Turning Pro - Be Careful What You Wish For!
by Steven D. Johnson
So You Want to Turn “Pro?” – Be Careful What You Wish For!
“A Reverence for Wood”
Zerust NoRust Non-Slip Drawer Liner
Lie-Nielsen Medium Shoulder Plane
With a nugget of an idea and a few scattered and incoherent sentences, my thoughts about "turning
pro" started creating controversy as soon as it was mentioned as "upcoming" in last month's column.
A couple of reference points might quell the passions or fuel the flames further, but it is
important to understand the perspectives from which this article approaches the subject.
First, some perspective on the word "professional." One dictionary gives nine definitions of the
word "professional" when used as an adjective, and four more when used as a noun. With all these
nuanced definitions, only three reference the word "professional" as connoting quality or expertise.
The majority of definitions imply that "professional" simply means that the activity is undertaken
for money, as opposed to other reasons (leisure, pastime, altruism, etc.).
Comparing unpaid amateur athletes to paid professional athletes might be a plausible analogy, but
in our world of "professional" sales and marketing the sports analogy is insufficient, because while
it is true that some world class amateur athletes turn professional, I doubt seriously that a
mediocre amateur athlete could turn professional and make much of a living. Contrarily, in the
manufacture of products and the provision of services, it is entirely possible, through creative
marketing, to successfully sell a mediocre product or service. Because you are a professional does
not necessarily mean you are better, more talented, or produce a superior product… it simply means
you do it for money.
"Hanging out your [woodworking] shingle" should probably be more accurately characterized as
turning "commercial" as opposed to turning "professional," but with so many articles previously
dedicated to the concept of "turning pro," I have chosen to keep with that verbiage.
A second important angle to the perspective from which this article stems, is that the intended
audience is a broad swath of down-to-earth woodworkers who dream of making a living doing what they
most enjoy. There is another group of woodworkers who are contemplating, and likely will, turn
"pro," for whom this article is not intended.
Thousands of us have entertained the thought of making a living doing what we love. Business
books abound that agree we will ultimately be most successful if we enjoy what we do. If your
dreams include designing, building, and copywriting that earth-shaking and popular new furniture
design line that ultimately gets licensed by a major furniture manufacturer, and you thereafter are
able to bask in the notoriety and riches you so deserve, this article is not intended for you. If
you dream of holding court by the pool at your luxurious new seaside mansion while elite fashion
designers and architects hang on your every syllable seeking clues as to your next ground-breaking
design release, or if you fantasize about guardedly handing out scarce and exclusive tickets to your
next private showing, you really need not read further. But, if you are like the majority of us,
and have made "nice" candlesticks, bookends, bowls, casework, birdhouses, deck chairs, or jewelry
boxes and think that you would like to turn them out by the hundreds and make a living doing so,
this article is laser-aimed at you. It is a cautionary tale.
It should also be noted that my perspective is decidedly pro-free enterprise… I am an unabashed
champion of the entrepreneurial spirit and do whatever I can to support new businesses. I will
endure bad coffee if I know the local coffee shop was started by a puckish, bootstrapping
Most past articles on the subject of turning "pro" fall into one of two categories: (1) How to go
about the transformation, or (2) The joys of doing what you love for a living. A third viewpoint,
however, is critical to the ongoing discussion… be careful what you wish for… you might just get it.
As stated previously, it is a cautionary tale.
Be careful what you wish for…
One of my earliest boyhood recollections is of playing with a chemistry set. Probably the second
earliest memory is of mixing the chemicals needed to develop film. I cannot remember a youthful
time when I was not enamored with photography. I started with an old Yashica 120mm twin lens reflex
camera when there was not much film available other than black and white. I learned to develop the
film to save money but soon grew to love the creative control and additional artistic freedom the
Eventually an enlarger joined my battered old chemical trays, then another camera expanded my
repertoire, and somewhere along the line I acquired a tripod, then a light meter. By the time I was
fifteen, I had a darkroom permanently set up in what had once been a closet, and was becoming a fair
photographer. There was no part of the photographic process I did not love.
Take the pictures, develop the film, make the prints… it was all fun and creative. In high
school I intended to join the school paper solely to have access to the school darkroom, but soon
found that my photography was also keeping me busy. I became editor of the school paper, won a
couple of awards and even a scholarship. Somewhere in there, I also began to write a few words.
College was a complete blast. Despite the three part time jobs and the crushing costs, the world
was my oyster and I was eating them by the dozen. After school I taught for a brief period of time
and wrote for a newspaper, but nothing seemed as alluring as photography. So, at a tender age I
begged, borrowed, and scraped, and borrowed some more, and opened a small photography studio.
Looking back, it was a rather pedestrian affair. Eight hundred tiny square feet in a nearly
defunct, off-the-beaten-path strip shopping center, with a display window, an open area that became
my studio, and a small storeroom and bathroom that I converted to darkroom use. Perhaps some other
time I will describe the table that was hinged to the wall and held film processing supplies… it had
to be cleared and lifted up in order to use the toilet. My next-door neighbor manufactured potato
salad. In the future I might also explain the reasons why I have not eaten potato salad in over
thirty years. But for now, I will stick with the genesis of "turning professional."
The first studio portrait job I got forced me to borrow materials from a variety of places in
order to set up suitable backgrounds. With the money from that first job I drove 120 miles and
bought some seamless background paper. And so it went.
Like small business people everywhere, I did what was needed to make the business successful. I
shot weddings, school pictures, crime scenes, advertisements, portraits, dirt track car races,
little-kid sports, and more. The business took off.
Soon I had a second photographer, a new building, then a second building, and a full-blown custom
commercial color laboratory. I was even providing film processing and printing for other
professional photographers. I averaged shooting twenty weddings a month, had major contracts with
advertising agencies, furniture-makers, electronics manufacturers, lingerie designers and more. The
studio became the de facto choice for political advertising, executive portraiture, and portfolio
shots for aspiring models. I still made a little time for "art" and landscape photography, and even
had a one-man traveling show where I sold "signed and numbered" prints, but the "meat and potatoes"
photography was consuming me.
Just barely four years after my humbling start, I sold the business and its almost fifty
employees. In the thirty years since, it has only been recently that I have been able to
half-heartedly snap a photo without cringing, grimacing, and mumbling. A few years ago, outside a
museum, a gaggle of young tourists innocently handed me their point-and-shoot digital camera and
asked that I take their picture. They must have thought I was the most dour and sour American alive
– I probably set international relations back a few years. What happened to that pie-eyed idealist
who so loved photography? Why had I become the photo-curmudgeon?
The answer is simple, really. Once photography became a business, parts of it, for me, became
drudgery. Then more parts became drudgery, and soon, the luster was completely gone. It was just
not "fun" any more.
In the last year before selling the business, I snapped over one quarter million exposures. The
thrill was going fast. Ad agencies annoyed me, sniping newlyweds and in-laws arguing over poses
annoyed me, vacuous models annoyed me, and self-important executives annoyed me. I vowed then and
there to never let commercialism destroy another hobby. To this day I have most purposely never
sold a piece of furniture, and I never will.
Please do not misunderstand me for even a nanosecond. I am firmly, solidly in the camp of free
enterprise, entrepreneurship, and small-business start-ups. This is, as stated before, merely a
cautionary tale. Do not allow the allure of doing what you love to overshadow the realities of
There is no doubt that you loved building that stool (nightstand, birdhouse, table, box, chair,
etc.) or turning that gorgeous bowl (pen, candlestick, etc.); but when you have to turn them out
day-in and day-out, dozens or hundreds of times, will you still love it as much? If familiarity
breeds contempt, as the old saying goes, then repetitiveness must breed boredom.
When what were before adoring recipients of the gifts of your craft become instead paying and
demanding customers, will the psychological rewards be as great? When "Gee, this is great, thanks!"
turns into "I was really hoping for more (less, straighter, curvier, etc.) grain" or "I thought the
finish would be a little darker," will you love your craft as much?
This is not a discouragement, but rather an encouragement to make sure that you enter any
business venture with eyes wide open. Entrepreneurs invariably ask themselves "What if I fail?" I
am encouraging you to ask the other question, "What if I am successful?"
What if I fail? What if I am successful?
Steam may currently be about to exit your ears and your fingers may be poised above the keyboard
to fire off an e-mail (which is encouraged), but do allow me to add one additional note first. It
was, more than anything else, sheer numbers that spoiled me to my once-loved photography hobby. Had
I been able to make a living photographing only what I wanted, when I wanted, and selling my prints
like artwork, I would undoubtedly still love doing it. But business demands and lack of talent
forced me to rely on volume and numbers to drive success. If you are good enough (and many of you
are) and confident enough (you know who you are) to build one-of-a-kind masterpieces or custom
furniture, sell them for top dollar, and live the life of a true artiste, you will probably never
suffer the tedium of repetition. But if your business plan indicates breakeven at twenty-five
birdhouses a week, think long and hard. Decide now if the twenty-sixth birdhouse each week is going
to be as much fun to build as the first one is today. If you can honestly answer "yes," then go for
Some might feel that I feel disdain for some types of marketing, or you may feel that anything
that sells must be good, otherwise why would people buy? Some, correctly, will posit that beauty,
and by extension, craftsmanship, quality, etc., is in the eye of the beholder. Still others will
take exception to my preferred definition of the word "professional." Indulge me for a moment more,
with one additional story of my photographic business experience.
As stated previously, when starting out, I did whatever was necessary to make a buck. I once
photographed garbage for a government study and nights I worked as a stringer for a local paper,
mostly chronicling late night crime scenes.
Weddings are potential goldmines for photographers. The "holy grail" of profit is the
post-nuptial reprint frenzy, when relatives and friends order multiple copies of everything from the
cute little ring bearer, to the kiss, to the cake cutting, to the first dance. Weddings generate
copious profit through reprints, so the key to success is simple - get the job. Get the job, at any
price, and the reprints can make you rich. Knowing that, I priced my original "starter" wedding
package at $39. The package included forty small proofs in a little book and a black and white
portrait for the newspaper announcement. With a "loss leader" to get my foot in the door (or more
accurately, the wedding chapel), the business quickly grew to average almost twenty weddings a
As months slid by and the other studio business increased, I became less enamored with weddings
as a source of revenue. I was reciting wedding vows in my sleep and knew a couple of dozen clergy
by first name. In my sophomoric business mind, I reasoned that raising my basic wedding package
price would decrease the number of weddings, and that I could work less and make the same amount of
money. So, I raised my prices. And then I raised them again. Then again, and then again. In less
than one year's time, I was charging $1,800 for each hour of my time at a wedding, the customer got
no pictures for that price and had better commit to huge reorders or I would simply refuse to shoot
the wedding (these are circa 1975 dollars, by the way). If the wedding was more than a few miles
away, I charged travel-time. I delegated the reception photos to another (junior) photographer. My
demands put me in greater demand than ever. People changed their wedding dates to accommodate my
schedule. It just was not considered a proper social event unless I shot your wedding photos.
Genius Marketing, By Accident
Unwittingly, I had marketed my limited skills and sold my marginal capabilities by creating a
mystique and thereby developing a cult-like following through a combination of price and personal
indifference. When I started the business my conversation was "Please consider using me as your
photographer." When I finally stopped doing weddings altogether, my conversation had become, "Tell
me about your wedding plans and convince me why I should (deign to) do your photographs."
My skills had not improved significantly from the guy who shot $39 wedding packages, and
certainly my "bedside manner" had not improved (in fact, it got worse). It seems that the more a
wedding or a wedding party annoyed me and the more I showed my angst, the more it added to the
mystique, and the more in-demand I became. I could feel guilty for the intellectual dishonesty, but
my customers were always happy with their photos and the experience. I thus learned a valuable
marketing (and life) lesson. "Professional" simply means you do it for money and the word should
never be automatically conflated with expertise, skill, or talent. It is possible, through
marketing, to sell average quality ice cubes at premium prices to residents of the polar region.
If you have the moxie, the skills, and the marketing wherewithal to drive your prices higher and
put yourself in ever-higher demand, while always pleasing your customers, go for it. Build a
mystique and panache and the price of admission to your world of craftsmanship will soar. Beauty is
in the eye of the beholder, and there is intrinsic value to a one-of-a-kind hand made piece of
furniture that only future generations will learn to accurately appraise. You will surely be less
likely to suffer from the boredom of repetition. I can still recite wedding vows from memory.
"A Reverence For Wood" by Eric Sloane
A non-woodworking friend with an eclectic reading appetite sent me "A Reverence For Wood" by Eric
Sloane. After reading it, I suffered a moment of panic fearing that it might no longer be available
for purchase, and it is definitely worth your time. Thankfully it is available from Highland
Woodworking, and it is a gem. In it, Eric Sloane, author of "A Museum of Early American Tools"
available from Highland), looks at how wood was used (and sometimes abused) in early America…
its significance in our history, its value, and its contribution to our way of life.
From the numerous early American colonial flags that featured trees, to the British Navy
commandeering our very best specimens, it is apparent that America once had an abundance of this
beautiful and valuable natural resource and that early settlers were proud of their newfound
commodity. Trees and the wood they produced were not only a part of our nation's wealth, they were a
large part of the reason other countries wanted to own us. Our most visible and abundant natural
resource was one root of the trouble that ultimately led to our desire for independence.
Mr. Sloane, who passed away just after his eightieth birthday in 1985, held wood, the people who
work the wood, and the objects made from wood, in high esteem, as evidenced by his artful prose
about early America and its woodworkers. For example, he says, "Wood was not accepted simply as the
material for building a new nation – it was an inspiration. Gentle to the touch, exquisite to
contemplate, tractable in creative hands, stronger by weight than iron, wood was, as William Penn
had said, ‘a substance with a soul.'"
In discussing the woods used and styles employed in building doors, Mr. Sloane said, "In pioneer
days, doors were often symbols. Just as girls filled hope chests, young men planned doors for
houses they would someday build." I will bet that in this section alone, you will learn something
you never knew about door designs. I certainly did.
Prevent Rust & Corrosion – Easy!
Hot and muggy seems to best describe the last couple of months throughout large swaths of the
country. While rust is a year-round enemy, this kind of weather encourages its all-out assault. We
wax, oil, clean, wax and oil again; and still, the siege continues. Hand planes, at least in the
Down to Earth Workshop, seem particularly vulnerable.
Taking care of our sizeable investment in tools is critical, so when I read about Zerust NoRust
non-slip drawer liner, it seemed worth a try.
Zerust looks like any other commercial kitchen shelf liner, but for the color, which is probably
attributable to the impregnated chemicals that inhibit rust formation. Zerust is intended for use
in closed spaces so that the invisible emitted gas can do its job, and so it will last longer.
Cutting pieces to fit my hand plane storage cabinet from the 12" X 72" roll was easy. Use a pair of
scissors or a knife and a straight edge. I placed the Zerust shelf liner on top of the conventional
shelf liner already in the cabinet, figuring a little extra padding for the soles of my planes would
Before I returned all the planes, irons, and scrapers to the cabinet, I cleaned off any trace of
corrosion and liberally applied a coat of Camellia Oil to all the
metal surfaces. In the past, this procedure was never quite enough. Little spots and patches of
corrosion always began to reappear within days. Since installing the Zerust shelf liner two months
ago no spots, no rust patches, no corrosion of any kind has appeared. There are a couple of things
you should know, however.
First, the shelf liner is "tacky," for lack of a better word. Be prepared for the shelf liner to
stick to your tools, and unless weighted down by adjacent tools, the liner will probably cling to
your planes and lift up. In my purpose-built plane cabinet, each hand plane has its own cubbyhole,
so there is nothing to hold the shelf liner down. I may try some double-sided taped to resolve
Second, when you retrieve a tool stored on Zerust shelf liner, you will notice the waffle-pattern
marks of the liner left on your tools. A quick wipe with a soft cloth and the marks quickly and
easily disappear. There is no deleterious residue that I can see and the manufacturer claims no ill
effects on iron, brass, steel or wood.
One last point to remember is that Zerust emits a colorless, odorless (as far as I can tell), and
non-toxic gas, therefore its lifetime must be finite. The literature advises the product will last
up to two years, but variable factors undoubtedly include air circulation. The anticipated lifespan
is in a "closed environment" (i.e. toolbox, drawer, cabinet, etc.). But, we all know, there is
"closed" and then there is "really closed." Most cabinets and toolboxes are not airtight, and are
opened and closed frequently. Sometimes, yikes, they are even left standing open for hours at a
time! I will probably replace my shelf liner in the Spring each year. The product is inexpensive
enough and the tools it is protecting are expensive enough, that I will err to the conservative.
shelf liner is available from Highland Woodworking and is highly recommended.
A Poor Workman Always Blames His Tools
My Dad was a positive guy, and he turned the phrase around and tirelessly reiterated to me, "A
good workman doesn't blame his tools," whenever I was tempted to blame less-than-stellar work on a
saw, plane, chisel, or hammer. I grew up believing that skill was the only viable variable in
craftsmanship. Well, I'm sorry Dad, but you were only partly correct. Skill can only partly offset
the effects of a poorly conceived, designed, built, or tuned tool or one made of inferior materials.
How can I be so unequivocal?
Simple. I was predisposed to believe that skill could overcome any tool-induced obstacle. And,
to some extent, I made that belief a reality for many years… or, at least I thought I did.
For example, I used an off-brand, off-the-shelf jack plane for years. Over several months
(really!) I spent thirty or forty cumulative hours trying to flatten the sole. Even after that
torture, it was still not perfect. There was an off-center concavity along the trailing edge of the
plane, but I feared that further flattening would render the sole of the plane so thin that
additional warp was inevitable. I filed the frog and polished it flat. I flattened the iron and
sharpened it to the finest edge I know how to obtain, and somehow made the plane work. But it was
always a challenge, and I kept struggling. But with my Dad's ever-present admonition, "Don't blame
the tool" haunting me, I trudged on.
Finally I broke down, broke the bank, and ordered a premium jack plane. It was nothing less than
an epiphany. Suddenly, the work was fun again. I began to wax poetic and talk to total strangers
about the joys of woodworking. I was working with wood, not futzing with a cheap tool. I was Lisa
Batiashvili tossing away her mass-produced violin and picking up her 1709 Engleman Stradivarius for
the first time. Am I exaggerating? Well, maybe a little.
But bit by precious bit, over time, I have acquired a limited "kit" of premium quality hand
planes. Every time I replace a second-rate plane with a better quality plane, I ask myself, "Why
did you wait so long?" Of course, the answer is always "money," right? But if you have dithered or
procrastinated up till now, do yourself a favor. Stick a crowbar in that wallet and pry out some
cash for a top-notch plane, and you will soon see what I mean. You may be surprised just how good
your skills really are!
Recently I purchased the Lie-Nielsen Medium
Shoulder Plane. This was my first non-replacement premium plane purchase. I have never owned
or used a shoulder plane, but with many tenons to cut for a project, I decided to take the plunge;
and rather than start with something cheap and replace it later, I reasoned that the wise investment
now would be infinitely more prudent.
Like you, I have cut/formed tenons almost every way possible – by hand, by router, on the table
saw, the band saw, cheeks by hand and shoulders on the table saw, and a dozen other variations with
countless jigs, work supports, and gadgets. From personal experience I can now confirm that the
fastest, easiest, most accurate, and most enjoyable way to form a tenon is to cut it by hand and
tweak it to final size with a shoulder plane. Try it, and you will soon use all those homemade
tenoning jigs as kindling for the fireplace.
With a lesser plane, I might be less obstreperous. But the L-N is almost a work of art.
"Almost," only because to call it such would diminish it somehow, since it is at its best when
working hard, not just sitting around looking pretty (although it does that quite well, too).
Stay tuned to Highland Woodworking's YouTube channel for a new 3-part video showing how I
now hand-cut tenons and use the Lie-Nielsen Medium Shoulder Plane to achieve a perfect fit.
In next month's column we will explore one of several different perspectives on the potential
future of hobby woodworking, build a simple bench hook, and start to mill the lumber for a desk,
credenza, and bookcase to be built without a table saw (but I'll use plenty of other power tools!).
See you then!
Links to the hand-cut tenon YouTube videos:
Steven Johnson is recently retired from an almost 30-year career selling medical equipment and
supplies, and now enjoys improving his shop, his skills, and his designs on a full time basis
(although he says home improvement projects and furniture building have been hobbies for most of his
Steven can be reached directly via email at email@example.com.