JOEY CHALK: crafting fine, handmade timber furniture

Third-generation carpenter and now furniture maker Joey Chalk began his working life as a builder … specifically in his father’s business. “Building was fun and I was good at it. Dad was ‘old school’ by today’s standards and if I were still building, my brother and I would be the last of a generation of builders who could do every part of a house build.

Joey Chalk 2 Left: Joey Chalk – “… people want well-built, unique pieces for a reasonable price, and that’s what I give them.” Right: Federal desk (front and back views): made from solid walnut, walnut burl veneer and tiger maple veneer. The drawers are exotic purple heart and zebrano.

“We would start by laying out the house on the grassy plot of land and we’d do every job except plumbing and electrical. That also included us building the kitchen and cabinetry.

“In addition to learning a broad skill set that I still use today, the client got a much better deal. One team of builders meant one predictable labour cost. We would largely use one supplier so we would get good prices … as would the client. And, most importantly, they could rely on us to get the job done.”

Around 10 years ago Joey decided to start his own building company (KingPost) with wife Holly – after his father committed to a work opportunity overseas. They began specialising in villa and bungalow renovations and ended up employing four full-time builders.

For Joey, it was a busy and stressful time involving sixty-hour-plus weeks. “I was pushed ‘off the tools’, as running four builders required me to be in the office full-time.”

New direction

It coincided with a period of ill health, which gave him time to reflect and work out what he really wanted to do … “and that was to make cool furniture. My in-laws’ place had a good-sized workshop underneath and I was able to spend a couple of hours a day making furniture for their new house.”

By the time his treatment was over, he had committed to moving towards a much more stress-free lifestyle and started KingPost TimberWorks.

He eventually outgrew his first workshop and shifted into his current 200 square metre premises in Hood Street, Wellsford – from where he services the greater Auckland area, with some commissions also going to Australia.

Glass Table Coffee table designed by Joey Chalk: “A proof of concept piece made from iroko with perspex, but intended to have 10mm glass. I envisioned a piece that appears to float, and also wanted to incorporate a structure where the top of the table was used as a bracing element.”

Quality over quantity

Joey concentrates on producing high-quality handcrafted furniture and custom finishings – everything from vanities and coffee tables to dining suites and built-in wardrobes. “I should clarify that my business is making one-off pieces. Sometimes I will do two or three of the same thing, but never a run of 50 or 100. For me, that is creatively stunting.

“My experience tells me that I could make a line of furniture – for example, three styles of chairs and four tables where each of these styles could be customised with paint, stain, upholstery, etc. It’s very easy once you have the designs sorted and jigs and procedures in place.

“You could either pump these out and try to sell them (difficult, at best, to get what they are worth) or you could try to make only these pieces to order … perhaps even getting a standing order from a retailer for a whole set per month. Great, but boring, and there would be very little room for movement price-wise. I find that when a client sees a ‘range of products’ they expect lower prices as they assume some kind of ‘mass production’. And in the case of retailers, they will really push you down on price.

“More and more I’m gaining work because clients are sick of furniture that is cheaply built, made from rubbish, doesn’t last and caters to the tastes of the ‘masses’ – and there are simply thousands of the same item out there. I have found that people want well-built, unique pieces for a reasonable price, and that’s what I give them.

“I consider myself to be a ‘creative’, as it’s put these days, and I want it to stay that way. The last thing I want is to grow my business to a point where I delegate my job to someone else. I love what I do and have built a good reputation and client base while developing my business to a level I can sustain.”

The art of instruction

As an extension of his furniture making, he posts instructional videos on YouTube. “That really came about by accident. I had started making videos for my clients, which I would give them when I delivered their pieces. Then someone said I should put them online.

“After seeing what was available, I decided to focus my videos on the experienced woodworkers because there are numerous beginner videos. The motivation now is to continue producing good work and showing how I do it. It’s become apparent over the years that my approach is just plain different from most. Thus, I’m told, there are many tips, tricks and methods which people pick up just by watching and listening to my processes. At this point it is also a good passive source of income.”

Household Left: Crib and change table: the crib converts to a first bed and the change table becomes a bookcase/display unit. Top right: Point-of-sale counter for an Auckland hair salon (designed by Nicholas Dunning, OTO Group, and realised by Joey Chalk). Bottom right: Chest of drawers – solid American maple and Tasmanian oak. Sits on hidden wheels in the plinth for easy placement.

Trade tips

Joey is refreshingly upfront when it comes to discussing the business of doing business. “The number one question I have had from people considering becoming full-time is, ‘How do I find clients?’ The simplest answer is that they should be finding you. Right from day one, I recognised my business is in the service industry before anything else. Service is what customers remember, talk about and recommend, and is the best way to get clients.”

When contacted initially, he says clients usually have a good idea of what they want overall, but few clues when it comes to details. “That’s where some quick thinking and imagination come into play. Throwing out a couple of design ideas or solutions right away tends to get the clients excited about the project and makes them want to proceed. This is ultimately what we want – a sale.”

Joey says a typical first email from a client will say something like: “Hi, I’m wanting a new dining table made, that seats about six people. Could you tell me how much this is going to cost please?”

In reply, he will ask for size/height/style details and the type of wood and finish required. He will also forward some pictures of tables he has made, explaining what they are made of, the differences in construction and what they cost.

“This is a really good way to vet potential clients. If you never hear from them again, fine … most likely they were not willing to spend what you need to make it worthwhile. If they come back to you with the info you need, you can almost always be sure you’ll get the job because they know what the potential cost is likely to be.

Quotable value

“Remember, clients will accept a quote based on their perception of value. If they think the price is right, that’s all that matters. As long as you make them what they want, the way they want it, it doesn’t matter what you do with their money. Of course, before hitting ‘send’ on that quote, you need to have made your drawings of the project. This is super important if, or when, it comes to a dispute with a client. If you draw and describe the piece just as you will make it, it becomes very hard for a client to say, ‘Oh, I thought it was going to be different from this’.”

Joey says his normal practice is to charge a client 50% of the job cost upfront. “Sometimes you will hear nothing back from them at this point. Most of the time, though, it’s paid reasonably quickly as the client is still excited about the project.

“If the job is some kind of built-in cabinetry then I will almost certainly need to make a site visit. I never make a visit before I have the deposit as this can easily be a waste of half a day.

“If it’s a freestanding piece of furniture, I get the client to give me a couple of photos showing where it will go. If they have already told me they want an oak table, I’ll send them some samples and get some info on what type of finish (clear coat or paint) they want.”

Outdoor Furniture Left: U-shaped sofa in American walnut: “Technically challenging because all the support and structure comes from the 40mm-thick seat base. The back supports are dovetailed into the seat, so mechanically resist being pushed backwards.” Right: Outdoor furniture made from dense and durable iroko.

Communication

He stresses the importance of keeping the client informed. “I’ll let them know I’ve confirmed a place in my job queue and when I expect to be getting to their job. And I’ll advise how long the build time should be – all going to plan.”

Joey says delivering the final product can be an anxious time. “I once heard an older furniture maker say his goal was simply to make just one perfect piece. After all, we are only human and, try as we might, there may still be some imperfections – although most likely only you know where they are and only you can find them.

“Keep in mind that your standards are almost certainly higher than your client’s. That doesn’t take away from the nerves of the first few moments when the client has a good look. As expected if it’s all good, you can give them the final invoice.”

Michael Smith

All images © Joey Chalk

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