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My Ideas on Pricing Woodcarvings

By Joe Dillett


Do you panic when you are trying to price your work?

We, being our own worst critic, face the difficult task of placing a realistic value on our work. We see flaws in every piece and feel that those flaws somehow should bring down the value. In fact, If you didn't see any flaws your work would never improve, also the better you become, the more flaws you are going to see. So if flaws were the pricing criteria, my work today would be selling for less than when I started, almost 30 years ago.

The point I'm trying to make is we become very poor judges of our own work. The flaws look as big as life. It's only natural to fear the customer will not like it, or a potential customer will only see the flaws. I think (this is just my theory) that it becomes a self-extreme issue. I'm not saying that low pricing means low self-esteem. I think we can have great self-esteem and still have doubts about the value of our art. We need to develop good self-esteem with an attitude of respect for our art. Some of the priceless masterpieces have many flaws. As an example: the arm length of The Thinker by Auguste Rodin. Not only does it not lower the value but also it may even enhance it, showing rules can be broken to achieve an overall goal.

The cabin is relief carved in pine to a 5 inch depth.

Another reason for low pricing is, we feel our market will not pay the price we deserve. If this is true, we need to find a market that will pay the fair price? In most cases I think it's our fear of going to a show and not selling anything. I've had that fear, priced items low and still not sold anything. I'm sure almost every one of you can tell me about your bad shows with lots of horror stories. Well so can I. I've had shows that I was the only exhibitor and the bank manager asked me to move so the cold wind wouldn't blow my carvings and hit his building, and a show where a tornado followed the river and I was set up on the bridge over that river. Over the years I can tell you that bad shows don't have a big effect on overall sales.

The Covered Bridge is relief carved in black walnut to 1.5 inch depth.

Let me prove it to. Ask yourself the question, are you overstocked with carvings? I bet none of you are. Even though you may have a few that you would love to sell, I would bet that if you had to get ready for a show you would have to do a bunch of carving. That was the way it was with me also. So I thought if I raised my prices I would sell less maintaining the same income. Well it didn't happen. I sold more at the higher prices. I added 50% to all my prices and still had no inventory.

A little side story as an example.

After this price increase, I was working a show that I had worked for many years. An investor that had bought some of my work in the past came into my booth. He pointed to a carving and said, "You had that one last year." I said "yes." He said, "Do you know why you haven't sold it yet?" I asked" Why?" He said, "I'll tell you this because I am not going to buy it. Your price is too low. When someone walks up interested in it, they have a price in mind. And when that price is lower, they think, something must be wrong with it? They loose interest and walk away." He continued, "Add 20% to that price and you'll sell it at this show." He was correct, I did add 20% and I did sell it at that show.] My point is that it may not be a low priced market, just that you think it's a low priced market. Price you work to show there is nothing wrong with it.

I price my work using the following methods for a guideline.

1) Price it as though you just got an order to do 50 of them. Woodcarvings don't get cheaper in large volume. Imagine yourself about half way through an order of 50 pieces, and ask yourself if you would be happy with the price you're getting for them.

2) Try to establish a guideline for charging what your time is worth. Most carvers don't think this is valid. Comments like, you can't charge by the hour because nobody could afford it, or you can't price artwork by the hour, or I don't do it full time, are not valid reasons either. Mechanics charge you $40 to $50 per hour to work on your car? Are not your creative skills at least at par with the mechanic? I cannot remember any customer thinking I was high priced. I tell the customer before I even quote the job that I'm very high priced. I also act like I'm proud of being high priced and it has never turned anyone away. My guideline ranges between $25 to $50 per hour depending on the work and whom it's for. If I carve off site it's a minimum of $400 per day plus expenses.

3) Try to establish a price guideline based on the carving area or size. When I work a show people will come up and ask how much would it cost to carve something they describe. I don't have time to write their name and work up an accurate price on the spot and actually all they are after is a budgetary price to see if they might be interested. So I devised a quick pricing method that is surprisingly accurate.

For any relief carving I use $2.40 per square inch of carved area, plus material. For carvings in the round, it's not so easy, I take the height in inches and square that number for the labor dollars, plus material. I also have a minimum order of $250 for labor plus material. So if you were to ask me about a relief plaque that would measure 12 X 18 inches. I would price it by calculating the area at 216 square inches at $2.40 per square inch, equals $518 plus material. If the material was 2 inch thick black walnut the material is $50 plus 1 hour glue time at $50 = $100 for material. The total price is $518 labor plus $100 material = $618. If the customer wanted a budgetary price on a carving in the round in pine 24 inches high or long whichever is greater. Take the greater dimension in inches and square it (24 X 24 = 576) I use $576 for labor, plus material which could be about 36 board feet at $4 per board foot = $144 plus glue time at 3 hours = $150 for a total material cost of $294. A budgetary price would be, labor $576 plus material $294 = $870. This is normally the lowest price and increases based on detail. I can give them a quick number that I don't have to remember. If they ask me again next year, I'll be giving them the same number and that's important to a customer to know I have standards for pricing.

The grapes are relief carved in cherry to 1/4 inch depth.

The three guidelines above do not eliminate all the guesswork. The guideline help in placing a fair value that is not based on flaws or market. Normally I start with the third method, based on area or size. Then I use the second method trying to guess how long it will take and plug in the hourly rate that I want for this job. I compare the 2 methods and see if they are about the same. Most of the time they are. Then I look at method one and try to imagine doing 50 of them and see if I still would be happy with the price. The last thing I do is gut-feel if there are other factors to consider.

Have I ever missed a quote?

Oh yes I have, both ways, but it all seems to average out. Receipts are another important document in placing value on your work. Many of our carving go to family and friends. We have no intention of charging them full price or maybe no price. What I do is make out a receipt showing what the real full price would be. Then I show the discount subtracted off the full price and the total. They seem to appreciate it much more knowing the true value and seeing the discount and also knowing the replacement cost for insurance purposes. (Question?) Have you ever carved something for a friend that would cost about $50 and because he was a friend you charged him $10? He, being a friend, wants to help you get your business started, he goes out and gathers up orders for 5 more at the $10 price? The receipt showing the full price stops that from happening.

Putting the proper value on your art is a mater of respect. If you treat your art with the utmost respect and discipline it will take you to new levels of creativity. Realizing how important your art is to you is a matter of respect. Your art is not only a source of your happiness but you will never realize the full impact it has on others. When you respect your art, others will respect it and be more willing to pay what it is worth.

Joe Dillett