Getting to ‘yes'(?)

As I mentioned several postings back, about 6 weeks back I had been down to Connecticut to look at an interesting job involving a 1930’s Japanese house that needed complete rebuild. That first visit I spent some 5 hours with the clients and subsequently have devoted no small amount of time to the matter as the negotiation process has evolved in the weeks since that first visit.

Yesterday I got the following message,

Dear Chris

Thank you for your time, emails and references. Unfortunately, we decided to use a different contractor for this project for several reasons. We believe that your craftsmanship is absolutely outstanding but we do not have the means at the moment to do everything in the best possible way. As a result we will have to “cut some corners” which we know you would not want to cut.

Our budget simply does not allow your level of perfection.

I hope you understand our reasoning and we hope to stay in touch.


That was tough to read, but I can’t say it was entirely unexpected. I knew that that the projected budget for the rebuild would be stretch for them. There have been many such promising looking projects on the horizon, and time and time again I have let my hopes soar only to see the crash at the end, time and time again.

I’ve been reading various books on business strategy and marketing, and though several of them tell me that you have to hear a whole lot of ‘no‘ before you get to ‘yes‘, sometimes it’s mighty discouraging after hearing yet another, “sorry, but….“.

And often enough what follows such messages, for me at least, is an examination of what I did in the process, to see if I might have done things differently in how I presented or ‘sold’ things. You see, I’m not the exactly high-pressure sales type of individual. For me, ‘sales’ is the act of talking about what I love to do and why – if I can’t convince someone about that, then the issue would be more a shortage of passion, however that is certainly not the case for me when it comes to Japanese carpentry. In this case I really feel I did a good job of representing myself and giving he clients clear information upon which to base their decision – so I don’t find fault at all with my part in that process.

Then, in the post-mortem, I look again at how I priced the job, often wondering if there was some way I could have offered to do it for less. However, I do know that it is as often as not the best thing that the job NOT go ahead if the money is not there. I have worked for pennies in past projects, all too often, as I have mentioned in previous posts. I can’t afford to do that any more. On a bigger job that can go on for months and months the opportunity for a builder to bankrupt themselves from estimating errors or unanticipated problems is a definite possibility. I’ve read several accounts of contractors going under as a result of getting the apparent ‘dream’ job, as such jobs often stretch them to their limits and all it takes in such circumstances are an unfortunate series of events and things can go badly wrong. This job, a small structure, was not quite in that category of ‘giant dream project’, though I very much wanted to do it all the same – it was exciting to me to have the prospect of bringing an 80 year old derelict structure back to vitality.

The flip side of risk in these situation is that of giving a reasonable estimate, and then the client taking on more than they can handle and things going south before the project finishes, which can be a real mess too. So I’m glad that the clients thought the situation over very carefully before coming to the conclusion that what I offered, though very desirable to them, was simply beyond their budget.

As far as the budget went, I was hungry for the job and had in fact priced it at the low end of the scale for the work – in an effort to get my ‘foot in the door’ so to speak in the local scene, to which I am a new and untried entity at this point. There can be no ‘word of mouth’ until you have something to show after all. At the price point I was proposing, my intent as far as the job went was solid, quality, authentic work, which though admittedly was going to be of higher quality than the original building (not a masterpiece of Japanese carpentry or embodiment of perfection by any stretch), was hardly what I would characterize as some sort of ‘level of perfection’. Of course, that all becomes relative – one person’s standard of ‘perfection’ is another person’s ‘hack job’. At least the clients perceived that I was going to offer them high quality work instead of slip-shod, and they had made a number of mentions of their disappointment as to the level of craftsmanship they had seen in the work performed upon their house to that point.

I had another promising-looking job a month back with a lovely couple. They had spent 5 months working with an architect to develop plans for a substantial house expansion, and for their planned new space they wanted me to build several pieces of furniture, along with shoji and possibly a Japanese ceiling (tenjo) for their bedroom. That job looked likely to happen, and my initial meeting with the clients had gone extremely well. We had a few more conversations over the following month, then I received the following e-mail:

Hi Chris,

We have come to a decision not to proceed with our addition just as we were on the verge of soliciting bids for construction.

The reason is that we had a fair cost estimate based on square footage and specific prices for cabinetry and fixtures, and we realized that for the same amount we could purchase an already built newer house without a year of construction hassle. Not to mention the open-endedness of new construction.


So, after having experienced dozens of such client retrenchments/reconsiderations, I don’t tend to come to a place of viewing any potential job as a ‘sure bet’ until I actually have the deposit cheque in hand. Even then I’m still somewhat disbelieving! The struggle, perhaps, is to find the place where one still keeps some measure of hope close at heart without taking too big of a ride on that balloon. or maybe the ultra-realist ‘abandon all hope ye who enter here‘ approach would be more sensible?

While it is comforting to know that people like your work and may really want you to do the project for them, there are many factors affecting such decisions, many out of my control and out of the client’s control. This is especially the case for architectural work as compared to furniture. It is easier for most people to decide to spend $10,000 on something than $200,000 on something.

One can understand the endless drive in the building industry to embrace ever increasing amounts of factory-produced product – anything to bring the labor hours down on site and reduce costs. The cheaper the product, the larger the group of potential buyers. When I am faced again with the information, from yet another lost potential job, that I’m apparently simply too expensive, I can’t help but start thinking that I should find some way to, if not cut those corners, at least find a way to work in a different way that would be cheaper somehow. I haven’t found any way to do that yet without sacrificing the integrity of the work. I guess I have a lot invested, philosophically, emotionally, in doing the work in an honest and conscientious manner, in a way that honors the materials, that honors the craft tradition, and that honors my drive to leave something of worth behind after I’m done on this earth. Sometimes I really fear I’ll never get the opportunity to do the work I am capable of doing and really want to do. Sometimes I want, for a brief flicker of a moment, to give up this path as it seems fraught with a lot of disappointment at times.

I’ve been reading a lot by and on Frank Lloyd Wright lately, and it is somewhat encouraging, I suppose, to learn that his greatest period of productivity in which he produced buildings like Fallingwater, those icons of American architecture which the AIA and the academics effusively drool over, and which garnered Wright the greatest fame – – all took place in the final two decades of his life, after he was widely considered to be a ‘washed-up’ relic. Similarly, the much-revered architect Louis Kahn didn’t land a substantial commission until he was in his 60’s, and his greatest work was also all done in the final 20 years of his life. I’m not saying that such matters concerning success late in life necessarily cheer me up, but they do provide, in some small way, a glimmer of hope that one day my chance too will come. I’m thankful that my wife believes in me and supports my dreams too, and is there to pick me up when I fall down. I hope I won’t have to wait until I am 60 years old or to a point where am widely considered ‘washed up’ before the nice projects come along. Jeez, I’ve had barely the opportunity to get dirty yet, let alone washed up….


A note to readers:

There’s been more of a gap lately in my frequency of posting here on this blog, and it’s not for a lack of something to say. More the problem at times is that I have too many thoughts running through my head, and lack an organized direction or structure in which to frame them, so while have come to sit down at the keyboard a number of times with an idea to write a blog entry, if I can’t come up with something reasonably coherent I often choose to wait a while. I’ve been reading a lot lately, both on FLW, and building in the 1850~1900 period in the US, and that, along with a, how can I put it? – swim – in the deep pool of Jacques Ellul’s The Technological Society (1963) has given me much food for thought. Hopefully I will have organized my thoughts sufficiently in that regard to produce something in relation to these materials soon. Also, I have been designing a few different larger scale Japanese garden lanterns, and am planning to start making one of those, on a speculative basis, shortly. The French sawhorse situation still remains in a holding pattern waiting to hear back from the campagnon, but I think that must end pretty soon. Finally, I have been considering writing on more mathematical topics, like trigonometry, but fear that this will repel a lot of readers, so I hesitate in that regard. Who’s afraid of math(s)? Sadly, most people, it would seem….

I just wanted to let you all know that I’m not running out of stuff to say, and though I have been slowing down the rate of posting, it may well pick up again soon. I appreciate your patience.

2 thoughts on “Getting to ‘yes'(?)

  1. Well Chris I feel your pain as I am sure that most of us in this business of woodworking do. This is usually the biggest problem most of us face. Finding the client who has the money and appreciation for the type of work we do. There seem to be a lot of people who like what we do but far fewer that want to spent the money that will allow us to make a living, even a modest one.

    I made a mantel for a client they were very happy with and the wife saw a stool I made 20 some years ago and said she wanted a couple of stools for her eating counter. When her husband approached me about building two stools for her birthday I did some drawings and presented them with a bid of $800 ea. which after materials gave me 20 hours to make, seemed reasonable to me but not to them.

    Gave the same clients a bid on a gate for their front yard for $750 of which 150 was for materials and left me 20 hours to finish it but again it was too high for them. I just redid the design and bid again this time laminating 5/4 cedar decking together to make the gate (no mortise and tenon) for $600. Still $150 for materials and 15 hours labor and I haven’t heard back yet on that one.

    On the other side I have had a few clients that have had the money and appreciation for my work and it has worked out well but that is not the norm. It’s just the nature of our disposable society and that’s why IKEA has such a booming business. People just want the cheapest price for something but we know that is not our market.

  2. Hay Chris,
    Anyone one that does quality work suffers from this plight. It is difficult to find clients that want to compensate you at any wage, and very seldom the wage they themselves make. I have challenged a number of people, (making well into the six figures and in some cases seven,) the equity in compensation for my work compared to theirs. In one case a banker, who clearly thought what he did more than justified his salary and that labor was not of the same value, market baring and all that sort of retort was his counter. I guess I am a socialist at heart and will never charge a client more than they themselves make per hour, (or week, month, year, etc.) Most of the clients, however, that I come across can more than afford my work, ( and yours,) as this work has reached a point of not just being a reflection of our labor but Art in its’ own right. I have explained to more than one client that the cost for a particular job cannot be reflected clearly, until final plans have been drawn and appraised. Not until that appraisal can a price be determined and then my compensation needs to be a minimum of sixty percent of that value, if not eighty. I will consider profit sharing in some cases, warranted after resale of property or item.
    Two pieces of feedback that may be helpful, one, become familiar with all know unit pricing for the particular item you are bidding on, (deck, house addition, house, fence, etc.) Clients, principally high-end clients, know that professionals of the guild class seldom if ever work, “time and materials,” or “by the hour.” They work by the item complete and have a good handle on unit price pertaining to that item, (i.e., square foot, meter, cubic yard, ton, linear foot, etc.) Second, consider getting a broker for your work, it is Art after all.

Anything to add?