Rise of the solo shop
October 15, 2009 | 7:00 pm CDT

It used to be that much of the woodworking industry looked down their noses at the solo shop. "Oh, he's just a one-man shop," they'd say, with ample doses of dismissal in their voice. The comment would suggest all manner of images including third-rate equipment, cut-rate work and plenty of price undercutting to go with a general lack of business sophistication.

Some of those derisive comments still occur, but today's solo shop owners are a different breed. They increasingly are made up of men and women who are just as dedicated to professionalism as larger shops. These aren't the folks who drive down to Sears, pick up a cheap table saw and declare they are a cabinet shop. Some of them may have bigger and more sophisticated machinery than shops many times their size.

In the past, we've profiled a variety of one-person operations in these pages, and there are more in this issue. We've covered several operations that consisted of little more than a CNC machine and a solo operator cranking out work and money. Diligent solo shop owners are often able to out-produce industry productivity standards of sales per worker. They frequently have better attention to detail and quality control. Because customers deal directly with the owner, there aren't the communications problems that plague more complex relationships in larger shops.

But there are huge challenges to going it alone. You can't be in two places at once, and sometimes one person just doesn't have enough muscle. Try installing a granite countertop by yourself. Unless you've got a CNC machine humming along, production has to stop while you take care of sales or business administration. And if you are sick or disabled, chances are even a CNC can't save your production schedule. All of which accounts for why so many solo shops have such trouble delivering on time.

What a lot of solo shop owners never learn is how to capitalize on their advantages and minimize their disadvantages. Honest scheduling is crucial. Learn how long it really takes for you to complete a task, and set job completion dates based on that reality instead of some fantasy best-case-scenario that none of us has ever experienced in our lifetimes or likely will. Optimism is not good for cash flow.

Let equipment substitute for your labor whenever possible. After all there are only so many hours in the day that you can work. Likewise, consider what would be better done by someone else. Do you really have to make all the doors and drawers yourself? Don't waste time picking up supplies when they can be delivered.

Successful solo shop owners have to work smart to succeed. But if they think first and work second, they're likely to continue to be a profitable and productive part of this industry, worthy of more respect and deserving of their share of financial rewards.

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About the author
William Sampson

William Sampson is a lifelong woodworker, and he has been an advocate for small-scale entrepreneurs and lean manufacturing since the 1980s. He was the editor of Fine Woodworking magazine in the early 1990s and founded WoodshopBusiness magazine, which he eventually sold and merged with CabinetMaker magazine. He helped found the Cabinet Makers Association in 1998 and was its first executive director. Today, as editorial director of Woodworking Network and FDMC magazine he has more than 20 years experience covering the professional woodworking industry. His popular "In the Shop" tool reviews and videos appear monthly in FDMC.