In terms of value, and cost, and price, and how you make things, and how does that all come into figuring out what you should charge a client for making a chair, it’s an impossible equation to create, to figure out how much to charge for something as you’re starting out. Basically, there are certain rules that your materials should be a certain percentage, your labor should be a certain percentage, or you could just double your materials, and that should come out right. But for chair making, the materials cost is so low relative to your labor cost that those formulas don’t really apply. What does apply to understanding what’s a fair price for your greenwood chair is the same as what makes a fair price for anything that you sell. And that is based on a clear understanding of what value you’re really creating in the process of making your chair or other piece of furniture.
The key is really in being able to sell pieces successfully. The key isn’t pricing it right or building it efficiently. The key is in creating a value that is desired by the public. That starts off with inspired design, which is based on a really sound mastery of construction. Starting out, everything is tough, and if you are in a position where you have an income or financial support that doesn’t require that you make a big profit on your chairs, you’re fortunate. In fact, that may be a requirement for getting into this, because you’ve got to get to a point to where you’re fluid enough with production and understanding the process so that you can make a chair.
A greenwood two slat chair should be a 10-hour process, at most a 15-hour process total, log to finish. That’s what I was doing before I got any electrical tools, but what that’s worth has nothing to do with how long it took to make it or what it’s made of. You can spend $200 on a piece, make it out of walnut, and maybe it’s not worth $20 because of the design.
Design is really key. What are you bringing to the furniture world with this? What’s important about what you’re doing? The tradition of greenwood chair making is a beautiful tradition. It’s proven that the frames can last for a long time, but that’s not enough to generate a value that will support the time that you put into it. Creating enough value to make it worth your time to generate those chairs requires a mastery level of both design and process for making it that can move you through from log to finished piece fluidly enough that what you’ve invested in that is less than what your clients are willing to invest in it. Otherwise, there’s no margin. That’s just a tricky thing.
An example is, we have tried many times to design and build chairs for a price that’s less than the standard three slat ladderback that I’ve been making for decades. A recent time that we tried that was in our last shop. I think it was about six years ago that I redesigned the greenwood chair, simplified it, and allowed for a more rustic finish, thinking that we could sell them for significantly less money. We came up with a price of $850, when our three slat ladderback was selling for I think $1,500, so just a little above half price. We sold a few right away, but basically, sales flattened out and disappeared. It was a very good chair. They’ll last for just about forever. But it didn’t have the pizazz or fit the interiors of our clients as well as what we call our classic ladderback.
Regardless of what we think we need to sell for something, it doesn’t mean that we have created a value that justifies the production of a thing. You’ll just have to experiment with design & process. Get to know your clients, and find out what’s going to be a fit between the materials you have to work with, the limitations of the infrastructure of your shop, and the creativity of your designs. That’s all got to be spun with a little magic to create a value that will support your craftsmanship.