Monday, December 29, 2008

Thoughts on running a small business

Call me a numbers geek.

I've always liked numbers, for some odd reason, I "get" math.

So at the end of every holiday season, I like to crunch my numbers, to figure out if I'm behind or ahead of the previous year. With all that's in the news about the recession, lay-offs, down-sizing and the impact on the little guy, I thought I'd share some numbers with you about what it's like being a small business owner.

My business grew this year, but that was mostly due to increased exposure by selling on various websites, and some decent press that was written about my work. Selling in more venues is always good, regardless of how difficult it is to keep track of things. (Note to self: in the next life, be a jeweler. Inventory is easier to store, shipping is simple, and profit margins are better.)

The holiday season was down this year, without a doubt. In fact, if my numbers are correct, my holiday sales were down 35%. Ouch. Originally, I had crunched some numbers and figured that it was only down 28%, but then I went back to include some mid October sales. I'm still a little amazed that people actually start shopping in mid-October, but according to what I learn from my buyers, they do. So if I include those sales, the percentages don't lie... it was a lousy season.

So I thought I'd share a few of my favorite books about the business of being an artist. It's hard enough owning your own company, but when it's one that sells "art", well... you're behind the eight ball much of the time.

Although the book Growing a Business is somewhat dated (it was written in a pre-internet era) Paul Hawken's book offers some interesting observances about his experience starting a small company. You have to read between the lines and fill in the blanks in order to get his advice to apply to your particular company, but this book offers some sage advice that still works today.

Another book on my nightstand is The Business of Being an Artist by Daniel Grant. I like the fact that he discusses growing as an artist, not just as a business. He writes about how to handle the pressure of being in this field, as well as changing your style, handling criticism, and more. While many of these books cover similar topics (gallery information, marketing, and PR stuff), his book covers some slightly different, yet very relevant topics that every artist should ponder.

This Business of Art by Diane Cochrane is a hard to find, but very helpful book. It's filled with sample business forms, such as commission agreements, simple consignment agreements, invoices, "Art-for-Loan" contracts, and more. This may be hard to find, but it's one of the better books out there.

I want to like Art Marketing 101 by Constance Smith, and I've spoken to some people who think this is extremely helpful. But- personally, I didn't find much in her book that was new or very useful. Still, people new to the game will probably find the information a really good start for joining this insane life we call being an artist.

Crafting as Business by Wendy Rosen offers a rather different approach to the business of being an artist. Wendy is well known within the world of craft, and in this book, she introduces the reader to various successful artists, who share their tips and expertise. I like how she includes things that other authors ignore, like developing your "image" or designing a PR campaign. Her list of "Questions to ask before applying to a show" is dead-on, and I have xeroxed her "what to pack for a show" many a time. This book is money.

That's it for now, my next post will hopefully discuss my resolutions for the new year. Have a safe and festive start to 2009.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Custom seating

For years, I avoided chairmaking. I think I may have heard a few "wiser" woodworkers discussing what a pain it was to build them, so I just adopted that attitude.

Well, I'm pleased to say I re-examined that opinion and have found that I very much enjoy the process of building a chair. It's possible that the reason I enjoy it is because it's a challenge. I like challenges.

Speaking of that, while trolling around the internet, in search of some chair information, I found a blog post on Rockler Woodworking's website about Bruce Boyd, an amatuer woodworker from Roseburg, Oregon. Apparently, Bruce is a huge Star Trek fan, and decided to build a replica of Captain Kirk's chair on the
Starship Enterprise.

What's most amazing is that this is the first piece that Bruce ever built.

I'm not sure how to reach Bruce, but if anyone out there knows him, I would appreciate it if you could have him contact me. I'd like to extend an invitation to attend the new Star Trek Experience if he ever visits Las Vegas... my treat.

Bruce's chair reminds me of something I built around 1997 - one of those pieces I built and sort of forgot about. A client of mine purchase a set of four stadium chairs when the city of Cleveland was demolishing the old Cleveland Stadium.

To say that this fellow was a Cleveland sports fan is a bit of an understatement. His entire house was filled with memorabilia, from autographed jerseys and balls, to helmets, bats, posters, and finally... a "couch" made of the stadium seats, made by yours truly. I don't have any pictures of the finished piece, just these images of stadium seats.

I basically built a platform that all four seats bolted into, forming a crude "couch" that four fans could sit in, while watching their favorite team.

Those seats were pretty disgusting - covered with numerous coats of paint, and a few dried blobs of chewing gum, as well. Add in the stenciled seat numbers, and you almost felt like you were sitting on the 50 yard line, except without the freezing temps.

For some reason, that "couch" always seemed like the perfect prop for an episode of Seinfeld.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Fantasy furniture and building products

Life has been a little hectic around here.

I know I always say that, but it's true. Combine holiday madness, family stuff, pet issues, not to mention snow in Las Vegas, and you'll understand why I've been too busy to blog lately.

That will all change soon, and I have a few interesting topics to discuss here, so stay tuned.

Meanwhile, I thought I'd share a couple of interesting photos with you.

I'm just not sure what to make of this stool, but it reminds me of a class I took in college, called Fantasy Furniture. We not only studied pieces like above, but had to design and build a piece of our own.

Here's what I came up with... sorry for the lousy picture, but it's all I have left of the piece.

A drafting desk carved from a log. Unfortunately, the base of the log wasn't wide enough to keep the desk from tipping over when someone sat on it.

Incorporated in my design was an ass carved on one side of the seat of the desk. I decided to the only logical solution for supporting the desk was to create a tripod support, coming off the ass. I made a mold of my arm and hand, and cast a three-handed tripod made in bronze.

Oh, I know that sounds insane, but remember - it was the 70's, and I was in art school. Figure it out.

The (tripod) hand held the ass, and in turn, supported the whole desk, keeping it from tipping over. Problem solved.

I used to have a Weimaraner, a great guard dog who loved to see who was pulling up the driveway. She'd terrorize anyone coming within thirty feet of the house, and even the Invisible Fence didn't stop her from chasing cars back down the driveway. Anyone who has ever had a Weim as a pet knows they're "different", which is a nice way of calling them crazy-ass animals.

Whoever invented that doggie window (above) really came up with a great idea. My only thought about it is how to clean the slobber build-up inside it.

Friday, December 12, 2008

Edamame Soup recipe

I know, I know. I'm supposed to be talking about woodworking. But I'm drowning in sawdust and glaze slime and packing boxes, so I just need a little break. Anyone who reads this blog knows I'm a wannabe food blogger, so here's another favorite.

You must make this soup.

I swear, this is so easy and good and healthy, you're going to be thanking me someday. This recipe came from, one of my favorite food sites. They attribute the recipe to London-based writer/chef Charlotte Hume, who wrote the book - The Great Big Veg Challenge.

Edamame Soup

1 teaspoon olive oil
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 potato, peeled and cut into small cubes,
1 1/2 lb frozen edamame beans, defrosted
1 quart vegetable (or chicken) stock
2 tablespoons creme fraiche
salt and freshly ground pepper

In a pan, saute the onion and potato in the oil over medium heat, stirring frequently. Cover and allow it to soften for about 4 minutes, until they have both softened. Stir to prevent the mixture from sticking and burning. Add the beans and the vegetable stock. Put the lid on and simmer on a medium heat for 15-20 minutes until the beans are tender. Puree in a food processor or with a hand blender. Stir in the creme fraiche, reheat gently without boiling and serve.

Serves 4.

(In my house, this only feeds two.)

Oh, and the two dogs get a little...

OK, it feeds four.

Monday, December 08, 2008

It's a soup day...

The best thing about living in Lav Vegas is the weather, even though the summers are blistering. Honestly, there have only been one or two times that the heat has kept me inside, in the air conditioning. See, I lived in cold weather for so long, I just got to the point where I couldn't take it anymore.

Still every now and then, I long for a "soup day", where the cold temps outside combine with a simmering pot of soup on the stove to create foggy windows. It's like that here today, a cool day, with snow on Mt. Charleston, which I can see from my studio. That's about as close to snow as I want to be.

The following video is another great way to enjoy the snow from a distance.

It's a busy time of the year for me, I'm somewhat swamped with work, and most of my days are filled with making, selling, packing, shipping and sleeping. I've got a few commitments coming up next week that will probably keep me from posting much... so until then, I hope everyone remains safe and sane this holiday season.

Here's one of my favorite soup recipes. I copied in into a cookbook years ago, so I can't be certain - but I think it's from Gourmet Magazine, around 1980 or so.
It's perfect for a day like this:

Sweet Corn and Crabmeat Soup

4 cups chicken stock
1 Tablespoon sesame oil
2/3 cup crab meat
1 can cream-style corn
1/8 teaspoon cayenne
1 Tablespoon soy sauce
2 Tablespoons cornstarch dissolved in 2 Tablespoons water
1 scallion, minced fine

Combine chicken stock and oil in a saucepan, and bring to a boil. Add crabmeat and corn, and boil again. Add in cayenne, soy sauce, stir in cornstarch mixture. Stir and allow to boil again, then simmer for a minute or two. When ready to serve, stir in scallions and ladle into bowls.

Monday, December 01, 2008

Nepali Woodworkers: the universal language of wood

Remember a few weeks ago, when I talked about my family members, Jill and Debbie, who were raising money for cancer awareness through their Trekking for Debbie website? I'm happy to say Jill just returned from her Himalayan trek, where she made it to Mt. Everest Base Camp, and summitted Kala Pattar.

I'm still looking at all the cool photos from her trek, but the most interesting to me were the images she took of Nepali woodworkers and stoneworkers. One of the guides on her trek had a brother who worked way up in the mountains. As they traveled from village to village, they made their way through a construction site, where various artisans (including his brother) were working.

Here's one woodworker, shaping a beam from a log.

Maybe it's all the wood chips on the ground that gives the illusion that this is pretty quick work. If you've ever tried to strip and shape a log, you know it's not.

It's funny how we (meaning me) get so dependent upon our tools. If I were doing this work up in the mountains, I'd be asking where I could plug in my planer. Which reminds me - one of Jill's photos shows a worker with about 10 sheets of plywood strapped to his back. He's carrying it up a mountainside, to a construction site. Can you just imagine that? I'll try to get that photo on here if I can find it again.

In another area, mortises were cut into the logs, with what appears to be amazing precision.

Notice the marking lines around the log - universal in any language.

One of the yak drivers from Jill's expedition, Romeli, is on the right, his brother, the woodworker, in on the left. Like every woodworker I know, he's got a pencil tucked behind his ear. I've poked more than one friend in the head when giving them a hug. I imagine he has, too.

In another area, craftsmen take stone from the mountainside and chisel them into blocks for making walls and buildings. If you've ever worked with stone, you know how hard this is on one's hands. I don't think my hands have ever been more beaten up than when I used to carve marble. That's probably why they ache in colder weather.

These workers amaze me.

Remember, this is all being done at high altitude. Sort of like working under water.

If I'd have been there, I would have pestered these workers with questions...

- do they work from blueprints when making the beams?
- what method do they use for sharpening their tools?
-what wood are the beams made of, soft or hardwood?
-when they're finished, how much are they sold for?

and most importantly...
-who buys the first round at the end of the day?

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Recipes and more glaze testing

Call me naive.

This time of year always makes me think of cooking, and I certainly miss the big family get-togethers that we used to have. Although my immediate family isn't that big, my mom is one of 14 kids, so holidays are often filled with family, food and good times.

Which started me thinking about recipes.

Years ago, I was at a picnic, and ate a wonderful dish that someone had brought. I asked for the recipe, and after several attempts at duplicating it, I could never make that dish as good as the one I tasted at the picnic.

It was for a simple pasta salad, and hard as I tried (and I'm a good cook!) there was just no duplicating it. I mentioned that to my mom one time and she looked at me like "who raised you?" Then she told me that some people actually don't like to share their recipes, so they'll sabotage your creations by leaving out an ingredient, or some other important piece of information.

So... that's why I said - call me naive.

Part of the reason I probably enjoy glaze making in my studio is because it's so similar to cooking. Add a pinch of that, or a dab of this, and you get something completely different. Which started me thinking about sharing recipes for glazes.

Now I make a ton of glazes in my studio - literally hundreds over the past few years, and since I don't have an evil bone in my body (unlike the wench who gave me the pasta salad recipe) I would never dream of leaving out an ingredient. Never.
But I sometimes hear from people who say that they made a sample batch of one of the glazes recipes I've given them, and it's nothing like my version.


Let's switch gears for a minute, and talk about clay. I use two different clay bodies in my studio - a light buff stoneware called Long Beach, and a very dark stoneware called Black Mountain. I like the grittiness of both, groggy and textural, but each clay is entirely different once it's fired.

Unless you're firing your test tile on the same glaze, in the same kiln environment, and at the same schedule, it's quite possible that you're going to get different results.

Here are some examples of the same glaze being fired on different clay bodies.

Below is one of my favorite glazes, a variation on Waterfall Brown, developed by Ron Roy and John Hesselberth. When I'm just beginning my tests of a new glaze, I cut a slab of clay the exact size of my favorite ruler. Once it's fired, I can calculate it's shrinkage very accurately. These pieces started off exactly 12" long.

When I brush the glaze, The lower half gets a coat of glaze. Then I drop down a third and give it second coat, and then the last third of the tile gets three coats. Look at these pieces, you'll see that the glaze appears thin on top, a little better in the middle, and best at the bottom. This is a good guide when I'm trying to decide how much glaze to apply on a bisqued piece.

The clay on the left is the light stoneware, Long Beach, while the one on the right is my preferred (darker) clay - Black mountain. With this particular glaze, there isn't too much of a difference.

But with the Waterfall White glaze (below), you can see a much more profound difference on the different colored clays.

The glaze applied to the darker clay actually looks much nicer than to the lighter body, wouldn't you agree? I think it looks like freshly fallen snow.

One of my favorite (and most stable) versions of Waterfall Brown is what I call Waterfall Gold, it's slightly lighter and really gorgeous on the darker clay, but not so nice on the light one.

And finally, here is Waterfall brown on three different clays that I've used - a woodfire clay, a porcelain, and a light stoneware. Of course, I forgot to put the Black Mountain clay sample tile in this picture, and it's the best of the four clays. But at least this picture shows how different Waterfall Brown looks on different clay bodies.

If you're testing a glaze and the results don't look like you think they should, perhaps thickness is an issue. Below ilustrates how thickness can really make a difference. The numbers on the test tubes indicates the number of dips of Floating Blue on these tubes.

When I travel, I often take a baggie with me, to bring home a small sample of soil, sand, ash or clay. And while the sample below isn't necessarily a suitable glaze for dinnerware, I love the crackle effect. I will probably use it on some tiles for a table someday. I made this using sand from my all time favorite beach - Little Beach, on Maui. Google it and you'll see what my idea of a perfect beach is.

Finally, sometimes when you're testing glazes, you come up wth something unexpected and pretty exciting. These next few pictures show a glaze I'm working on - it's full of texture and pools of color, yet exhibits a raw, crawl-y look that I'm starting to appreciate. I'm still testing it, but so far, it's behaving well.

It almost has a pewter look to it, with pools of gold.

Since wood is my main focus, I also have to consider what sort of wood will compliment this glaze. Right now, I'm playing with some fumed white oak, as it's smokey hue compliments these colors rather well.

That's it for now, I'll close this by wishing everyone a Happy Thanksgiving. I hope you're surrounded by kindness, people you love and good food. We all deserve that.