Moving ahead with Looking Back

Getting toward the end of the year – I mean if we make it through the Mayan apocalypse scheduled for the 21st. I’m not among the crowd holding such beliefs, however if any of my readers are among this group, would you please send me your tools since you won’t be needing them after the 21st?

Like a lot of folks, I tend to spend a certain amount of time looking back at the year that was and forward to the year ahead.

I had one of those years of work which could be associated to to the opening for Dicken’s 1859 Tale of Two Cities, to wit,

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.

Most years, in my careers as a woodworker seem to revolve around a feast-famine sort of pattern as far as having work to do. Rarely have I had more than one customer at a time, and indeed, given that the process for most projects I undertake seems to be on the scale of months of absorption rather than days, it would be challenging to work on more than one project at a time if they were at all typical in that aforementioned regard. That said, once one has experienced that sort of famine, the prospect of work coming along can readily lead to a ‘biting off of more than one can chew’. Like a person who has been wandering in a desert for days without water, drinking from a trough, or a muddy puddle, can be dangerous.

By April of this year I had not one but four clients. Yee-hah! Some sort of perfect storm it appeared, and I feared the prospect that all four would want things done at the same time, of course with great urgency. That’s not, however, how things turned out, which is both fortunate and unfortunate. The best of times, the worst of times, the epoch of belief, the epoch of incredulity….

Now, this has also been the year of the non-disclosure agreement, and I can’t share with you who the clients are, or, in some cases, even what the projects are. I haven’t been in this position before, and it’s more than a little weird to have people come by my shop and ask me what I’m working on and I have to smile, and say, “I’m sorry I can’t tell you”. Some people take this well, while others have actually stormed off in a huff thinking I am fracking with them. I don’t really enjoy this secrecy scene because I normally like to tell people about what I am working on, the concern being more that I will go on far too long and they will fall asleep or find some reason to scurry off, vowing to not ask me that question again.

So, client 1 needed a prototype made IMMEDIATELY. Everything was very urgent as decisions needed to be made SOON. This may be a familiar scenario for some readers. So, I made the prototype lickety-split, delivered it on time, and they were entirely delighted with it. They then needed to consider various details and potential revisions and adjustments as the piece I had made was to be but a part of a larger project. I was led to believe that would be a matter of weeks for these decisions to be made. In the meantime, the material for the production pieces was decided upon, the wood shipped, then dried, then delivered to my shop. And there the wood sits, as the decisions I had been waiting upon have simply not occurred, now 8 months later. While I had thought that the first production piece would be needed for November of this year at the latest, that date has now been pushed back to May of 2013. I only found out about the revised date a couple of weeks back as November had come and gone and i contacted them to get a sense of what was happening. They are so busy with various fires to put out, so to speak, that knowledge of, and concern for, my involvement in the project appears to have fallen through the cracks. Hey, remember me? I look forward to getting rolling with this project again, and I am thinking (not too firmly mind you) something should happen in the next couple of months.

Client 2 was a dream as they wanted me to make Japanese joinery models out of 3″~4″ thick stock. I can’t think of too many things I’d rather do than that! This client remained unknown to me for a long time as I have had dealings exclusively with their representative. This work started in the spring and I expected to be done the work within a month or two, however that is not what happened. There have in fact been long gaps between each completed piece. Part of the reason for that is that the client is so busy that their representative can only get a meeting with them on an infrequent basis, and generally the agenda does not include such peripheral concerns as these joints. After a 3 month gap in the process, I am back at work on these joints, and have made an arrangement to build 6 in a group, instead of one-by-one. So, I am delighted to have this work to do once again and there are some other intriguing project possibilities ahead with the same client. I’m probably not going to be able to blog about those projects either if they come to pass.

Client 3 wanted my CAD design services primarily, and I have been designing Japanese rooms for their house, which will be remodeled in the Spring. That work was proceeding fairly smoothly from mid-summer, until the client developed a serious medical condition requiring surgery and things got shelved for nearly 4 months. I am back at work on drawing for that project now. I may also do some woodworking for that client.

Client 4 is a prestigious museum. They asked me to provide a project proposal for a new Japanese timber structure, as part of a project of larger scope. This is a very exciting potential project, and my detailed proposal, which ran some 10 pages, was well received. I was the only person requested for proposal submission in regards to the timber structure portion of the project, so if funding could be secured, it was certain I would be doing the work. In fact the museum had already a verbal agreement from one source of funds. My proposal, along with several others for the entire project was to be collated together and presented to the funder last September. Unfortunately, the collation was not done in time, and even though a meeting with the funder took place, the museum didn’t have the package together yet so it wasn’t presented. And now there are several new installations occurring at the same time at the museum, everyone concerned is super-busy, and so the project has been placed on the back burner for the time being. I’m hoping that the process gets moving again by spring, but you know, you can never predict what will happen. It’s completely out of my hands.

Back in April, it looked like a full slate of work ahead and I was more in fear of being swamped by that work, however it has turned out to be a ‘hurry up and wait’ sort of situation, and I have been idled for months at a stretch with shop work, always thinking something might be starting any minute. Given the four clients I was dealing with, and the uncertainty of when one would want to go ahead, the idea of trying to take on yet more clients seemed ill-advised. So I didn’t actively seek out new clients, and no new ones came along in the same period. Meanwhile of course I have had to pay shop rent month in and month out. A strange year that went in a totally unexpected direction, and I have learned a few things along the way which will at least affect how I approach contractual arrangements with future clients.

I look forward to the New Year and wonder what sort of projects will happen and when.  This is the tradeoff with self employment – a steady paycheck in exchange for uncertainty in terms of employment, and that vaunted ‘control’ over what you do. Well, of course there are those who have steady paychecks who, through no fault of their own find themselves suddenly out of a job, so security is perhaps illusory, and despite the ‘control’ I’m supposed to have via self employment, in reality I can’t control who chooses to support my work through commissions, nor can I always control the nature of that work – just say ‘no’ or ‘yes’ to what is offered, attempt to persuade where I can, and accept the battles that I cannot win. Of course, one area I do have control with my own business is in deciding how much effort, and what sort of effort, to make in promoting and advertising my work in hopes of garnering more clientele. The ‘build it and they will come’ motif doesn’t really work I have found, at least not in economic times such as these, however the best way to put my work in front of people who might be clients remains an ongoing challenge. The ultimate solace however comes in knowing that i control what leaves my shop, and as always I will hold to high standards. One of my clients asked me if I did a ‘lite’ version of my work, which was funny, and the answer is of course ‘no’.

In 2013 I look forward to the work I am aware lays before me, anticipate meeting some new clients, and will, as always, work to develop new skills and deepen existing ones. The path is always one of striving for continual improvement. I have the mizuya, or Japanese-influenced hutch to build in the new year, and some challenges await in terms of the blacksmithing work I am looking to tackle so as to make the hardware for that piece. I have made acquaintance with a local blacksmith with a spare station at his forge open to the idea of letting my have a go, obtained some wrought iron, and have moved the hardware design along. The design of the piece in general is 95% complete and there will be another post in that thread coming along soon enough.

I also look forward in 2013 to the projects ahead in both wings of the online carpentry study group, or CSG, which I’ve been leading for a while now. The drawing study group is well into the first of what will be several hip roof models, and for the fundamentals group we will be tackling an andon, or floor lamp. I’m sure to post progress updates here on the blog about CSG happenings, a few times over the next 12 months, and hope to gain new members as well!

And finally I look forward to continuing the blogging process, which I have found rewarding for them most part. I don’t always have as much time as I would like to devote to it, and in the past year I’ve posted a little less frequently in previous years, however my intention is to continue. Carpentry is a deep art and there is much to explore yet.

While this is not my last post of 2012, I want to take this opportunity to wish all of my readers the very best for 2013, and hope that each of you may make steps towards your goals.

Thanks for coming by the Carpentry Way.

2 Replies to “Moving ahead with Looking Back”

  1. Still life with clients is always a challenge. Hang in there as it usually works out. Glad to hear you are continuing your writing as it is not only always interesting and informative, but fills a very deep need in many of us for direction in achieving a level of quality and workmanship far beyond what is generally understood to be such in our throwaway culture.
    Have a relaxing holiday.
    p.s. hope to rejoin the group this year.

  2. Bill,

    very nice to receive your comment, and “still life with client” describes the situation very well.

    Looking forward to your re-engagement with the CSG.


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