How to start a career in furniture making

An interview with:
Helen Welch

Founder - The London School of Furniture Making

Name: Helen Welch
Age: 54

Current Job title: Head Instructor and Administrator (Chief Cook and Bottle Washer)
Company name:  London School of Furniture Making

Website: https://www.furnitureschool.co.uk/p/blog-page.html

Instagram: @the_london_furniture_school

Creative Sector: Woodworking / Furniture making / Adult Education

Courses Studied/Qualifications:
City & Guilds – Carpentry & Joinery
• HNC – Building Studies
• BSC – Music Technology
• City and Guilds – 7306 Teaching Certificate
• NVQ 1 – Forestry

Years working in the industry: 36

Helen Welch at The London School or Furniture Making in Tottenham 
Helen Welch at The London School or Furniture Making in Tottenham 

Helen founded The London School of Furniture Making in 2013 after a 30 year career making commissioned pieces for a wide variety of clients.

Based in a shared workshop with sixteen cabinet making companies, the school itself comprises of four benches which allows Helen and her fellow instructor, Sam Brown, to give each student an in depth and personalised education into the art of making.

Courses are aimed primarily at amateur makers looking to learn core skills or sign up to a short course to build a piece of furniture to call their own. 

Students can also pay a daily fee to come in and use the facilities, as well as pick Helen’s brains.

The Education Journey of a Furniture Maker:

Where did you grow up and how would you describe your school and college life?

I grew up in Islington London when it was still rough and long before it got its first Waitrose.

I liked school for the most part and did well in most of my subjects up until I was 16. I left school in the middle of my second year of A levels because I was struggling, bored and no one there was paying me much attention.

The first year or two at City & Guilds College studying Carpentry & Joinery was a baffling mix of mind-expanding learning coupled with trying to work out why young (and some older) men are so idiotic – My class was full of young men whose sole interest was to act up and talk over the lecturer. After that I just got on with it, made some friends and worked hard. From 1985 to 1991 I was in full-time work and part-time education which was paid for by my employers. 

Did you know what you wanted to do from a young age or was it a gradual journey?

Neither, it just happened. A chance meeting with some people offering free joinery training at a careers fair started my career and the rest of it has been going with the flow and sometimes making a conscious voice about my next move.

How did you get into furniture making?

I was always a bit jealous of one of my fellow carpentry students who announced he was leaving and going off to study furniture making. Right then I knew that was what I wanted to do, but as I had just started a carpentry and joinery apprenticeship it didn’t occur to me that I could change tracks. So, I stuck with carpentry which segued into a professional but short-lived career in building construction. I would eventually decide to give it all up so that I could study musical instrument making at degree level. I came away with some very refined skills but nowhere to use them, so I fell back on my carpentry skills and drifted into self-employment.

For those of us from different creative fields (or none), could you explain the differences between carpentry, furniture making and cabinet making?

  • Cabinet makers make cabinets including kitchen units, built-ins etc.
  • Furniture makers make all kinds of furniture including tables, chairs from solid timber and other materials.
  • Joiners make windows, doors, stairs etc
  • Carpenters fit said components as well as creating the walls, floors and ceilings for them to go into (Usually working on site rather than in a workshop).

In practice there’s some crossover in the terms but they are distinct trades.

A George Nakashima conoid chair made by Helen Welch at The London School of Furniture Making
A George Nakashima conoid chair made by Helen Welch at The London School of Furniture Making

"I realised way too late that being a brand is far more important in securing this kind of work than just being a good maker"

Helen Welch

What were the first couple of years of self-employment like?

The first years were exciting, not because the work was very interesting but because I was learning to stand up for myself, earn my own money and show people what I could do. I also learnt that how people have a very odd attitude to paying for labour versus materials.

A lot of customers are only too happy to tell their friends how much it cost per meter to buy this expensive wallpaper or that flashy fabric but are horrified that they may be paying a tradesperson a living wage. This isn’t me just surmising either. I have had conversations with very well-off people who are disgusted that the day rate/labour rate for the work they want done is, in their mind, very high, and yet they want a professional job done by someone who can deliver on the brief.  I realised way too late that being a brand is far more important in securing this kind of work than just being a good maker.

Getting Started in the Furniture Making Industry:

What tools or set-up would you recommend investing in if you are just starting out in the furniture making industry?

I would suggest you decide which area you are going into. If it’s construction (carpentry) then you’ll invest the bulk of your money in the best portable power tools; if its cabinet making, then you’ll need a full workshop of fixed woodworking machines and some portable power tools for site. If its furniture making, you’ll need all the same as a cabinet maker but more hand-tools for working with solid timber.

How do you price your services as a junior cabinet maker or carpenter?

That’s a difficult question to answer, but if you took the annual cost of all your overheads (rent, vehicle, insurance, accounts fees etc) say: £25,000 + the cost of employing a professional maker say £25,000, and then add on 20% profit you come out at £60,000/year. Divide that by 52 weeks and you come out at around £230/day.

Do you have any self-promotion tips for a junior cabinet maker or carpenter?

Use Instagram as a low-cost way of getting yourself seen.

You currently share a workshop space in Tottenham with many other cabinet making businesses. In your opinion, what should you look for in a workshop space and what should you expect to pay for it?

Easy access, parking, and a fully equipped machine shop with a spray booth and all bills included. 
I’m currently paying £730/month for my space.

"The Talk is where I pour a metaphorical bucket of cold water over their heads to alert them to the realities of working as a professional furniture maker. I explain that the romantic idea of toiling away in your own peaceful idyllic workshop making beautiful furniture for an appreciative client base is baloney"

Helen Welch

What made you switch from commissioned work to teaching?

I really didn’t know how to run a business and like many people didn’t even consider that I was running a business. I was just doing it.

When I started to learn more, I understood that my business model such as it was didn’t work. When I was working out of my van my overheads were reasonably low, once I started to pay workshop rents my overheads were too high for the amount and kind of work, I was getting so I had to find a way to keep on a workshop. I had already done a lot of teaching for other schools and colleges, so it wasn’t difficult to change over. I didn’t expect it to be my full-time job, but it is, and I like students much more than customers.

You mention in your website bio that you are a tool collector hoarder. Do you have a few favourites and why?

Well, now you’re asking. One of my favourites is a two-hundred-year-old dovetail saw that beats the pants off most modern saws. It’s perfectly balanced and the handle has more flair than the saws that followed it. The other saws that have a big place in my heart are the ones that have been made specifically for me by Shane Skelton. I have a slim hand so there aren’t many off the shelf saws that fit; all of them are too big.

Shane’s saws are a mix of stunning design, perfect weight and immaculate execution. I complain that makers don’t earn much money for what they do, no matter how expensive it appears when you look at the price tag, so I put my cash where my mouth is and support makers like Shane to continue the excellent work that they do.

A two-hundred-year-old dovetail saw
A two-hundred-year-old dovetail saw specifically for Helen Welch by Shane Skelton

Can you tell us about The London School of Furniture and what a typical working week is like for you?

The weekend is usually spent doing admin, updating the website, ordering materials, researching stuff, updating the social media sites and planning classes. More recently I’ve been devoting more time to making videos to use as teaching aids during the class.

Monday to Friday is when the main bulk of the classes run, so I’ll be absorbed for the whole day giving formal practical instruction or helping the regulars with their projects during supervised access sessions. There’s usually an hour of admin a day which I squeeze in before or after class. One of the many things I have learned is to answer emails as quickly as possible as no one likes to be kept hanging.

What are the typical demographics of your students? Are there any other types of people you would like to see taking up carpentry and furniture making?

The average person coming to class is about 33. They’re usually white men with professional jobs. However, the school is still quite mixed in terms of age 16 up to 70+.

The male/female split is about 60/40. The BAME cohort is low considering where the school is situated and the ethnic make up of London. The reasons why are no doubt complicated and more about wider society than anything I am or am not doing in terms of how I choose to present the school on social media platforms and other media channels.

You mention in other interviews that you give students wanting to become professional makers ‘the talk’. Can you tell us what ‘the talk’ is and why you feel it is important to have it?

The Talk is where I pour a metaphorical bucket of cold water over their heads to alert them to the realities of working as a professional furniture maker. I explain that the romantic idea of toiling away in your own peaceful idyllic workshop making beautiful furniture for an appreciative client base is baloney. I tell them how much it costs just to have a workshop, how hard it is to get paid more than minimum wage especially if you’re self-employed, how that beautiful solid walnut desk you want to make will more than likely be some spray finished MDF alcove units, how customers do not give a flying f**k that you are a sensitive artist working hard to give them the best of yourself and your skills, how as a one man/woman band you probably can’t work fast enough to produce enough in any one week to start earning a comfortable living, how poverty will sap your enthusiasm and love of the craft if you let it.

Yes, I do paint a deliberately bleak picture because if someone only has a passing fancy, they shouldn’t put themselves through the mill; they should learn a great skill and keep it as a hobby or make stuff for friends and family. However, if someone has a clear understanding that the business of making furniture is hard, they will at least be able to plan how they go about finding solutions to the difficulties. I want people to succeed, not fall flat on their faces.

"If someone has a clear understanding that the business of making furniture is hard, they will at least be able to plan how they go about finding solutions to the difficulties. I want people to succeed, not fall flat on their faces"

Helen Welch

How do you think the industry has changed over the last 10 years?

There is a greater reliance on CNC and automated processes than ever before, which is great for the wider industry but also for the smaller maker. There are also more decorative manufactured boards to choose from so lots of scope for designers to make their mark.

Is there anything you feel needs to change in education or industry for your particular creative sector and why?

I think colleges and universities need to tell their intake about the reality of working in the industry. Tell them what skills companies are looking for and not just give them the rose-tinted version.

Advice for Woodworking Interns & Apprentices:

What do you think needs to change to allow younger, more diverse students to succeed in your industry?

Alongside the practical skills of making furniture, there needs to be a greater emphasis on how to run a business; not just the business plan but the real economics of how much it costs to be self-employed versus being an employee. How to make sure you have a credible identity for your business and how to grow your business. How to maximise your effort, where best to put and how to find a business partner and employees.

"Alongside the practical skills of making furniture, there needs to be a greater emphasis on how to run a business; not just the business plan but the real economics of how much it costs to be self-employed versus being an employee"

Helen Welch

What advice would you give to students who are currently seeking furniture making  internships or apprenticeships?

I would tell them that qualifications are only useful up to a point. Show a willingness to do work that isn’t very glamorous. Yes that fabulous table you designed and made while at college is impressive and demonstrates your skills but employers want to know that you’ll sand MDF for hours, be willing to fetch and carry, cart stuff on and off site, take instruction, not get in the way, can do what you’ve been asked to do, can work unsupervised and can think for yourself if problems arise.

What basic skills will juniors need to have and demonstrate in order to get a job in carpentry or furniture making?

The practical skills of machining, sketching with a pencil as well as on computer, and if they are planning to work for a company that makes built-in furniture the ability to fit the cabinets on site.

What do you wish you had known while studying?

Not much to be honest. My working life has been an ongoing exercise in learning new things. I was told very early on that the only way to make money is to be the person running the business not the person working at the bench. I chose to ignore that very good piece of advice.

What advice would you give to your younger self?

I would say Helen don’t do yourself a disservice by thinking too small. Find someone who can help you make the most of the skills you have while they take on the things you don’t know how or don’t have time to do properly.

How can we get more women and non-white people into the woodworking industry?

I’ve no idea, I just did my own thing and didn’t have a plan about where my life was going. I guess taking a wider view, women and BAME people don’t have the luxury of following careers that aren’t financially viable. When life for many of us feels uncertain and unaccepting it takes a strong character or a fool to flout that and go skipping down a path that has few financial rewards.

For more information about The London School of Furniture Making visit: 

Website: https://www.furnitureschool.co.uk/p/blog-page.html

Instagram: @the_london_furniture_school

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