I need to help my dad live his dream.
May 29, 2008 5:33 PM   Subscribe

My dad makes really amazing wooden bowls on his lathe. He wants to sell them but there are a few issues and questions: If he sells them on the internet, where? Any one know of higher-end websites that sell quality art? His bowls have been appraised and would go for 100-200$. Also, is there a way to sell bowls at a store even accross the country? My dad lives in a fairly rural part of Massachussetts, and doesnt really have the resources to travel around. Any one have suggestions, ideas, etc of how to help my dad? He is very unhappy in his current job and i really believe he is a true artist. Thank you!!
posted by tessalations999 to Media & Arts (20 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
He should sell them wherever my wife will not have an opportunity to see them, because we really don't need any more bowls.

How about making a youtube video of the crafting process and putting them up on the ebays.
posted by iamabot at 5:37 PM on May 29, 2008

posted by spaceman_spiff at 5:37 PM on May 29, 2008

posted by Evangeline at 5:38 PM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Etsy is a huge up-and-comer in the small-batch, high-quality handmade/craft market. There's quite a few hits for "wooden bowl" at all price points.
posted by muddgirl at 5:38 PM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

4thing Etsy
posted by gnutron at 5:43 PM on May 29, 2008

Rather than going across the country, has he looked into galleries in touristy areas near him? I always see this kind of thing in art galleries, and the fact that the artists are "local" is part of the selling point. Something like this gallery in the Bershires may work for him.

Preview tells me to skip the Etsy plug.
posted by saffry at 5:46 PM on May 29, 2008

I don't want to brag or anything, (ok, I actually do) but I live around the corner from this guy. He made his own tools for hollowing out bowls with small openings, etc. From what I can gather he is a rock star of bowl making. Also, here in Utah there is a bowl maker's society--maybe there is something similar in Mass., like the central New England woodturners and they might have resources. I would frame the question more broadly while looking for answers, i.e. "How can I survive as a working craft artist?" Don't forget that doing something for money often changes the amount of pleasure you get from a task.
posted by mecran01 at 5:49 PM on May 29, 2008 [1 favorite]

Etsy! 4realz.

I'd suggest staying away from ebay or craigslist.
posted by jabberjaw at 5:52 PM on May 29, 2008

Etsy the nth.
posted by SpecialK at 6:26 PM on May 29, 2008

(One of my friends just quit her job this year after starting to equal her pay as a full-time admin assistant with what she made after hours by selling things on Etsy.)
posted by SpecialK at 6:27 PM on May 29, 2008

Also, try a big local crafts fair - or, since these are wooden bowls, maybe an Arts & Crafts furniture / gift show if you have something like that nearby.
posted by luriete at 6:42 PM on May 29, 2008


Etsy has faced a lot of criticism in the past few months from its sellers for vague policies and inconsistent enforcement. Their customer service is less than good. Lots of people love it and I have had no problems with it as a buyer, but just FYI.
posted by loiseau at 6:43 PM on May 29, 2008

If the "fairly rural part of Mass" is in the hills, the Hilltown Artisans Guild may be of help.
posted by Dr.Enormous at 7:10 PM on May 29, 2008

As someone who quite her 8 years of academic-career training cold-turkey to go and become an artist, I can tell you it's not as easy as that.

WARNING: looooong post.

First of all the income is totally unreliable (my most memorable fair included me paying $400 for a space at a fair, sitting in 103 degree weather for three days with the flu, and making $19. Total, not profit.) If your dad is still dependent on his income, I would strongly recommend against doing this unless he is enthusiastic about working twice the time he does now travelling, packing, unpacking, coming home with boxes still full of stuff, researching more fairs, etc. Artistry is romantic, but also one of the hardest job I've ever heard of. Also, it's like any job. You won't love it all the time, and it's easy to get burnt out.

That said, there's nothing like handing something beautiful that has taken shape between your own hands to an appreciative customer and having the money at the end of the day to say "Yes, I am a 'real' artist, and people give me this because they value my work."

So if he's really determined to go through with this career switch, here are some pointers:

1) He will need a Federal Tax ID number, which is fairly easy to come by. He should also be paying sales tax, for which he will need to contact his state and get a vendor's license. Paying taxes every 3 months is a pain in the arse though, so I'd skip that last part if he's not going to be making more than a few hundred a month. And especially if that's online.

2) I never apply to fairs any more unless a) I've been there before, b) the entry fee is under what I think I could make, c) the title of the fair specifically has "Arts" or "Crafts" somewhere in it.
A: know your audience. Find out who shops there, what the crowds are like, what kind of effort the organizers put into advertising. Don't be afraid to ask the vendors present what their opinion is of the fair; you should get an impression of their enthusiasm.
B: Two rules. 1=Don't do any fair under $25 unless you have a free weekend anyway and setup is not a big deal for you (in ceramics, schlepping is *always* a big deal, wood probably less so). These fairs are glorified garage sales. 2=never pay more than $100 for a newish fair (see advice a and don't apply to first-time fairs anyway).
C: Wine festivals and the like may sound glamorous, but unless they're specifically craft oriented, people are there to drink wine and NOT to buy crafts. Don't bother. Apply to a Craft Fair where there may be more competition, but the people are there specifically *to buy stuff from you*.

3) Galleries (in the art world, galleries generally refer to high-falootin' portrait galleries; art shops or boutiques may be a better term for what you're looking for) are probably the way to go for your dad, though it may seem quite daunting. People's Pottery is a good one (it's a chain).
- Fairs are such hard work that putting some stuff around in shops is worth it for the relaxation. They charge commission because they're taking half the workload off your hands. Also, he can do as many shops as quickly or slowly as he feels ready for and really ease into the artist lifestyle.
- He'll never be faced with the "OMG what will this fair be like, do I have enough stuff, how do I display it, oh crap I forgot to buy a table, everyone else has a tent, why didn't I remember the tablecloth, how to I make change when I've run out of $1 bills" panics.
- On the downside, it hurts more to be rejected from a shop, in person, than it does from a fair's blind jury.
- Go around to different shops first and scout out places where it looks like your work would be a good fit. Ask the counter help who the buyer is, and set up an appointment with them. NEVER just show up with your stuff and expect them to talk to you; that's considered very rude.
- Shops generally skim 40% off the top, and 50% is not unheard of. I wouldn't sell with any shop that required more, though, gotta have some pride in your work and you made it, after all.
- You could also go consignment, where you get to keep more of the profits, but you don't actually make anything until the work is sold. This is not such a great option though because owners generally aren't as careful about how they display the work (they don't have any investment in it), breakage is not covered, and you have to keep track of a million different bowls in a million different places and meticulously, continuously compare records of what you submitted vs. what sold to make sure the shop isn't accidentally keeping the money from a sold pot that they forgot to give you credit for.

4) If after all this your dad does decide to do fairs, please learn to develop a thick skin and a courteous, professional attitude toward the organizers. (I'm one of these, now, too).
- type all materials
- label your cd with a printed label
- double check that you've included all requested information
- apply on time or early
- call a week before the fair to see if there's still room when the deadline was six months ago.
- Stage a hissy fit and threaten to call whatever bigwig you know because we didn't accept you this year. (If we reject you and your work is good, it's either because we have too many wood turners already, or your work is just not a good fit - serious instead of fun, something like that). We discard applications from people who were jerks to us before - who wants to work with someone like that? (And yes, we remember you. The miracle of record-keeping).
- apply with pictures of one kind of thing (scarves) and then sell something else (flower arrangements). We might just ask you to leave.

4) Ebay SUCKS for handmade stuff. Do NOT try them - they'll rip you off. And then there's those customers that are never satisfied. Ebay is not the market for high-end, handmade artistry. Neither is Craigslist (where people go to look for cheap stuff), or most internet-based things (though I have no experience with Etsy). I think it has mostly to do with the fact that people want to *touch* handmade goods; the beautiful silken feel of the pot in their hands makes the sale as much as the color, shape, etc. Online pics just can't do that.
- HOWEVER I will say that it has been great to be able to list a website on business cards and the like, knowing that I have my own online gallery of pictures there for interested folks. Generates some special commission orders.
- Of course you have to - unlike me - keep it updated! And make sure it looks nice and professional, because otherwise people won't trust the quality of your ware.

Soooo... was this long enough? -grin- Hope it helped!
posted by GardenGal at 8:11 PM on May 29, 2008 [15 favorites]

Oh and about selling things across the country: give him a year or so to build up an "artists resume" kind of thing with at least a few other shops listed on it, an artist's statement, more inventory, that kind of thing.

In the mean time, get a subscription to a national magazine for woodworkers as artists (like ClayTimes for ceramic artists) which will list galleries, shops, fairs, etc. in back. Most of these will be reputable.

Then invest in a professional photographer (I cannot stress the professional part enough, snapshots make your whole portfolio look lousy) and put together a color glossy photo brochure that you can include along with your letter of introduction and resume and CD of more photos. This will all run you about $1000 if you're careful, so bide your time.

By the time a year has gone by, he should be aware of more galleries around the nation that he can send his information to. Don't forget the follow-up call.

Man I'm running off at the mouth tonight. :/
posted by GardenGal at 8:18 PM on May 29, 2008 [2 favorites]

I work for a goldsmith who does art craft fairs, and I vouch for GardenGal's reply being fantastic and spot-on.
posted by desuetude at 9:43 PM on May 29, 2008

All my experience with self-supporting artisans is peripheral but I had a brainstormy idea:

I bought a coffee-table book a while back on turning bowls and it demonstrated two techniques for decorating them: woodburning and inlaying a design with pewter or some other metal.

How about your dad goes for the niche market of finely crafted bowls decorated with custom designs? I'm thinking of a bowl with an inlaid inscription, like you might give someone for a wedding or anniversary, or a bowl with an inlaid version of a corporate logo that might go in a corporate or hotel lobby.

He also ought to check out the cost and possibilities for being a vendor at the Eastern States Exposition and other state fairs in the fall - that wouldn't involve traveling too far and could have potential if it's not too costly. Maybe he could bring along a lathe and do some turning right there at the fair.
posted by XMLicious at 12:37 AM on May 30, 2008 [1 favorite]

Woodcentral has a messageboard dedicated to turning, and there are always good answers for those with questions about setting up their own business. I would send your dad there.
posted by killy willy at 8:00 AM on May 30, 2008

I am a semi-pro potter and GardenGal speaks truth. Heed her well.

Also: look into ACC shows, this is your ticket to many mid- to upper- end galleries.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 11:06 AM on May 30, 2008

I've often thought about being a craftsperson, but I'm very practical and risk-averse, and that's steered me away from trying to do it for my living. I recently decided to explore whether I was being too fearful. I went to one of the most prestigious, juried craft shows in the country, and I went around interviewing the artisans about what it was like trying to make a living as a craftsperson.

Even though these artisans were a very select group who actively pursued their craft wholeheartedly, and had made it into this top show, very few made a living at it. They supplemented their income with teaching their craft, a spouse's income, welfare, or another job, or they lived on very, very little and teetered between having debt and breaking even, with no savings. (To be fair, that also describes a lot of other employed people.) There were exceptions, but most of these had either gone into 'production mode,' making the same, popular things over and over, or 'manager mode,' where they employed several people who produced their designs. I think there were those who really could do their craft and live off it, but they were very few and far between, even among this already selective crowd.

I also learned that craftspeople work incredibly hard, with long hours and 6-7 day weeks -- though they often love it anyway. And, I heard a theme over and over -- that it used to be much easier to make a living. Person after person told me that they used to be able to sell much more. Many had been making a living many years ago, but now were forced back to supplementary employment. The culprit was suspected to be the economy, cheap imports, nicely designed mass products at places like Target, and/or the younger generation lacking interest in acquiring crafts.

I've thought of writing an article on all of the above, since so many magazines tell inspiring stories of people who left their boring old jobs to make beautiful things, without ever dealing with the financial reality of whether those people are able to be self-sufficient.

So, make sure your Dad has thought out the money side. For example, with the values you cite, minus commissions and expenses, imagine he could clear $100 profit per bowl. How many can he make? If he quits work and makes one a day, 6 days a week, and sells them all, that's about $30K/year, pre-tax. Is that enough for him? On the other hand, if he makes one a weekend, and sells them all, that's a nice $5K supplement to the income he keeps from his full-time job.

Please take this all with a grain of salt. As I said, I tend to be very risk-averse, so you might not need as much of a buzzkiller as I've been here.
posted by daisyace at 4:15 AM on May 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

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