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From the Wood News Archives
The following article was originally published in Wood News No. 20, Fall 1987.

Pricing Treen

A Guide for the Perplexed

by Wallace Macfarlane

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 better."

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 says and 1 Timothy is right. 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 passion?

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 champignons.

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. How I do something is lower on the priority list than what-the-hell 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."

"Do it."

"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 same.

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 away.

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 frizzled Dolly.

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 wood.

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

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