I cannot count the number of people who over the years have asked me how they might start commission carving, that is taking specific orders for carvings from customers. I get regular inquiries via email from my internet woodcarving home page from people who want to strike out on their own to make a living doing what they love best, carving. There are also those who meet me where I show my work, at exhibitions and fairs who long to live the life of the independent artist, who ask how such is achieved.
Thus I concluded that I might have something of value to share with those of you visiting my website who have considered carving-to-order as a vocational possibility.
There are many different reasons for people to pursue a career in commission woodcarving, not the least being the desire to express oneself creatively. Some wish to leave high pressure jobs in favour of self-employment in the world of crafts, where one has more control over one's life. Others desire to be their own boss. Others need to work at home where they can participate in the lives of their family.
Whatever your reason for wanting to undertake commission woodcarving, there is a way to do it properly, and a way that leads to failure. What I hope to do in this article is share with you the insights I have gathered over 40 years of commission carving. I've learned a few things along the way that might be useful to you.
I started commission carving while I was employed as a rural parish pastor in Northern Alberta, Canada in the late 70's. While in the parish, I took to woodcarving to relieve stress. I came to the conclusion after many years that the reason "relief" carving has this named is that it provides a person with relief from things like stress, boredom, repressed creativity, idle pastimes and the like.
It was not long after I started carving that a parishioner asked to buy one of my carvings. Sometime later I was asked to carve a specific theme in wood. The idea came to me that I could earn extra income through my carving, and turn this wonderful recreation into a "paying" hobbie. It was the desire to expand my hobbie with the proceeds from my hobbie that started me on my way as a commission woodcarver.
I carved in the basement of the parish parsonage, a draughty space not larger that 8 feet by 12 feet, with a low ceiling and a dripping drain pipe in the corner. Soon I had earned enough money to buy more carving tools. Gradually I acquired a power saw, a router, a hand plane, and a few carving instructional books. My beginnings with this craft were humble and undoubtably less romantic than they appear after the passage of time, but I knew no different at the time. I was totally absorbed with my carving, and counted the hours each week till my day off when I could hide in my small shop and carve.
I did not decide to undertake commission carving as a vocation until the day when, in order to avoid burnout, I elected to leave parish ministry. Tendering my resignation, my wife and I moved to the city with our one year old son, and decided that since my immediate job options were pumping gas or woodcarving, I would become a commission woodcarver. In retrospect, I was probably good for nothing else but working on my own for the first two years after the parish while I gathered myself together. I did not count the cost or foresee the blessings. I only believed that for every door God closes He opens another for us to go through. It was necessity and providence, then, that created this commission woodcarver.
I had the pleasure of building a back yard shop in the third year of my artistic sojourn, and gladly left the basement behind. I now had storage racks for my wood, some proper workbenches, and two windows strategically placed to cast the right light for working in relief. I started teaching carving classes, which to my amazement not only paid well, but taught me more than I taught the students, bringing me more commissions besides. In the third year AP (after parish) I began to understand that I might have something that could eventually become a vocation, maybe even a paying job. I was an entrepreneur.
My wife's ballet school was also growing by leaps and bounds by this time. So in the fifth year on our own we were able to move to a larger house where I built a larger shop, where I taught larger classes and where I carved larger carvings. I should be completely honest with you at this point. If my family were to depend completely on my carving income, we would be quite poor. I earn a good second income which nicely supplements my wife's larger income. By having a dual family income, we are financially comfortable.
Now in my 33rd year of full-time carving, and my 40th year of commission carving I look back and reflect on what I have learned. This is what I will share with you now.
As a self-employed woodcarver you need to
• The willingness to pay one's dues as an aspiring artist/crafts person. A reputation as a reliable and capable crafts person is earned, not bought or found by chance. It takes time for people to discover you, and even longer before you gain a reputation for being dependable, creative, trustworthy and competent. Give yourself a number of years to achieve recognition.
• A belief that one's work has worth, and will be valued by others. My wife is the one who helps me see my carvings as my customers will eventually see them. My carving students also help me evaluate my work from the customer point of view, but I must carry the belief that my carvings are worth doing in the first place. I must value woodcarving as an art form and wood as a medium and believe that as I love woodcarvings so others will love them too.
• The ability to learn from one's mistakes, and build on one's strengths. Every mistake falls on the shoulders of the carver who made it. Some mistakes fall into the category of disasters, while others fall into the category of serendipity, that is, a happy and unexpected accidental discovery. Serendipity does not need to be controlled, nor could it be if one wanted to control it, but with experience disasters can be avoided or at least mitigated to minor inconveniences. A carver who cannot correct his mistakes is a carver who lives in fear of making mistakes, and for this reason is also afraid to experiment or take chances.
•The ability to measure success/failure. Success is a difficult thing to measure unless you know what is important to you personally. If becoming rich and famous is your measure of success/failure, you might be disappointed with this line of work. However, if you can be content with a modest income, the time to see your children grow up and participate in their lives, and the satisfaction of working at what you enjoy, then this is the line of work for you. I have concluded after many years of self-doubt that I made the right decision when I began my career as a carver. I make a half or a third of what many of my friends make, but I enjoy advantages that their money cannot buy. I am at home for lunch with my wife and boys every day. I can take extended summer holidays with the family. My kids know what I do for a living, and have time to know me as a person. I set my own schedule, pursue my own interests and enjoy the company of fellow carvers in my carving classes. My job is at least as secure, maybe more, than the jobs of my friends. My work allows my wife to pursue her work. Between the two of us we do all right financially, and enjoy a close, happy family life. Big bucks could not buy what I enjoy now. With this in mind, I can rightly consider myself to be successful!
As a novice commission woodcarver you need to:
• Commit to the task of becoming a commission carver. Go forward. You cannot afford to look back.
• Set and date, perhaps two years in the future, at which you will evaluate your progress in achieving your goals.
• Set a goal to be achieved by the date mentioned above. Make it attainable. When I started, my goal was to be recognized in my community as a local woodcarving artist after two years had passed.
• Have the basic experience you need in the various aspects of carving before you make it your career. This experience can be gathered over years of hobbie carving and taking courses from more experienced carvers.
• Have a space to carve in, the tools and equipment you need to prepare and carve wood, and the space to store supplies and materials. Also have local municipal permissions in place for doing this work out of your home, if that is where you intend to make your start. Many towns and cities require a home occupation license.
• Set aside the time each day to carve without distraction.
• Know how you will begin to market your carvings. If you have customers waiting for your finished carvings, all the better. Galleries, craft fairs, exhibitions, conventions, and art/craft retailers are all examples of marketing outlets.
• Know how to do business with customers. If you cannot bring yourself to meet deadlines, deal with problems, or ask for payment, then do yourself a favour by finding some other line of work. Hermits and seriously shy people also need not apply.
• Have the cooperation and support of your spouse. My wife supports my work as I support hers. It makes good sense to work together.
• Have a source for quality hardwood that is reliable and affordable. My preference is local White Birch. It is an excellent carving wood, beautiful in so many ways and very affordable. But then I'm from western Canada where birch is easily available.
As an advanced commission woodcarver you need to
• Have a dedicated carving studio. Do not use it, as a rule, for fixing your car, or storing your kids' bikes, or doing ceramics or welding.
• Have advanced tools and equipment for woodworking and woodcarving. A jointer, a planer, a bandsaw, a sliding mitre saw, a router, a stationary sander are all examples of necessary equipment.
• Build or purchase a large light table to assist you in your pattern drawing.
• Be able to produce your own designs using your own collection of advanced drawing/design tools and equipment like light tables, pantograph, photocopier. Do not rely on others to produce your carving patterns. You must develop the skill needed to draw and design. Unique patterns and designs can come from only one place, and that is your own drawing table.
• Have an online galery of photos of completed commission carvings to show customers what you have done and what can be done in woodcarving.
• Have an inventory of patterns for stock carvings.
• Have a collection of completed "inventory carvings" ready for display and sale when the opportunity presents itself.
• Be able to acquire free publicity in your community, through the newspapers, newsletters, fairs, and galleries. Every new newspaper reporter that comes to town should be seen as an opportunity for a fresh article about an up and coming woodcarving artist.
•Have business cards ready to hand out at a moment's notice.
• Have a computer and software to assist in the design of your carvings, especially with the generation of accurate text, if you incorporate text in your carvings. A computer also allows you to prepare and deliver invoices on letterhead, and to correspond by email via the Internet.
• Become properly connected to the internet. By this I mean, use every means the internet and modern computers/cell phones/tablets have to offer to publicize your work and to communicate with customers.
• Learn how to take your own photos. Digital photography is a necessary skill to learn.
The Commission Process
Now we get to the fun part. What do you do and where do you go when you have a living breathing potential customer standing in front of you, asking if you could please do a carving for him? Let's take a look at the commission process from start to finish and see what it entails.
The initial contact
The initial contact will often be over the telephone or the internet. If the customer is local, arrange a time for the customer to visit the studio where you can discuss the carving commission in more detail. This will allow the customer to see what you do and where you do it. It inspires confidence on the part of the customer. It gives you the opportunity to place your best foot forward.
If the commission cannot be arranged in person, then talk as much as you need with the customer via email, and when you are ready to submit preliminary designs for approval (more on this later) email the customer a copy. Everyone has access to a the internet these days. What you have discussed over the phone should appear in writing in the email document right beside the drawings that you have prepared. What is written is far less likely to be misunderstood at a later date.
The first meeting in your studio
When the customer arrives in person at your studio, above all be business-like in a comfortable, artisan sort of way. Firm handshakes, warm greeting, eye contact, garlic-free breath all go a long way to an positive initial impression. The customer wants to meet someone who is confident in his abilities, and reliable in his dealings. The customer also wants to see a "real studio": one that is properly equipped, clean and organized, with real wood and real tools. The customer is curious about the carving process. You can satisfy his curiosity with what I call the "royal tour" of you studio.
When the tour is done, then it's time to get down to business. Ask questions. Take notes. Make sketches. Clarify, clarify, clarify! Offer suggestions and alternatives that might improve the finished carving and make it more suitable to the customer's purpose.
Commission details (click here to see a Commission sheet)
Takes notes and make drawings as reminders of the conversation you are having with the customer. I use a "Commission Sheet" which I created on the computer. It contains spaces for all the information and sketches that need to be collected for a particular carving commission. When a customer watches me fill out this sheet, he cannot help but think that I am well organized and concerned with the details.
Decide on the theme, purpose and style of the carving. Often a particular theme can be rendered in a number of ways. Discuss these with your customer. Inquire as to the occasion for the carving, who will receive it, where it will finally be hung, what light will it receive and be how will it be viewed.
Choose the wood, the size, and the shape for the carving. I always try to steer the customer towards the wood which is best for the design. For example, Red Oak is not good for a finely detailed relief, where the coarse grain will overwhelm the detail. White birch is better, with its close grain, ability to hold detail and to show well in low light situations. Red Oak is better in large reliefs with bold design and absence of fine detail. There the coarse grain adds to the strength of the design.
Decide the budget ceiling for the commission. I charge by the square foot of finished carved area, based of the largest dimensions of the carving. That way I can quickly arrive at a cost for the customer, and the customer can understand that the cost is directly related to the work involved. To this I add the cost of the wood, measured by board feet used, and the local taxes. These amounts are clearly not arbitrary or based on a perception that this particular customer can afford to pay more.
Setting the budget is a delicate matter, which is best handled with forthrightness, fairness and scrupulous honesty. Charging by the square foot of finished carving forces you to become efficient in your carving, and an effective estimator or the work involved in a piece. At this point, be sure to outline the costs that will be added to the carving commission, such as crating, taxes, installation and freight.
I take 20% of the commission price upon approval of the pattern, as a general rule. Trustworthy customers will readily agree to this arrangement. Arrange for payment of the balance upon delivery of the finished carving to a satisfied customer. A simple handshake is all you need with honest people, and a contract will not be enough to force a dishonest person to pay up.
If you insist on payment only after delivery, your customers will know intuitively that you are taking a risk on their behalf. You do this to gain the confidence of your customers, and to assure them that you are interested primarily in their satisfaction. Customers will sense that only a confident and reliable artist would take this chance.
Set a date for the delivery, viewing and confirmation of the preliminary drawings. These drawings should be to scale, and include enough information to convey the shape, size, style and content of the finished carving. Information regarding the dimension, price, wood, delivery costs, taxes and materials should also be included with the preliminary drawings.
A preliminary design helps you and the customer arrive at a clear understanding of the commission that is about to be undertaken. It allows for revisions, corrections (eg: spelling mistakes in the text portion of a carving) and minor adjustments to take place before you start working with the wood. Sometimes customers will offer helpful suggestions that will improve the carving immensely. Other times, customers will smile and give their approval without any further discussion. Most customers will be grateful for the opportunity to participate in their carving.
It should be kept in mind that the whole purpose of commission carving is to provide the customer with a carving suited to his particular needs while earning an income in the process. The customer provides you with the opportunity to exercise your creative energies in the process. I like to explain to my customers that I intend to carve their idea my way. That way the customer is happy and I am happy. Carvers that expect simply acceptance of what they produce without consideration for the needs their the customer, should avoid commission carving like a plague. I always carve for the customer when I do a commission. This is what commission carving is all about. I carve for myself occasionally, when time permits, during slow periods or while on holidays. This is what pleasure carving is all about. The two should remain distinct and separate.
Complete the carving. Prepare it for delivery with appropriate hangers, mounting brackets, shipping boxes and the like. Take some colour print/slide photos of the carving for your records. I usually take 4-6 photos in various lighting situations, and with something beside the carving for scale.
Arrange for the delivery of the carving. The best place to make the delivery is usually at your studio, where you can control the situation so that nothing interferes with your ability to "sell" the carving to your customer. Point out its best features, describe how the carving could best be displayed, discuss how it should be hung/mounted, and outline what the customer should do to maintain the carving (hopefully, nothing!). When this is done, give him the invoice and receive payment from your customer. Make sure the customer leaves with a few of your business cards to give to friends. Be sure to explain that your business depends on referrals from happy customers. Carry the carving to the customer's car to make sure it is not dropped, bumped or damaged with rings, zippers, buttons or car doors.
If you want your reputation to spread, then remember the following: • Serve the customer while striving for artistic excellence. • Carve what the customer wants, the way you want. • Believe in yourself in the same way the customer believed in you when they first asked you to do a commission carving. • Deliver the carving on time and on budget. • Maintain a clean, tidy, well organized studio. Be well groomed. • Strive to make the commission process a win-win situation. Be fair to yourself and to the customer. • Enjoy your work and your customer
Meditations of a Commission Woodcarver