Volume3 Issue1, January, 1999

Woodcarver Ezine
Back Issues
Carvers' Companion Gateway

Carving Contracts

by Susan and Michael Irish



Editor's note: Many thanks to Susan and Michael for sharing this important information with the online carving community. These documents will help many carvers arrive at a better understanding of the issues involved in undertaking commission woodcarving. Please be sure to check these contracts out with your lawyer, as laws vary from state to state and country to country.

In Four Parts






The Internet has provided many of us a new and wonderful outlet to display and sell our work, bringing our art before an international clientele. Along with exposure to countless interested art collectors comes the possibilities for commissioned projects. Accepting commissioned projects can greatly increase the income of a carver/artist as well as increase your reputation and exposure within the craft.

Please note that we, at Classic Carvings, are artists, craftsmen, and business people, just like you. We are not Contract Lawyers and do not represent ourselves as such here. It is noted here that it is always advisable to have a Contract Lawyer review any contracts that you may need before signing the document. However, as business owners, we would like to share some of our ideas and strategies in working with Commissioned Projects. These are ideas that work for us and that might also work for you.

Commission work through our studio includes a variety of art projects including oil canvas paintings, walking sticks, canes, wood spirits, and of course pattern designs and line art. Commissioned Projects accepted over the Internet create a unique set of circumstances since many times we never personally meet our patron. As such, the chance to discuss their ideas and desires must be conducted through e-mail or telephone conversations.

Usually, the first contact will be an e-mail by the interested client that will state their interest in having a particular artwork created. Our first reply will begin the discussion of particulars about the project, including our questions about the time period that the person is considering and an invitation to them to describe in detail the design specs that they want.

When the client has shown clear interest in having the project done we always obtain the basic information from the them as name, address, e-mail, and their credit card number and expiration date. If the person is truly interested in having the work done, giving their credit card number to us is a type of commitment on their part, even if they are going to finally pay by personal check, and even if you are not prepared to "cash" the card number. It shows both the customer and us that this is more than just a casual inquiry and is being treated with the importance to our studio that it deserves.

Next, you need to get them to be very specific in what they want you to do. Often a person will have some very clear ideas about the project but be unable to express them in an understandable way. You need some guidelines from them on size, media, coloration, and appearance. We often ask if they have they seen a picture of something like what they want that they could e-mail to us...this can save a lot of work on your part. We, personally, never copy another artist's or photographer's work, however, such photos can provide great guidelines as to what the client wants done.

When we have a rough idea of what they want, I create some basic drawings of the project and estimates on the cost. We scan or take a digital picture of the drawings and post them on our website. Next, e-mail the client as to where the URL is for their approval. I will redo and re-post drawings as needed,. This is a lot easier than doing the painting or carving then throwing it away because what I thought they wanted and what they thought they wanted were two very different ideas. Usually we limit preliminary sketches and changes to three times. By then either I have it right or I have realized that I am the wrong artist for this client and will decline any further work on the project.

If we find that we must decline a Commissioned Project we always refer the patron to several other artists that might be interested. No particular artist can satisfy every person that wants to buy artwork. So, since this person may not be a potential customer for us they may be a wonderful customer for you.

When we get the final approval on the drawings we send a confirmation e-mail that simple restates all that has been discussed. At this time we require a 50% deposit that is non-refundable. Non-refundable because by now we could have anywhere from 8 to 10 hours of work in the project,
plus this deposit will be used to cover any costs created by the project as canvas, wood, special tools required for this design, shipping, etc. This confirmation e-mail in essence becomes our project contract since it is the first time any money changes hands.

We keep a file of all correspondence. Print a copy of any e-mails the day you receive them and put them aside in the file. This puts the date the e-mail was printed by your e-mail program on each letter and confirms the date when was really received.

Finally, all work through our studio includes a contract with the client that I, the artist, retain all copyrights to the work and retain the right to "borrow" the work back for either promotional advertising or competitions." This contract is standard in the art field and all of our people have been delighted to sign it. They love the idea that their piece may be that important.

Copyright Contract

For large Commissioned Projects we do use a written contract that must be signed before work is begun. A written contract basically is composed of any and all discussion points that have been made by us at the studio and the potential patron. By having it in writing, both parties know that what has been discussed is covered and protected.

Basic Commissioned Artwork Contract

Since each Commissioned Project is unique we have included a Checklist that we refer to here in the studio. This checklist can be used to help clarify the work that the client wishes done and points that can be added or eliminated from the final written contract as is appropriate to the situation.

Checklist for Commissioned Artwork Contracts

When the negotiations have been completed and the basic contract written, we make two copies, sign both and mail them to the Purchaser along with a self-addressed stamped envelope. When the Purchaser has signed and returned one copy the work begins.

As one artist to another here are a few points to consider on the Checklist:

1. State in the contract that you are a Professional Artist and that the work is to be done in your unique style. No matter how long you have been carving, your patron is interested in the style and work that you are now displaying. Whatever the level of skill, it has caught the attention and appreciation of this art collector. They want your work just as you are doing it now. Please remember, that if this is one of your first commissioned pieces it is also probably the first time your patron has ever commissioned artwork. Few people have artwork created for them and only a very rare few become collectors. If they do, often they become collectors of a particular artist, E.I. you.

2. Allow both you and the Purchaser room to make adjustments in the contract including the time it will take to complete the work, the final cost, and in design changes that may be required along the way.

3. If the client is local to your studio you may want to limit the number of visits they can make to check on the progress of your work. With art commissions it is not uncommon that the Purchaser wants to 'hang around the shop' to watch you paint their canvas. This is quite a compliment since they are clearly interested in what you are doing for them. However, it can greatly slow down the progress of the work as you, the artist, find yourself 'entertaining' the client instead of painting on their project.

4. In carving commissions, a Purchaser may ask that the work be done on a specific piece of wood, maybe a large branch from the tree that grew in their grandfather's backyard. I do compliment this client on their idea as it may be extremely important to them. In this situation, however, I ask that I be allowed to see the material first before making any commitment to using it. If I do decide to try the material for the project, I state in writing within the contract that I, the Artist, am not responsible for the quality or ability to carve of any materials that they provide. I can not be held liable for the rotted heart or worm holes or nails that I might find inside of Granddad's tree branch once work has begun. And using a client's material, in our studio, often does not reduce the price of the finished artwork to the customer. There have been too many times where our using unknown material dramatically increases the time and energy it takes to create the artwork.

5. Know exactly who the Purchaser is and if they have the ability to complete the contract if the Purchaser represents a larger group or organization. It is easy to find yourself halfway through a project for a local community organization and then discover that the person that wanted the work done for the group did not have the authority of the group to make the commitment. You now find yourself with a work in progress and no prospects of being paid.

6. Contracts often will require a State under which the contract will be goverened in case of disputes. On the advise of our Copyright Lawyer all of our contracts are under the State of New York. According to this gentleman, the courts and juries in New York State are the most knowledgable in the U.S. on Coyright laws, Copyright infringment laws, and very pro-artist in such cases. You do not need to live nor have your studio in New York State (we live in Maryland) to have the contract governed through their court system. Again, please speak with your own lawyer to determine which State laws are most protective of you and your art.

In conclusion, simply putting in writing those points that have been discussed by you and the art collector, either through e-mail or a formal written contract. This protects everyone from misunderstandings in the future.

We greatly hope that you will find some of these ideas helpful.


"Business and Legal Forms for Fine Artistis", Tad Crawford, Allworth Press, New York, 1990.
This excellent paperback includes 15 different contracts plus a checklist for each that are ready for reproducing with a Xerox or scanner.

"The Business of Art", Second Edition, Lee Caplin, Published in cooperation with the National Endowment for the Arts, Prentice Hall, Englewood, New Jersey 07632, 1989.
Includes information on business planning, copyright information, marketing, and exhibiting your work, good basis information concerning art, galleries, grants and endowments, etc.

"How To Succeed As An Artist in Your Own Home Town", Steward Biehal, North Light Books, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1990. Includes very tangible ideas on how to create a reputation and clientelle base for the artist, lots of adaptable common sense ideas.

Susan and Michael Irish
Classic Carving Patterns