels that there’s a dollar limit on what people will buy online. And his work, which usually runs into the thousands, really has to be seen in person to be appreciated. Then there’s his accent — English with just a touch a of Scottish brogue. It makes some people automatically assume that he’s highly skilled and highly qualified (which he is), but it also makes them assume his work will be too expensive.
Each project starts with a brief – a list of what the client wants in the piece. If it’s a dining room chair, and they spend long hours entertaining at the table, he’ll want to make it a softer chair. Do they want to be able to lean back into it? Does the client have any height or width requirement? If they want a chair reproduced, he’ll probably tell them it would be a lot cheaper to just go buy it! That’s because design is as important to Richard as technique. His designs have a variety of influence ? generally furniture made since 1600, but he has special admiration for the Georgian era, art deco, and what he call British utilitarian furniture from the forties.
“During WWII, the War Ministry approved a range of furniture that can be made economically, usually in oak over lumber core plywood. Most was stained dark and even though it was utilitarian and they cut corners, some of it turned out quite interesting.”
Because he rents space from another furniture maker, he doesn’t own a lot of big tools.
“I have a full set of hand tools – routers, sanders and saws – I like the DeWalt brand. I’ve also got a toolbox full of planes and marking gauges and squares, but it’s a relatively small collection. I use a Wadkin sliding table saw and a Rockwell 18″ thicknesser. We have a MiniMax jointer, a Powermatic table saw, Bridgewood sanding machine. All our benches are Ulnia’s with beech wood tops, and there’s some big old lathe ? which I never use.”
Work’s a little flat this summer, but considering how hot it’s been, Richard doesn’t mind being away from the shop. It has air conditioning, but because it’s so inefficient he rarely runs it. He picks up the slack writing articles.
“It’s the second string in my bow. I don’t do one every month, but I do have a couple of regular publishers.” One of his articles, a contemporary hall table project, appeared in the January/February 2000 issue of Woodworker’s Journal. Richard says, “Since I missed teaching, writing gives me chance to share what I think other woodworkers might find interesting and useful.”