Dealing with a backlog
Matt Buell Kingpin sideboard

Quality custom furniture, like this sideboard by Matt Buell, takes time to make, but if your customers have to wait too long, it could cause problems for your business.

When I first got into woodworking, the thought of being backlogged with work sounded like a problem I really wanted to have one day. I even romanticized the notion of being so backlogged that I had to tell my clients I was a year out, thinking it would make them associate me with desirable high-quality work. 

But being that booked up is actually not wishful thinking. It has happened, but people finding it alluring to wait that long is not so many. 

After being a professional for over 12 years and running my own solo shop, I have learned to be careful what I wish for. That’s not to say being backlogged is a bad thing in totality, but it can be. I’m writing about it, since we are all hoping and optimistically assuming you young pros will have long, successful careers, and a backlog it will inevitably be a reality at some point.

Find your sweet spot
Ultimately, it’s about finding your sweet spot. That sweet spot differs for everybody depending on what kind of products you make, your staff, and capabilities. You need to find that balance between knowing there’s work coming in with more in front of you as opposed to being so behind that you’re always trying to climb out of a never-ending hole. I assure you there is a major difference between the two.

In my career, I have experienced both. For me that sweet spot is running about 3 to 5 months back. Anything more than that puts me in a troubling place financially and causes way too much stress. I also have learned over time that this stress can severely affect my ability to be the father, husband, friend, and man that I need to be in the other important aspects of my life. 

Therefore, the value of staying in balance with my “sweet spot” regarding backlog has significant value beyond just monetary (that’s obviously important and necessary, too, though).

Setting a maximum
I determined that five months is the maximum backlog I want because that is a reasonable amount of time for a client to wait for high-end custom furniture. It is also a reasonable enough my time for me to make it in a way that’s not rushed while allowing me to work on multiple pieces at once.

I typically build larger pieces and they take time. The downside to that is if they take more time than my determined sweet spot, the deposit money can run out making me take on extra work to float while finishing pieces that are late. In other words, adding more fuel (stress/workload) to the already raging fire of being behind in the work schedule. 

It is a difficult hole to work out of and typically not the best state of mind to be in while trying to produce quality work and run dangerous machines. This is exactly the scenario that leads to burnout and people leaving the profession (when it’s not for lack of work).

Finding a way out
Many of the methods to prevent this we have already covered collectively over the last year in my monthly articles about taking care of your well-being, understanding your process, long term goal setting, and equipment to go faster. Many of the solutions to alleviate this when it happens we have also covered as well such as client relations, shutting down for retooling, and knowing when to get some help. 

For me, the quickest way out of being too far backlogged (it can happen no matter how well you try to prevent it) is going for all of the above. I call it “the all hands-on deck scenario.” Here are three key tactics:

  • First, take your client relations up a notch. Go above and beyond to maintain communication with the client and offer some discounts or courtesy gifts to thank them for their patience. 
  • Second, upgrading tooling by any means to help you get caught up faster, and take out small business loans if needed. 
  • Third, get some more qualified hands in to help. It can even be temporary help that you subcontract. The key to the last one is to make sure it is help that can impact timeline immediately. You do not have time to train someone with no experience when you’re running that behind schedule. In my experience, if backlog gets this bad, you can’t afford to not be aggressive in going “all hands on deck.”

Effect on clients
Another reason I recommend you find your backlog sweet spot has a lot to do with one of the topics we’ve already covered — client relations. As helpful as word-of-mouth is in building a business, it can also be detrimental. It’s not good to be known as somebody who is always late with work past due dates. 

Clients get frustrated when their stuff gets continually pushed. Even the most patient of clients does have a breaking point in my experience. Also, people tend to not contract work when the lead times are more than six months. 

In today’s competitive market with furniture, being imported all over the world, they will typically just go looking elsewhere instead of waiting. It’s a delicate dance. Most importantly, the quality of the workpiece when delivered should be above standard and beyond reproach. Honor the client’s patience with something that is so good they feel the wait was worth it.

These factors are why I’m recommending you put some serious thought into this now as a young wood pro. What does this potentially look like for you? What kind of lead times and backlog can you realistically handle? You have to do this in order to come up with a sweet spot in backlog that works for you, not against you.

#YoungWoodPro is a contest and an educational program sponsored by Grizzly Industrial to help novice professionals improve their skills in business and woodworking. Watch for the call for entries for the 2024 contest coming in January.

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About the author
Matt Buell | President/Owner/C-Level

Matt Buell of M. Buell Studio the host of the 2023 #YoungWoodPro contest and lead coach for the people who make up the YoungWoodPro audience. Buell has achieved national acclaim for his custom furniture and was honored as a member of the Woodworking Network 40 Under 40 Class of 2018.