For years, vocational classes like woodshop have been fading from the Junior and Senior High School academic landscape, edged out by budget cuts and a perceived lack of interest. When that is coupled with consumer trends in purchasing mass produced pieces from large retailers, it is easy to begin to imagine woodworking becoming a thing of the past. But don’t count it out just yet. If anyone thinks that woodworking is a dying craft, someone better tell that to the thriving new breed of young craftsmen, and young craftswomen for that matter.
This fearless new breed of wood crafters is on the scene and ready to take on the world. They come from all walks of life and for a multitude of varied reasons, bring a youthful confidence and vibrancy to the trade that refreshes and inspires even veteran woodworkers.
Brandon Bailes is one of the new crop of dedicated craftsmen out there. At 19 he already owns his own furniture-making business, Natural Expressions Inc., and is living his dream of woodworking. With such early success it is easy to assume there was a major business plan in place. While maybe not a formal one, Brandon did have a plan. “I got started in woodworking because of bike riding. I used to ride freestyle BMX and didn’t have any skate parks by my home, so I built my own ramps.” Brandon continues, “I started to watch Norm Abrams on the Home and Garden Channel in hopes he would build a bike ramp so I could see how he would bend the plywood for the top of the ramp. Mr. Abrams’ show “The New Yankee Workshop” was on twice a day during the week at 5:30 and 6:00 a.m. I was able to watch both episodes and still, just barely, get to the bus stop on time.” While he never saw Mr. Abrams make the skate ramp, he did see him make countless pieces of furniture reproductions. Further inspired, Brandon decided to give furniture making a shot. “I didn’t have many tools at the time, just a set of 18-volt Dewalt tools I got for my 8th grade graduation and a miter saw that my dad had bought me. That’s not what you need to build furniture, but I tried anyway. I started making jewelry boxes and small stools for around the house. I was terrible at it and it frustrated me, so I kept on trying.” While still in High School, it was difficult to spend the amount of time he wanted on his woodworking, but he continued to hone his skills, learning as much as he could about the craft and tools from every available resource. “Most of what I learned was from trial and error. It was slow, but looking back on it, that was probably the best way.” After his father bought subscriptions to a few woodworking magazines, Brandon would immerse himself in the projects described in them, improving his skills.
“I also started reading the articles about the new and best power tools. I developed a love of buying tools. I didn’t know how to use them yet, but I knew that the articles made them sound good. I wanted the ones that looked cool, had the most power and best reputations.” One thing that is the same no matter the age of the woodworker: the love of quality tools. Which tools to invest in is a big consideration for any woodworker, especially when you are buying one to last your career before you are even 20. “The first tool I bought from Laguna was their LT16 HD bandsaw. I bought it because it was built with tight tolerances, the blade tracked well, it had a big resaw capacity and was build to last. The resawing was important to me because I liked to do bent lamination. I bought it when I was a junior in high school and knew that I would be using it for a very long time, and it looked like it was built to last.” Bailes continues, “When I got it, I was very impressed and it became my pride and joy of all my woodworking tools. After I worked with it, I wanted all my tools to come from Laguna.”
Unfettered by many of the concerns of later in life woodworkers, the new generation approaches the typical problems with an entrepreneurial mind. When faced with a lack in skills set or improper tools, they press on and make a way. Though not held back by all of the financial considerations of older woodworkers, still cash flow is an issue. After all, most teens finance movies, not expensive equipment. Brandon approached the problem by using one skill to support another. “I had started a juggling business with a friend when I was in middle school. It was called Brand-Mark Juggling, and we would do a lot of shows for business parties, at the Brookfield Zoo, and the pregame and half-time shows for the Chicago Bulls basketball team. All the money that I made juggling went to my tool buying habit. Juggling alone didn’t support my habit, so my dad helped me out a lot.” By the end of his sophomore year in high school, he was making and selling custom cabinets and furniture. “After about a year of just messing with small projects, collecting tools, and slowly taking over my mom’s garage, I was put in touch with an interior designer named June White. She owned a company called Lifestyle Interiors and decorated high-end homes. She was the first person that gave me an opportunity to build furniture and make money doing it.” says Bailes. Even after getting his business up and running, Brandon continued to perfect his skills and went on to attend Ohio’s Rio Grande University. “The professor, Eric Matson, does some of the most beautiful woodworking I have ever seen,” Bailes reflects. Owning and running a business at 19 is not without its challenges. “I find a lot of people are surprised by my age and it isn’t always a good thing. I can’t just build good furniture; it has to be the best. 90% of the time my work speaks for itself. The only advertisement I have is word of mouth. I have never had an unsatisfied client. But if someone has not personally seen my work and does not know anyone that I have worked for in the past, they are hesitant to hand over a deposit check to a 19-year-old kid.” On the business end, Dad also chips in on the business end and lends support.
There is no question a woodworking business can succeed in Brandon’s mind. The only question is if it is right for you. “I would tell other young people who want to start woodworking this: before you invest time and money into getting started pray about it for a while. It is not an easy way to make a living, and 50 you have to truly have a passion for it. If you decide that it is the line of work you want to get into, be ready to put in some long hours.” When asked about his natural talent, Brandon replies, “One misconception people have about woodworking is that it is a talent, but I definitely would say it is not. The only talent someone would have to have is patience. If you have patience and a desire to be the best at it you will go far.” The indomitable spirit of youth shines through as he credits his skills more to determination than to natural ability. “And don’t limit yourself to building everything the way that someone else showed you; learn about wood movement, moisture, joinery, design, scaling and dimensioning. Learn the safe way of working with your tools, and then build your furniture your way.” It is impossible to miss his passion for the craft, and more impossible to walk away without feeling that all things are possible. “Woodworking is one of the most popular hobbies in America, and there are several hundred thousand cabinet makers in the United States alone. None of them are going to build the same way. When you find a way that works well for you, then get good at it and your own style will start to appear. A businessman would call that thinking outside the box, Taco Bell would say that’s thinking outside the bun, and I call it thinking beyond the bark.”
To those starting out, Brandon offers some wisdom beyond his age. “I would tell someone starting that they need to always build what they build the best they can. All of their business will be generated by word of mouth, so be honest with your business, build everything to last, and do it as fast as possible. If you do well on a job three more jobs should come from it. On the other side of the spectrum don’t be afraid to turn down work that you think would be difficult for you to do. If you have only one unsatisfied client, it could lead to you losing a lot of business. When you start working, invest in good tools, you will pay more up front, but you will save money in the long run. Make sure you have an accurate way of bidding on a project and leave room for mistakes. A few bad bids and you could be in danger of loosing your business. Get your clients to sign off on all your drawings, color samples, and make sure you get enough money up front to cover all your expenses. And make sure you enjoy what you are doing; if you don’t, your work will reflect it.” Perhaps the greatest lesson we can learn from the new breed of young woodcrafters is that if we are in love with the process and have an open and creative approach, success will follow. Every crafts-person has more tools at his/her disposal than he/she may realize. Maybe it is time to think “beyond the bark.”