Handling challenging work
Matt Buell in shop

Matt Buell says that professional woodworking always comes with challenges, and Young Wood Pros need to be ready to face those challenges.

As Mike Tyson once said, “Everybody’s got a plan until they get punched in the face.” As with any profession, young woodworking professionals face challenges that may arise and often unexpectedly. Rest assured, Young Wood Pros, if you haven’t had a challenging job yet, it is very likely that eventually you will. 

In my years of experience, challenging projects always seem to show up at the worst times. I want to talk a little bit about that experience in an effort to help you be more prepared for when it happens to you.

Challenging people
The challenging job can come in any number of ways and forms. Part of our job is working with people, and when you’re dealing with people, all kinds of variables come in to play. Clients can sometimes be difficult, and suppliers can be as well. I highly recommend you always get outside perspective from other people on ways to go about dealing with problems regarding personalities and people. Be open to their perspective. 

Challenging materials
Another big source of challenging jobs is the actual work itself. As most of you know, wood, as a material is not the most forgiving. It warps, it moves, and it cracks. It can react like a moody toddler to changes in temperatures and humidity. 

Also, the challenges of working with this material can vary from different types of species. Some species of wood are more prone to chip out/being more rigid, making some species very difficult to work with. Some species have different density than others, affecting the weight when lifting over and over. It can also affect the wear and tear on your blades and sandpaper. The possibilities for unexpected challenges are endless with wood as a material.

No matter how good you are, Wood is a material that will certainly keep you humble. I can recall times I did everything perfectly by the book within the construct of traditional methodology, and still, I have had boards or workpieces react in unexpected ways.

Challenging projects
There have also been times where I underestimated the volume of a job where the time and energy required to do it was more than I bargained for. That being said, I’ve always gotten the job done. In the words of the philosopher and Roman emperor, Marcus Aurelius, “The obstacle is the way.” 

I take this to mean that sometimes the hardest thing sitting in front of me, blocking me from succeeding is exactly the path I have to go through without any quick remedy or sidestep to avoid it. In our line of work this can happen. A situation where we have no choice but to grind it out, doing it the long hard way to get the job done. I’ll give you an example.

Facing the challenge
I recently completed a job that was extremely challenging on several fronts. I was commissioned to build a 9’ x 5’ dining table with a sculpted base, matching buffet, and a set of 12 chairs. Even though I knew the volume of the work was going to be large, I still underestimated it. 

That being said, the buffet and the dining table really weren’t that hard to get done by myself (although I do not recommend sculpting rock maple, it was not pleasant). About 90% of the build was made from rock maple, and as I’ve aged, it seems that species has gotten even heavier to lift over and over (take care of your back Young Wood Pros!). 

The other portion of the build was accents in Brazilian rosewood. The biggest challenge in the job happened halfway through the chairs. They were to be sculpted solid 4-foot-tall, curved backs of solid rock maple. After milling up and preparing a lot of the lumber, I realized quickly that the weight of these chairs would’ve been insane. Initially, the client insisted on Rock maple, and I am aware of the density, but still underestimated how heavy it became in totality. 

This meant a design change was necessary for the chairs to be functional and usable. With a design change, my contract states that I can change the price, but seeing some of the reason for the change fell on my failure to foresee this problem when writing an initial contract, I did not pursue that avenue.

Being accountable
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, being good for our word also means being accountable; that is part of running an honest business. I failed to estimate the weight, so I also had to be accountable for that mistake. I practice what I preach. I simply contacted the client and let them know that it was necessary to change course, but they insisted on keeping the original design, so I had to come up with a different way to build it in mid-build. I accepted the challenge. 

My best course of action was to make handmade veneers of rock maple, and then bend the laminated pieces on curved framework for the seatbacks and front legs. The workload on these chairs tripled. It has been a while since I’ve been tested with a challenge like this under time constraints. 

This was a great example of the obstacle being the path. In my experience as a woodworking professional there are times where the work in front of you will test what you’re made of. These are great opportunities to find out how much grit you’ve got, and how bad you want to be in business. 

Relish the challenge
I will admit, I do love the challenge of building something difficult under pressure. You can be very good at your craft and still have a job that’s hard. That is part of always striving to be better. It’s important to see these challenging jobs as a way to learn and improve. Sometimes we have to hunker down, taking on the long hard hours, and push through. 

The key is to take with you the good lessons from the challenge and learn from it so as not to make the mistake again. If that’s not something you’re willing to do, I do recommend you question your intentions in pursuing this career, because the time will come where you will get to find out. 

#YoungWoodPro is a contest and an educational program sponsored by Grizzly Industrial to help novice professionals improve their skills in business and woodworking. Entries are now open, but the deadline is March 8, and you can enter online.

Young Wood Pro-Grizzly logo



Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.

Profile picture for user mattbuell
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.