Saturday, September 12, 2009

Un-Mixing Maine's Woodworking Messages

While the economy has undeniably hurt many small woodworking shops here in Maine, and the overall Maine woodworking industry as whole, there are still many who are just as busy as they have ever been. The Maine Wood Products Association's "Splinters" article posted in February, 2009, titled "Mixed Messages", addresses this. "During the recent MWPA Annual Meeting in Farmington, the new “roll call” session brought out a lot of good information about the condition of our industry. Unfortunately, the news was “all over the map”, from dire to encouraging to downright busy."

The "dire", I believe, is just the tip of that iceberg. It has been seven months since that article was posted. The economy has been in a steady drop, and prices for everything from groceries to insurance have kept rising. Adjustable Rate Mortgage percentages have risen, and the the banks have tightened restrictions for new loans. There has been migration out of the state for for higher wages. President Obama in his address to Congress stated that insurance premiums have risen 3X faster than wages. At least 30% of a small woodshop owner's budget goes to insurance costs. Then they are hit with the IRS' self-employment tax each year too. Maine is one of the highest taxed states in the country. School enrollments have been falling in this state for years resulting in cuts in industrial arts classes. With the job market so tight, wages are down. I can't imagine being in a paid apprenticeship position for $8.00/hr. I would be willing to bet the number of apprentice woodworkers has decreased substantially over the last fifteen years.

I learned woodworking in my high school. After college I went to work for a house builder and worked in the wood shop building windows, doors, and stair parts, and I made $8.00/hr. I was single, and my rent was cheap with roomates. I apprenticed for a furniture maker for several years after at $10 - 20.00/hr. He had learned his skills from his father. This was my experience, and I haven't been aware of any similar experiences in recent years. That's not to say they are not out there, but I really believe the times are different now. The house builder I worked for employed fifty carpenters, and supplied them all with health insurance, including dental. How many furniture/woodworking/homebuilding companies are out there today that employ those numbers? Moosehead Furniture has about 20 employees (from my understanding), and they are all in danger of losing their jobs. I have heard of other companies in the Millinocket area that are close to closing too. I received a phone call from an insurance agent who told me he knows his friend, a cabinetmaker in the Portland area, who currently has no liability insurance.

I think most everyone here in Maine knows someone who knows a woodworker. I think 100 years ago most people just knew a woodworker. I think today we are heading towards a 3rd degree of separation. Try asking around.

I think we, as a community, need to support those who are doing well in these troubled times, as well as those who are not doing well. I think we will all benefit by getting the word out nationally, that the quality of maine craftsmanship is world-class. The bottom line is money. We need to prove to consumers that the furniture made here in Maine is an investment, and is generational. We need to educate consumers about what constitutes good vs. bad furniture. We need to let people know that buying local is in itself "green". I think we should see more free venues for promotion for local woodworkers, such as town-sponsored events where other artisans can take place too. I think it is important to document as much of this state's woodworking history as possible, because I just don't see it out there. There are so many talented people in this industry who go unnoticed. They have to pay to be documented in ads in magazines, or pay to get listed on directories. They have to hope someone other than their clients (the media) will notice their talents and do a story on them. Has FOX news ever done a story on a local woodworker? Our media covers the tragedies in our lives way more than it ever champions the average person, skilled in their trade, and active in their community.

Mixed Messages is right. With all the social media available today, I believe it IS possible to un-mix the messages. By spending our money wisely and locally, and using our FaceBook, Twitter, and MySpace avenues, we can extend the "word-of-mouth" far beyond what it has traditionally been capable of. Free promotion, with very little effort.

1 comment:

  1. Mark, when you started following me on Twitter, I got curious. I've read your three posts. Read about your loss. I agree that Maine cabinet makers are very unappreciated and for the most part, unknown. Gardner, Massachusetts used to be known for it's furniture craftsmen. "used to be". North Carolina furniture manufacturers complain about the unassemble imports. Two points: First, people don't buy for your reasons, they have to find their own reason. Second, many artisans think that "if they build it, they will come". Bull! Until an artisan starts thinking of themselves as a business, they are on their way out of business.