• 17 Nov

    He Taught Me Everything I Don’t Know

    In an earlier piece, I wrote about some lighthearted moments in my early days as a woodworker, and much of the craziness seemed to emanate from my time with my first boss, Al. Perhaps I poked too much fun at him, but there is one thing for which I actually am indebted to him: he taught me almost everything I know about running a woodworking studio/business.

    Not, I should point out, in the way you might presume. After observing him studiously for nearly two years I was in his employ, I realized he was kind of a divining rod. I literally make it a practice to not do anything he did, and do everything he would not. While it would be something of a stretch to say that I am knocking on the door of the Fortune 500, for more than 40 years my studio has run amazingly smoothly and free of any financial issues. (In fact, we have just published a new workshop offering here at the Ebanista School of Fine Woodworking called the Business of Woodworking and would encourage you to check it out).

    In some respects, I think you could say that Al ran his cabinet shop in a way that managed to make money. Kudos to him. But that is a pretty lightweight way to determine if he was managing it successfully. Not a single person who worked for him ever parted on good terms, nor do I believe the majority of his clients feel like they had been treated fairly. He rarely had repeat customers. Again, acknowledging that I am no business maven, from my point of view, customers who come back again, (and again- I have one client who has commissioned north of one hundred pieces. Am I proud of that? Inordinately, and very grateful,) are the best sign of a successful business. He showed no loyalty to his clients, and in turn, they felt none towards him. Big mistake.

    Rule # 1: DO ANYTHING FOR YOUR CLIENTS

    He was serially dishonest to his clients. Some of the time they were outright untruths. Often they were what might be referred to as an onerous white lie. He would tell them he would deliver a piece by a certain time and not even come within years. One time while he was out, I answered the phone- we were supposed to also be secretaries when he was not in- and the following conversation ensued:

    “Hello. Al’s cabinet shop.”

    “Hi, this is Mrs. Jensen. Do you know if my table is ready?”

    “I am sorry, Mrs. Jensen. We are not working on any tables just now, what does it look like?”

    “It is made of black walnut with tapered legs.”

    “Could you hold on just a second. I will go out in the shop and take a look”.

    (I asked my coworkers. One of them trotted up to the loft to a table covered in dust that had been there, apparently, for many years.)

    “We found it, Mrs. Jensen. But no one can remember ever seeing it being worked on”.

    “Hrrrrrrmph. He promised it to me by Thanksgiving.”

    “Ma’am, it is only June.”

    “Six years ago!!”

    When he got back a little later,

    I told Al “ That a Mrs. Jensen had called.”

    He panicked and asked, “Did you tell her that we were working on her table?”

    “Why would I tell her that? We are not.”

    “You should have lied to her.”

    “You pay me $2.45 an hour. I pray that I never sell my soul to the Devil, but I sure am not going to do it for that.”

    Rule # 2: NEVER LIE TO YOUR CLIENTS

    In 43 years I have never once delivered a commission late. It is so easy to do and I KNOW my clients feel respected. They tell me so.

    Al also had another curious business practice: he often padded the charges to his best clients. His rationale was that they were rich, so they could afford it. Several people over the years have suggested I charge my wealthier clients much heftier fees. Really? Where is the decency or logic in that?  I have sometimes gifted them something extra so that they know how much I appreciate their support of my work.

    Rules #3 & 4: NEVER “PAD” CHARGES ON TO YOUR CLIENTS. AND NEVER TREAT YOUR BEST CLIENTS AS ANYTHING BUT YOUR BEST CLIENTS

    In yet another shining example of Al’s business acumen, he made it a practice to pick petty fights with his employees after they had been with him for a while. He confessed that in that way he could get them to quit and hire new guys for a few dollars less. Unbelievable. Just when people have gotten some real experience and are more valuable to you, you run them out in an attempt to save a few pennies. 

    Rule # 5: DO MORE FOR YOUR EMPLOYEES AS THEY GET MORE KNOWLEDGEABLE AND MORE VESTED IN YOUR WORK

    Be loyal and grateful to them, and prove it to them financially. You will all win.

    You would think it would be child’s play to master the decidedly uncomplex notion of running a business on the very reduced scale of a small furniture studio. Anyone certainly can, but you have to see it as important. My incentive? Not running it well means I am ultimately not going to be able to keep my studio open, and I will not be able to do the work I love so much. So, thanks, Al. I owe you one.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized
  • 03 Nov

    A Little Foolishness

    Woodworking is and needs to be a huge dollop of focus and seriousness, at least whenever the machines are on. But there have been a few light moments along the way. You might think we are a pretty droll lot, but you would have another think coming.

    For me, the shenanigans started pretty much from the beginning. A few days after I turned twenty, I  started apprenticing at a Seattle cabinetmaker’s shop. I hopped on my bicycle one morning and peddled into work. My boss was a…..well, …..let’s just say he is going to get more ink in the next few paragraphs than he’d probably like.  (I should say, probably would have liked, he has passed on to the great tool shed in the sky.) I‘ll call him Al here because that was his name. He was kind of a fussy, nervous guy. And he was also kind of a, I believe the word is parsimonious, fellow. He was always scurrying around the shop complaining about not making enough money. I know it was not because of me and my three fellow shopmates because he paid us $2.45 an hour. Yes, you read that right. The minimum wage at the time was actually an astronomical $2.75 an hour, but that did not appear to keep him up at night. 

    On this one particular morning, I was squeezing in sideways through the ever-present boondoggle of unfinished projects that choked off the shop. Al, it turns out, really liked getting paid by his customers, but it seemed he felt no real compunction to actually deliver any of the work. As  I was trying to avoid crashing into any of the pieces in the shop, one of my co-workers, I will call him Reed, (yes, that is his real name- what did you think, this is the FBI?), scurried up and bumped me off balance and I fell against an expensive teak veneering job. He started laughing and saying, “you broke it, you broke it”. I, simpleton that I am, started worrying that I would never be able to repay the boss for my mistake, not on what I was earning. The panic must have shown on my face, but my new best friend, Reed, gathered me into a conspiratorial conference and offered to set the piece gently back in place and to trick Al into knocking into it. It worked far too easily. Reed called the Boss out into the shop, ran up to him and Al was knocked off balance, and became much chagrined when he saw that he had busted that expensive piece. He stalked off back to his office muttering about how much money it was going to cost him and I hugged Reed and felt like he was my new best friend. Later that afternoon he confessed that he had come in the night before to pick something up and broken the teak. I was feeling less chummy after that.

    Another lighthearted maneuver that the boys like to inflict on any newcomer involved glue. We used a lot of a glue back then which, if my memory serves me, was called Urac 185. It was a two-part glue that when mixed properly had the consistency of a milkshake and the color of caramel. One morning when I came into work, I headed over to my workbench, eager to review my progress from the night before on a nice little mahogany coffee table. And there, sitting right in the middle of it, was a nice 6 or 7-inch puddle of caramel-colored Urac 185 hardened to its usual indestructible best. I just stared at it in horror for what seemed like an eternity, until I noticed the guys were all snickering. Then one of them silently walked over and simply picked the glue patch off of the table, as if it were one of those rubbery fake vomit gags, and said, “Welcome to the monkey house”. I couldn’t wait until Al hired a new guy so that I would not have to be the reigning cretin.

    To add to Al’s list of redeeming qualities, while he was frittering around the shop and getting worked up, he often got tangled in a web of his words. I don’t mean lying, which he also did plenty. I mean just confusing them. (If it seems like I am being disloyal and unfair to him, read a future blog called He Taught Me Everything I Don’t Know- and you will see how lightly I am actually treading here. Really).

    One day Al came back from delivering a job, and whenever he got paid he was in a capital mood. For some reason, he wandered over to my bench in a talkative mood and seemed determined to detail his exploits at dinner the night before. I did whatever any chattel does when his boss speaks, I stared back absolutely rapt with attention. It seems the night before he and his wife, Barbara, had gone out to a pretty nice French restaurant in Seattle called the Brasserie Pittsbourg. Al was really getting into his story, and he said to me, “ Gawrsh. (Al always said gawrsh when he got excited). Gawrsh, Jonathan we went to the Pittsburgh brassiere last night”. I looked up to see if he was in earnest, having just mixed up a kind of French restaurant with a woman’s supportive garment, but he was just motoring on. He got more excited and told me that he was really happy because their friend had offered to pay for the wine and they had chosen a nice “Zindafel.” (that’s not a typo- that’s what he called it). But the real piece de resistance, (that’s not a typo either, and while it may seem a bit presumptuous to use a French term- you can clearly see the suitability of it here), was when he marveled at the news from the night before.

    “Gawrsh, Jonathan, you wouldn’t believe what happened later. Barbara ran into some of her old sorority sisters, and gawrsh if it didn’t seem like they were all having maserectomies”.

    My lemonade came squirting out my nose and I choked on the sandwich I was eating. He looked at me suspiciously and I knew I was heading for a place I might regret. But when he asked me what was so gawrsh darn funny, a cooler head was not mine for the asking, and I replied, “I am sorry, Al. it’s just you are the only guy I know who can make a breast operation sound like an Italian sports car.”

    To this day I do not know why he didn’t fire me on the spot. Later it turned out the whole shop had been listening in and I became a little folk hero for a day or two.

    By Jonathan Cohen Uncategorized