If you start from square one, it will cost a bundle to make your first bowl. By the time you've
paid for a new lathe, chainsaw and tablesaw, that bowl you're going to put peanuts in is a $500
bowl. If you buy something better than bargain basement tools, that first bowl can easily cost
$2000. If you get new supporting tools, it could be a $5000 bowl. As with the price of automobiles,
the sky's the limit for a shop today.
Perhaps because I grew up during the 1930's, I pay attention to money. Sometimes I've a pocketful
and other times damn little. Pearl Bailey was right: "I have been rich and I have been poor. Rich is
That doesn't really matter as much as where you stand to view the world. "The love of money is
the root of all evil"
1 Timothy 6:10
Money is not evil but if you fall in love with a dollar bill you've got problems. Where I've ended
up is wanting value when I buy. I don't always get it. I have limited use for a bandsaw, so I bought
a Mickey Mouse model for $125 and I should have known better. I cut enough stuff to pay for it twice
over and then I gave up trying to keep the blade on the wheels. If I had to carve a motto to hang on
my shop wall, I might quote Thoreau: "That man is richest whose pleasures are the cheapest," but
there was no joy for me in a 5-and-10 bandsaw, Mr. Thoreau.
The Golden Age of Tools
Like everyone else, I winced at the idea of paying $10 for two ounces of cyanoacrylate glue when
I bought my first bottle 2 or 3 years ago. Now I buy it cheerfully, because it is cheap for the job
it does. I originate the wood I use and cut up yard trees or stressed trees or blown-over trees and
often enough, I am ambushed by internal cracks and voids and the happy homes of beetles and borers.
Cyanoacrylate and sawdust have salvaged a hundred pieces for me in the last six months. Salvage is
too desperate a word. I could have used wood putty or glue and sawdust, but cyanoacrylate is quicker
and a good deal better than the others in strength and appearance.
Growing up not rich, not poor, my thrills don't come from all the wonderful toys of our fantastic
culture. It would be kind of nifty to own a resawing bandsaw instead of going at a log with a
chainsaw and making a board smooth as best I can. Think of a thickness planer yum-yum. A powerhouse
router. A scrollsaw. A state of the art workbench to replace the one I made one afternoon 30 years
ago of red fir planks with a 3/4" Doug fir plywood top for smooth. it's not so smooth anymore but I
haven't flipped it recently. The other side is bound to be better. It always is.
Right now is the golden age of tools. They are seductive as Cleopatra. I put down a catalog with
as much lust in my heart as any ex-president ever had in his. What saves me from giving way to this
First, my blessed incompetence. I am ignorant about cabinets and sideboards and hutches. I can
make something to keep dishes off the floor if I have to, but like the Old Man of Thermopylae I
never learned how to do things properly. I don't want to learn how to dovetail any more than I want
to learn ballet. I am as competant at carving wood as your ordinary drunken beaver. (But wouldn't it
be nice to have a Foredom with a bunch of tungsten carbide cutters?) "If ignorance is bliss, 'tis
folly to be wise," said Puck.
Second is time. I'm already short of time for things I want to do more than I want to fool around
with new tools: tell jokes and laugh with friends and marvel at the world we live in with Pearlygate
and Tailgate and Iranamok all in the headlines at the same time.
Third, I already have tools to match my competence. I have a grinder with 5" wheels my son gave
me when he was a freshman at Berkeley. It came from Montgomery Ward and cost $10. My old Shopsmith
is like a treasured outhouse or a DC3; all you have to do is put on a new workpiece and it flies
into the future, a brave ghost of the past. My utility chisel comes from a boy's tool kit. It pops
off waste blocks and scrapes glue and (though I wouldn't suggest it to others) I use it instead of
an icepick to guide wood through the table saw.
Woodworking is a Progression
Nobody really starts from now and buys all new stuff. Woodworking is a progression. I nailed a
found block to a found board with a found nail at age 5 and made a boat. Then it grows more
complicated, and the kid who pays attention begins attracting tools and hanging onto them. I never
met anyone who works with wood who was not interested early on.
A week ago I met a young man who actually makes a living carving gnomes, dragons, unicorns and
like figures. Not a high-off-the-hog living, but he gets by. (Not only that, he uses lots of
impossible wood for carving like locust and oak instead of bass and pear). He claims he is doomed.
He has tried other jobs but always ends up with a knife in his hand. "I might as well enjoy it," he
said. "It's inevitable. It's fate." I suppose I'm doomed to make rolling pins and bowls and
So I didn't have to spend a lot of money for the basic shop to make treen. Just as I have no real
taste for booze — just luck I guess — exotic woods are no more exciting to me than ash
or apricot or mulberry. I have a fundamental skepticism about lavender-colored wood and I don't
think bright orange wood is real pretty either. It is nice to have such curiosities around, but I
don't lust much for purpleheart or padouk.
It may seem unprogressive and contrary, but I'm not so much interested in production as in what I
produce. I can figure out how to make a basketful of balusters and when somebody wants them from me
I say okay, the price will be steep and cash in advance and no firm delivery date. So far I've not
had to make one. I want to do one-of-a-kind because my kicks come from the thing I make, rather than
in the making of it.
I do something is lower on the priority list than
I am doing.
Pricing the Things You Make
Now at last, we're back to the $500 bowl. "How do you price stuff?" Helen Petre asked that very
first day I sold wood at the Methodist Arts and Crafts show in fear and trembling. It's serious
business laying your work on the line. "Minimum wage," I said for a fast answer. "Poop," she said,
and she was right.
If you make a bowl a day for a year in your $500 shop, the starting cost per bowl will be $1.37.
Keep it up for 10 years and you'll have nearly 14 cents capital investment per bowl. Try to put a
figure on space, electricity, depreciation, maintenance and repairs. Add the cost of the wood.
Marketing. Telephone, heat, correspondence. Cost of drinks with friends who might bring you wood.
(This used to be called business entertainment.) Transportation. Taxes.
15% of your retail price per bowl as cost? Not too far out until you get into the "art" category.
What's the paint and canvas worth on an Andrew Wyeth picture? 1/1000 of the price tag?
Your time is what you say it's worth, so add that to your cost. What's left over is profit. In
produce markets traditionally you sell for twice the wholesale price. Manufacturers of toasters and
towels get one seventh to one tenth of the retail price. I am told cost accountancy is a lovely
discipline and that may well be so. I think it's an art form and entertainment, but not very useful
in the real world when it comes time to price the things you make.
The price I put on mortars and pestles or yo-yos or dibbles is the price people will pay for
them. I've had trouble with eggs. There's a company in Ohio that makes and sells wooden eggs, $14.50
for a koa egg if I remember right and the cheapest egg was pine and sold for $6-7. Okay, I thought,
$6 for apple or mahogany or acacia ought to be about right. The eggs were gorgeous — and
nobody bought them. Well, one or two sold. So I marked them $3. Nobody bought them.
$3 is foolish, so I kept the rest and use them for lagniappe. When somebody I like buys a bunch
of stuff, I give them an egg. If they bring along a kid who shows the proper appreciation of wood, I
give the kid his choice of one to take home for free. If somebody gives me a piece of wood, the
minimum return is an egg of that wood. The trouble with eggs is that I can't sell them. The price
doesn't seem to matter. But as a make-weight, the 13th doughnut of a baker's dozen, as lagniappe
— eggs make me friends.
Sometimes I warn young couples that eggs are a well-known fertility symbol and I formally eschew
responsibility for psychometrics beyond my control. They giggle, but twice now I've seen babies
whose mothers look at me funny.
Buyers are like Streetcars
I don't discount my prices. There are bargainers at any craft show and they haggle because they
get things cheaper. By now I've worked up a series of observations about sawing down the tree,
hauling it home, curing the wood, the price of chisels and the cost of electricity from those
bandits, the San Diego Gas and Electric Company, and by the time I get back to the wood, I have
myself convinced it should be marked higher. If the bargainer wants it, he buys. If he doesn't,
buyers are like streetcars used to be, there'll be another along in a minute.
Another reason I don't bargain with people is that I'm not very good at it. I don't take kindly
to being pushed or bullied.
"I can buy it cheaper."
"Look at the scratch!"
"Had to be some reason for that low price."
"I want a lot of stuff. Why not knock off $20?"
"Funny you should say that. A fellow from Illinois took every bowl last week — he's got a gift shop south of Chicago somewere. Said he'd double his money."
"At that price, I can't afford it."
"Then you are saved from the curse of possessions."
I try to be polite because a bland and deadly courtesy is better than poking them with a sharp
stick. If they don't buy, the next guy will. If they mumble, "I might be back," quite often they do
come back to find the piece sold. If it's not sold, at the end of the day the price stays the
The marketplace governs. By now I've sold hundreds of things I've made and have some idea of the
price it takes to move them. I make elegant mashers and sell them at $8-10-12-14, depending on the
wood, the size, and mostly on how well I like them. I've marked a few at $16-18, but I usually come
back to $14 after a few months of no sale. Once in a while, one is too nice to mark down. It may
take a year to sell, but I turn flat stubborn and dig in my heels and get my price or give it
The very first time I sold wood I marked the prices in even dollars and no cents, because $11.95
has never inclined me to buy a $12 item. I price things in even rather than odd dollars because
— because — because. Because I've got this feeling that impulse buyers think $6 is a
"softer" price than $5, a "nicer" price, a "better" price. I try to stay away from $20-30-40-50
prices. Maybe all this is foolishness, but I think $32 sells easier than $30, $46 faster than $40.
I'm not going to conduct a survey over a 10 year period to check out my feelings, but it feels good
the way I do it, gang.
I sell things wherever I can, mostly at the Julian Arts Guild shows, about a dozen a year. There
are another dozen shows close to home, some charging a percentage, others not. I have quite a few
people coming to my shop to see what's new and what's upcoming.
Galleries charge up to 50% commission with the average about 40%. This is way too much for me. I
have had gallery owners carry my things for 15-20% and I'm invited back tomorrow. But since I can
sell all I want to make and pay no commission, or at the worst 15%, why fool with galleries? I was
asked to consign stuff to one of southern California's topflight department stores, but while I
enjoyed being asked, the hassle of invoice and delivery and inventory and vouchers was more busywork
than I wanted to do. I could make as much money without the nuisance.
I was invited to participate in a by-invitation only show in San Diego, bigtime stuff, but a
quick look at bed and board away from home showed how ridiculous that would be. "Think of the
glory," they said. "Think of the cost," I said.
So Ordinary It's Different
In the beginning it seemed most reasonable to price my wood by the competition. Trouble was, I
couldn't find any. There are a few mortars and pestles around and some bowls and breadboards, but
what I make is so ordinary it's different. I could set my own prices. People from New York, San
Francisco, Boston, Washington DC, Los Angeles and Houston have bought stuff and then told me it was
underpriced. I can only suppose they saw similar things in museum shops or galleries or
Neiman-Marcus type gift collections.
My answer to the accusation of underpricing is that I want to move the stuff so I can make some
more. As inflation creeps along and so does the demand for wood, I've increased prices and people
seem to buy it at the same rate.
One fellow went around a show saying my wood was too expensive and he could do better standing on
his head in high school. He combed his hair over a bald spot and had a gut and looked twitchy when I
asked if he had any questions about the wood. "You carve it on a lathe, I bet, that's what I told
Dolly." A fatuous smirk. He was 50-something with a new girlfriend he had to impress. "Right on. You
can make your own, I bet." He nodded earnestly, "Sure I can if I get a lathe — if I get a shop
— nice work — real nice work you do." I said thanks and wished him well with fat and
What anything is worth is what someone will pay for it. There is no use reducing your prices
after only one or two shows. You get days when you could throw in a Circassian slave girl with every
lazy Susan and get no takers. You will get a run on footrollers and then sell no more for three
months. Some days you sell only in the first hour, other days in the last hour. Old timers say you
will sell more on rainy days to fewer customers.
There is no necessary correlation between the cost of the piece and the price I put on it. Some
things are expensive in time and effort and turn out ho-hum. If I price them on what they cost me, I
invariably come back later and cut the price. From time to time I look at something and say "Hot
spit," and add dollars to the tag. That doesn't happen often enough.
I put a "removable label" on the bottom of my wood. People have no trouble finding it. I've come
to prefer oval labels 1/2" x 3/4". I do not mark "$22.00". What I write is "22-". Customers are
smart; they know what it means. And over the years two or three perceptive people have commented on
what is subliminal to most folks, that the casual, non-coercive, low pressure marking adds to the
ambience of the wood. I think ambience means the totality of effect and that's what I want to sneak
up on customers about, the happy old, little old, cutesy and crafty and sincere old fellow who turns
That's me. The price is right.
Besides turning wood in his shop in Santa Ysabel, California, Wallace Macfarlane is a published
science fiction author and frequent contributor to Wood News.
Read more of Wallace Macfarlane's outstanding reprinted columns in Wood News:
And They Call Me an Artist by Wallace Macfarlane
Hustling Wood by Wallace Macfarlane
Commodity, Firmness and Delight by Wallace Macfarlane