Paying $75/hr for a bespoke carpenter in NYC for a very sentimental log
March 19, 2015 10:20 AM   Subscribe

We have a piece of a tree that shut down 5th Avenue when it fell. A byproduct is that it shut my grandmother's street on the day that she died. We have a carpenter to turn the log into coffee tables, but I'm wondering at the price he's quoted. $75/hr is a good deal? More info (and the beautiful story of my grandmother's death) inside.


It was early 2010, and only ten days since my grandmother, Ilse Nelson, had been diagnosed with terminal bone cancer.

"Omi" (as we called her, it's German for grandmother) had previously gotten cancer and broken her hip at 89, both of which the doctors said would be the end of her. It wasn't – indeed, she ended up being stronger afterwards than before. At 95 she was still playing golf and driving, the latter of which she stopped doing when the whole family pleaded with her to get taxis instead.

Anyway, Omi was 96 when she was diagnosed with bone cancer. She decided not to fight, and 10 days later she died in her own bed, holding her daughter's (my mother's) hand, listening to classical music.

That night, a massive tree fell in Central Park, closing down 5th avenue. It was one of the park's biggest, oldest trees, and it had died of internal diseases, just like my grandmother. Our street was one-way towards the park, just above where the tree had fallen, so the NYPD shut our street down too. The next morning I sat on the asphalt, marvelling at the peace around me. It felt like the whole street was in mourning. I, for one, was crying, uninterrupted by traffic.

Everyone who was in my grandmother's house went to go see the tree in the road. It's quite a sight to see 5th without taxis or busses thundering down it. I paid my respects to the tree a few minutes before tree surgeons began the process of chainsawing it into pieces.

The tree was quarantined, something to do with the disease it had died from. They refused to give us any of it apart from a small sliver of bark.

So, that night a friend turned up at 2:30 a.m. with his pregnant wife in the passenger seat and a dolly in the back. We took the smallest piece we could, which was still gigantic, wheeled it with huge effort along the road, up onto the pavement, down the steps to my grandmother's front door, through the house and into the back yard.

When we sold Omi's place, we transferred the log into a UHaul storage facility, where it has been ever since.

Now, we're looking to turn it into something that befits her. I initially wanted a liquor cabinet (drinkers out there will be happy to know that she drank at least 1/2 bottle of wine a day, plus vodka and/or sake, right up until she died), but we've decided to split the piece into 2 to 6 coffee tables, depending on how much wood is useable (hopefully there'll be a table for each of her two daughters and four grandchildren).


I've found a carpenter who says he can get the log milled for $250, kilned for $450, and then make the tables, which he says he's going to charge $75/hr for. He's estimating $1,700 for two coffee tables.

Checking out Custom Made, his was the only work I liked from people actually IN New York City, and he also happens to be a friend-of-a-friend. In other words, I'd quite like to go with him.

But, I'd like to know if the price sounds reasonable. I don't want to go cheap, I'm just looking for a ballpark figure. Should I negotiate a lower price?
posted by omnigut to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
I have a friend in NYC who does this kind of woodwork and charges $50-$100 per hour based on the difficulty of the work. The estimate of number of hours for the work seems low to me (and him): $1000/$75 = ~13 hours. I think you're looking at more like 20 hours. Then again, maybe this woodworker is faster than my friend.
posted by Pineapplicious at 10:27 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Is he going to try to make 6 tables? Or just two? You will get more tables if he just uses the log wood for the tops and buys wood for the frame and legs. Ask him if he can do that. His prices sound reasonable to me given the work involved.
posted by mareli at 10:30 AM on March 19, 2015 [2 favorites]

I am an electrical contractor. I live in Florida now, but used to live in Brooklyn.
$75/hr for a skilled carpenter to specialized work sounds very fair to me.
posted by Flood at 10:30 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

If you want to separate the parts, you can get price quotes for milling and kilning, then ask around to see if the resulting wood would take 13-14 hours to produce into two custom coffee tables. But if his work is the only you like, it might well be a moot point on that end, because going with another shop might result in a product you don't like.

Also, do you have any designs in mind? Can you share details, or the design itself, so MeFites can gauge the possible time to create those pieces? And it's great to like the carpenter's work, but if you want something simple (or complex), he might not be the right person for the job.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:31 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Best answer: By my midwestern standards the milling and kiln-drying fees seem very steep, but even though this is a big piece of wood to be lifting by hand or carrying in your urban commuter vehicle, it represents a very small amount of lumber and you're facing serious inefficiencies of scale.

The $75/per hour for the construction of the tables seems perfectly reasonable. This is skilled labor and requires special equipment and facilities. What does your auto mechanic charge?

That aside, I want to caution you that you'll be getting very rustic furniture out of that piece. A log left whole like that and left to dry for years will be riddled with cracks.
posted by jon1270 at 10:32 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

Response by poster: Good point – here's the kind of thing we're looking for. Simple, a slice through the log, then either on wood or (more likely) metal legs. If wooden legs, they don't need to be made from the log's wood.
posted by omnigut at 10:39 AM on March 19, 2015

Are the cost of those legs included in the price? Hairpin legs will probably run you about $100 per table.
posted by Pineapplicious at 10:56 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Probably not included, no. Thanks for the warning!
posted by omnigut at 10:58 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

You want circular cuts/slices, and those don't dry (kiln or air) very well with out serious cracks (as seen in your example), and often those cracks make it structurally unsound.

So I'm curious what the actual design plan is. (Googling gives plenty of folks showing the table they made out of a slab, but I'd like to see what happens in 2-5 years)

Pro's I've talked with said the best way is to put the slab in a kiddie pool of propylene glycol (anti-freeze) for a while to pull the water out and stabilize the wood. (Note: I can't vouch for that). Other methods are kiln dry it, and then fill, epoxy, or otherwise re-add structural integrity (screws, whatever) to keep it together.
posted by k5.user at 11:01 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

That type of furniture is not quite in my wheelhouse because I do more refined stuff, but I can hum a few bars.

I'm surprised he wants to kiln-dry it at all. Using heat to drive the moisture out of thicker pieces of wood is problematic because the outside dries (and shrinks) so much faster than the interior that cracking tends to be worsened. Lower kiln temps are necessary, which makes the whole process much slower and more expensive. Kiln drying might make it possible for him to deliver the tables sooner than otherwise, and also has the advantage of killing any bugs living in it if temps are high enough, but it's a lot more common to just air-dry things like that.

Cutting one of those slices takes less than a minute with a decent chain saw, and probably a tablespoon of gasoline. There's no way that costs $250 to accomplish. But, chainsaws leave rough surfaces behind, and the "milling," which with common lumber would only refer to the sawing, in this case might include some more involved machining to flatten the rough slab, and it's not inconceivable that such machining could add up to $250.

Once the slab is cut and flattened, there's sanding, multiple coats of finish to be applied, legs to be bought (or made) and attached. Is that six or seven hours per table? Maybe not quite, but he might be factoring in time for delivery, administrative stuff, etc.

If you're thinking that this should be somewhat cheaper because you're providing the wood, think again. Unprocessed chunks of tree are more or less worthless.

I don't think the price he's quoting is a screaming deal, but it's not highway robbery either.
posted by jon1270 at 11:04 AM on March 19, 2015 [3 favorites]

The piece you chose is a crotch, and it's pretty common to cut these vertically rather than into rounds as you've described. Here's a (much bigger) crotch for sale at a lumberyard in Western MA.

FWIW I don't think you're being overcharged.
posted by mr vino at 11:16 AM on March 19, 2015

Response by poster: "New England's Largest Display of Unique Slabs and Burls". Man, I love the internet. Thanks Mr Vino.

The vertical cut VS horizontal cut:

I know this is guesswork, as you've only seen a photo, but in general are crotches cut vertically because they will be more structurally sound? Fewer cracks? Or just look nicer because of the grain?
posted by omnigut at 11:23 AM on March 19, 2015

Wood cut along the grain, i.e vertically, will always be more structurally sound than cutting across. You can get away with the crosswise slice on coffee tables and clocks because the structural demands for those applications are minimal. The aesthetics are a matter of opinion, of course.
posted by jon1270 at 11:31 AM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

If it helps, the current (min?) union carpenter rate in Philly is $41.20 plus $25.79 in fringe benefits. That does not include overheard or profit. I would expect it to be higher in NYC and for most custom work. $75/hr sounds reasonable to me, and $1700 for two tables seems like a good price.
posted by sepviva at 1:36 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

My father used to make custom wood furniture - long story short, if this guy you want to work with is really good at what he does, $75/hr is a bit on the low side; what's the local economy like? To put it another way: I think you're getting something of a bargain.
posted by doctor tough love at 2:16 PM on March 19, 2015 [1 favorite]

My cousin is a cabinet maker and his prices are fairly similar.

Also, my parents in law got something similar done with wood from a tree they had to cut down in their garden, and it cost them quite a bit more. But they don't tend to get competing quotes, and they live in a small town with fewer options (but lower cost of living, so meh, it's probably evens out).
posted by lollusc at 5:14 PM on March 19, 2015

Response by poster: You've all been very helpful, thank you! I've gone with him. If you'd like to see what the eventual result is, pm me :)
posted by omnigut at 3:21 PM on March 21, 2015 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: I thought you might like to see an update on this. It's not finished yet, but here are some photos :)

If you want to know how it looks when it's finished, give me a personal message!
posted by omnigut at 5:46 AM on July 22, 2015 [1 favorite]

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