The ninth path

Hunter S Thompson
Hunter S Thompson

Since posting my blog reviewing David Savage’s Rowden Workshop school, I’ve been contacted by a number of people, some to acknowledge it in light of their own experience or what they’ve read elsewhere, but most to ask more about the course and about life-after-Rowden.

Recently I was contacted by a scientist in his early 20s, in his first year of a PhD. It was almost like reading an email I could have written myself. With his permission, I thought it might be informative and useful to show our exchange. I was hesitant at diving deep on a reply for two reasons. Firstly because (as I tell him in my reply) so much satisfaction comes from finding things out yourself, but secondly I was hesitant after reading a letter from a young Hunter S. Thompson to a friend of his on providing life advice. In it, he says:

“To give advice to a man who asks what to do with his life implies something very close to egomania. To presume to point a man to the right and ultimate goal — to point with a trembling finger in the RIGHT direction is something only a fool would take upon himself.”

Well, here goes this fool…

Andy’s email

Hi Paul

I came across your website in search of reviews for David Savage’s woodworking course, and found your review very helpful.

I am, like you did, considering a change in career path to furniture making. Currently I am in the first year of study of a PhD in Geology/Petrophysics, but have found it… less than rewarding. I’m finding myself wishing for a more creative career in which I can make things, doing something that I wake up looking forward to. So I came across the course online via a quick google search about furniture making and was quickly sold.

The problem I am having is that I came straight into my PhD from my degree, so I am 23 with a shed load of debt from university and little savings. This means for me to take this course I would have to take out a large loan from the bank to cover the course costs and living expenses (assuming the bank would even lend me the money in the first place!). So that leads to my current situation of not knowing how financially feasible this course really is for me. I don’t want to do the course to become a skilled furniture designer/maker but have to work an unrelated, unfulfilling job just to pay back the course.

Though I have no woodworking experience, I have found a bunch of second hand tools for cheap, which I am soon going to attempt to build a workbench and teach myself the basic skills. So my alternative option is to stick at what I am doing, get a good job in which I can save enough money to do the course and go from there, in the meantime learning as much as I can about furniture design and building my skillset. However, I feel like now is the best time to do such a course whilst I have no major commitments in my life.

Sorry about the essay, here are my questions to you:


[See questions copied in my reply below]

My reply

Hi Andy,

Mate, I feel your pain 100%. Take some comfort in that you’re definitely not the only one who has reflected on these questions.

Let me say from the outset that I don’t have a silver bullet answer, not that you were expecting one, but actually that’s what makes this journey all the more fascinating and rewarding. So don’t get flummoxed by a lack of data, you’re a scientist who is used to making assessments based on evidence and you test assumptions before making any conclusions. I’m saying you have to ease off on that ingrained training a bit and be willing to make mistakes as this will be the only way you can feel liberated from you current trajectory. I got to the point of desperation in my office job, so much so I was willing to give up my job without any other option to go into. Luckily my wife was helping me by bouncing ideas off me and the fine furniture one stuck.

It doesn’t sound like you’re necessarily at the same point of desperation yet, but for sure if you keep going it won’t take long before that happens to you too. So, you’ve started asking the hard questions, and at 23 that’s nearly 10 years earlier than I did, so what little comfort it offers, well done!

One of the cold truths of fine furniture making is that it will very unlikely ever match your earning potential in a white collar professional job. I knew this going into the trade but I had come to the realisation that earning a big salary wasn’t important to me anymore. What was important was how I was spending my time, time that I’ll never get back. Many, if not most makers have a second line of income, at least until they are well established which could take 10 years or more. If you can, then getting some work in the trade either through teaching or making for others. For me coming back to Oz I was presented with an opportunity in my old line of work that simply out trumped any thoughts of working in making, or any other casual work for that matter. You could view my experience as supporting your option of staying in your current field for a while until you build up some working experience and networks so that you have this option too. That’s perfectly rational.

One thing I’d point out to you when you’re thinking about all this debt you’ve accumulated is that be aware of the sunk cost fallacy. I talk about it a little in one of my first blog posts. Yes you’ve got debt and you’re responsible for paying it off but don’t let this fact lead you to accumulate more debt just to be going down the same unfulfilling path. On this subject of debt, David’s course is expensive and the cost of tools and materials shouldn’t be underestimated either, so perhaps as you say the bank will make the decision for you.

One reason I feel comfortable going back to the office part-time is that I now have this other aspect of my working life to give me the things that were lacking before, i.e. creativity, physical work, working for myself. If you keep with your current profession, start self training in wood work and slowly buying tools then this can be a focus that you can use to build up to a point where you can then jump when the time is right. You might learn some bad habits along the way, but that’s not something worth worrying about.

Let me answer your questions now:

I see on David’s website a bunch of testimonials and links to successful students work, which all seems great. But what proportion of the students you shared your time with actually had such success? Or even success enough to make a living from?

PC: Success is a broad term and it can mean different things to different people. It’s not binary either. If you look at people who are making and turning a profit without any other source of income within 5 years of finishing, then this is just a small handful. These are students that would likely have been achieving this regardless of what school they went to because they came with a certain ambition and motivation. Certainly David’s school nurtured that drive but the students you refer to I know have qualities that predisposed their success. Success to others might mean just bringing in enough money in the first couple of years to feed themselves and pay the rent, or it could mean keeping the day job and just being choosy about the commissions you take. Success is also something that should be viewed in the here and now, not just some arbitrary number of years away, in a very simple but truthful way I felt successful while I was at the school and still do even in these early days of getting set up. You must define what success looks like to you, don’t let other people define it for you. Most of the other students, including myself, will try to find a cooperative that has the machines and bench space and start making stuff for family and friends until word of mouth exponentiates and you are then on your way. The UK is much better set up in this matter, having many cooperatives and low rents compared with Sydney, which is why it’s taken me longer than expected to find a workshop.

From your experience, are there things you took from the course that you wouldn’t find elsewhere, such as woodworking/design/marketing skills, contacts etc.?

PC: I can’t say much about other courses as I didn’t do the deep research many would argue you should do, or that it appears you are indeed doing. To be brutally honest, I think I mentioned on my review of David’s school as much that it was as simple as the top Google result! This could be cause for embarrassment but I’m comfortable with that decision. Good enough is almost always good enough. David’s school does focus a lot on design theory and pushing designs to be great and he should be commended for that, however as I mention in the blog, I feel that there is so much potential for this to be better and I hope that it has improved since. An opinion I hold very strong to is that your future success, in the various forms that it may take, will be highly dependent on your eye for design. This will be your point of difference and it’s this that people will be ultimately paying you for. The craftsmanship and making quality should be a given but the people who you’re selling to are looking for a person to translate the things that are important to them into a beautiful piece of furniture. The ‘eye’ can be taught, so the trick is how best to cultivate it. Always ask schools about this aspect the most.

Though you say in your blog that you would recommend the course, are you now aware of other courses that may rival David’s?

PC: There are at least another three schools that are of a similar quality in the UK. Their names slip my mind except for Waters and Acland in the Lakes District. Even though I didn’t research them, I’d recommend you do. David has worked very hard on getting his SEO at platinum standard and as such it’s sometimes hard to find the others, but they’re there.

“If I did decide to pursue the course, do you know how likely I would be to get a place? Are you aware of the number of applicants the course gets?”

PC: You shouldn’t have a problem, especially if you’re open to waiting for a couple of months. What you should be asking David is what the maximum student-to-teacher ratio will be during the course as this will determine the amount of precious time and attention you get from the teachers.  I would suggest that assuming three full-time staff, excluding David, you would want no more than 12 students at any one time. This often gets blown out by frequent short courses and can mean you don’t get the time from teachers you’re paying for.

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