Wood Sculptor

Well established, South London-based, award-winning wood sculptor Jeff Soan is in his sixties and specialises in making articulated wooden creatures.

Ambivalence about Money

It’s so different talking to an established craftsman there is a gentleness and content which someone driving a younger business lacks. The money worries become  a  habit,  it’s a sort of pipe and slippers sort of worry

“I guess I worry less about the money now, I like a bit of insecurity”

Jeff’s attitude to money is ambivalent, he has a very full order book but as the recession stories took to the headlines he admits to contemplating what useful objects he could make

” I really thought my sales would fall away, everybody would be belt-tightening”

It didn’t work out like that. He thinks that’s  down to an ever-widening net, the more people buy his pieces, the more people come across them and want one themselves. His customers have become his salesmen.

“At the moment its the seal that is keeping my business going. I sell about one a week. “

When the seal first emerged in about 1990 it was priced at  £75 now it costs £300 but in galleries it costs much more.

“I raised the price every time I sold one, I went over £300 but I bought it back down as I was not comfortable going higher”

When I push him on why he is not comfortable, he can’t really explain

“The seal has sold for  £600 in some galleries but in my dusty shed £300 is enough”

he tried to say something about making it  affordable but as he offers Jeff Credit, his answer to art credit arrangements the galleries use such as Own Art  it’s not really an answer.

Artist or Craftsman?

Like many craftsmen he is resistant to the concept of being an artist and charging art prices.  He feels that he wouldn’t be able to keep creating something new

“I am very self-aware and I know where I fail. I am not really an artist, this is repeatable work .”

This is no argument as plenty of artists make their living from prints of their work.
Jeff also claims to be a “wood butcher” He shows me some slithers of wood of varying thicknesses as proof of his imperfect technique,  he insists his long time assistant Julia is far more proficient. But actually that proves he is more artist than craftsman. Also he is fussy. He talked of abandoning this Otter as his eyes  were not exactly symmetrical

Imperfect otter

I said that exact symmetry in humans was deemed beauty and is very rare, so his otter was fine. He said  his wife Barbara left the business in the early days over a row between them about the placement of duck eyes. So he’s not that much of a wood butcher if he is so demanding about the finished product.

The argument about not being able to keep inventing new pieces is equally false as recently the  Cutty Sark  gave him some of the boat’s  orignal timbers to work with

And he has already produced two entirely new pieces

An automata of the Cutty Sark rolling the waves

And an articulated sculpture of Captain Woodget’s Collie

It’s not that Jeff doesn’t see where his work could take him, he told me about the One Tree Project where artists made pieces from the wood of a single tree

“Guy Tapin’s wren sold on the phone for £1000 my wren was £50”

Guy Taplin sells out of a Cork street gallery and commands huge prices Jeff says he’s fed up with galleries and is doing more direct shows.

He has even put some pieces on Folksy where  he sells everything he lists. It costs 20p an entry and 5% commission

“I get a trickle of income from Folksy, a lovely little extra income that keeps my PayPal topped up”

The Man Who would not Charge More

Well I don’t completely buy any of his explanations, perhaps part of the answer lies in his past

Here he is sitting on the steps of a friend’s house in Ikaria in Greece in 1974, he is a romantic and an idealist, fresh out of Goldsmiths having studied art and design. This is a guy who is going to go his own way. He hated Goldsmiths as he is  a practical sort at the height of the non figurative fashion in art schools. He gets married, has a family and supports them by becoming a builder as he had done some skivvying for his mate’s builder dad and he is anti art after Goldsmiths

Jeff is still a romantic, he’s going  back to Ikaria, where he was left a little plot of land, with a container full of materials to build himself a rudimentary dwelling incorporating the container into the build.

His Achilles Heel is his desire not to be corralled into any single activity, he is in love with his extra curriculum projects. He has plenty of creativity but he wants to use it to please himself . He is simply not motivated by money. Go to his website, click gallery and it splits to sculpture and “other interests”  His conversation is full of projects and creative passions.

On his blog he lists cycling, composting, painting, photography, bookbinding, greenroofing, wood, recycling, house renovation and Ikaria as his interests.

I think it suits him to let his wood sculptures give him enough to live on, as it stands it is a business he can engage and disengage from as he wishes. It was no accident that when he interviewed his book-keeper, the only thing that she could sit on was a full-sized  articulated pig. He says he is

“a bit naive when it comes to money, I really don’t know what I make as long as its enough.”

I don’t think he is naive, I think he is choosing how he wants to live and that means not maximizing his income

“I like to flit; computing, chat, work – to always choose the path with the heart”

When Disaster Strikes

Any business hits disaster every so often, but Jeff seems to ride the waves remarkably happily. In November 1996 his garden studio burnt down. The woodburner’s chimney got too hot and set an accumulation of leaves on the roof alight. He says by Christmas he was up and running again. He was given money, tools and temporary premises ” it was a heart warming experience.”

It’s predecessor burnt down the studio

More recently Jeff nearly lost the tendons in his right hand He had the blade saw running and the postman knocked at the studio door with a parcel and the hideous happened. His hand has recovered but he viewed the time off work “as a bit of a holiday” and practised writing with his left hand ” which was actually more legible than my normal writing”  He meant to paint a red circle on the floor round the blade saw but he still hasn’t done so.

The hand eating saw

The really terrible disaster “much worse than the fire ” was when he discovered he had to pay VAT hence the hasty arrival of a book-keeper.

Employing an Assistant

Jeff has got working with an assistant down to a fine art. Julia has been working with him since 1991. He pays her a good hourly rate and she comes in at midday. She executes many of his pieces

“I generate it , she produces it. It’s an area I feel a little bit uncomfortable about. Some of the fish I make I haven’t touched until I sign them”

Because she comes in at midday, it means Jeff gets the studio to himself in the mornings and her presence in the afternoons is “companionable” He says she is his quality control

“When I make things I am concerned with the impression and the shaping. She is more careful, points out deficiencies diplomatically ‘Did you want to leave those bandsaw marks’

 and far better at packing “there is a part of my brain that just wont pack”

He gets around the need to keep her continually supplied with work  by ceding the small creature part of the business entirely to her, which he sells alongside his own at shows on her behalf , while she chips in with some of the stand cost. Jeff used to employ two assistants but he found that meant that he was demoted to maintenance man and was constantly in the way.

Picture of Jeff’s office compiled with Microsoft ICE one of his latest passions


Jeff finds he needs to spend 1-2 hours on the computer a morning and then starts in his workshop about 10.30am  and finishes around 6 in the evening.

“I do have a wonderful time and I feel well paid and I am doing better now than I have ever done”

Getting to the comfortable place Jeff is now  has taken 24 years. In 1987 he was making batch produced wooden penguins which he sold at Greenwich craft market. He’s had good and bad luck, he hasn’t chased money and  he has succeeded in living the life he wants to.

If you are a wood worker with a younger business and would like a bit of honest feedback then leave me a comment .

Craftsperson’s Seven Deadly Sins

So your business is up and running, BUT how many of these Deadly Sins are you committing?


REALLY? Yes really. You wanted to be a craftsman because you enjoy making, so you are making stock.

Once you have lots, you will go and sell it, until then you will make. Lots because you don’t want to run out  and find yourself turning customers away. Also customers need lots to choose from, the more you can offer the better chance you have of a sale.

BUT it’s just not going to be like that. You will sell some, or possibly none, not all  of what you have made. Stuff sells in fads, one day everyone wants one thing, another something different. If you carry a lot of stock of any item you will at some point be left with a lot of it as buying patterns change. Make to replace sold pieces or to create a new product

CHOICE confuses the customer, they find it impossible to choose so they don’t buy. Choose between three colourways and you have a favourite, ten and you struggle. You need impulse>choice> sale  to be simple not complex.

CONSIDER: Cost of materials; time taken to make; room needed for storage and its realistic chance of being sold within the next month. If you make ten, sell six, then the cost of the unsold four have to be borne by the six you did sell. The ideal is make one, sell one.

Overstocking: Innocent or Guilty?


When you were little the fun of nearly all the make-believe games lay in the setting up, arranging the shop, the teddy bear school, the train set . Dont play at setting up a business.

You don’t need to buy headed STATIONERY nor a thousand business cards, run your stationery off as you use it on the computer and buy low-cost 100 run business cards from someone like Moo cards Why? because what needs to go on your stationery will change rapidly.

Dont even open a BUSINESS ACCOUNT. It will cost you a lot of money in bank charges to run. A self-employed sole trader can use their personal account and PayPal or similar to take credit and debit cards.

You are selling handmade so HAND DO as much as you can, it does not make you look unprofessional, it makes you look like a genuine hands on craftsperson.

Dont tie too much money up in MATERIALS even if buying in thousands does seem to do wonders for your unit cost,  as you need to use every last scrap to achieve it.

Overspending on set up:  Innocent or Guilty?


If you sell online but do not have a direct selling website with a shopping cart which you have daily control of, then  you have no website.

Being on Etsy or similar just won’t cut it. You need to have somewhere to tempt your loyal customers.  Why would you want that to be Etsy when they might well get waylaid by other craftspeople’s offers and spend there and not with you?

A website helps you consolidate as you gain customers. Do some computer web design evening classes, then BUILD YOUR OWN SITE. It won’t start great, but it will get better and better as you learn more and realise how to do things. Buying off the shelf by employing a web designer means his fitting your business to his design, whereas you will fit your design to your business and it will evolve with you.

It also means that all editorial and social media mentions have immediate sales potential through your website. Without a website you are always paying a premium to sell your work through commission or exhibitor fees. You need to break free of that as soon as you possibly can.

No website: Innocent or Guilty?


It is remarkable how few craftspeople really understand where they are in the simplest of terms. They do not know how much profit they are making or even their actual turnover.

It’s about EVASION, as if the profit police will come and lock them up. You have to know. The figures are your playthings, half an hour with a calculator a month will help you see what you need to do. Where is the money being spent and  where is it coming from? Is it better or worst than this time last year? Inside even the worst of figures sits some helpful stuff . The unopened bill destroys faster than the opened one.

 Poor Accounting: Innocent or Guilty?


Yeah that old bugbear. I am talking to the hand here. You are not going to listen. I don’t know why I am bothering .

I have heard every excuse in the book, “it’s not art”, “people can’t afford it”, “its only made out of paper”

So you would rather fail, than ask customers to pay more , can’t you see that is irrational? Yes you will lose sales if you double your prices, you could lose half your sales. Now please get a cup of tea, go and lay down in a darkened room and think about that. Think hard.

Got there? Worked it out? Yes exactly that would be great, you would get the SAME MONEY FOR HALF THE WORK .

Be experimental about putting your prices up, try three different prices on similar pieces and you will find your customers don’t automatically buy the cheapest. A Harrods buyer knows that Primark sell clothes cheaper but that isn’t what it’s about for them.

Always factor in time it took to make, not just in terms of how much you think your labour is worth per hour, but also look at it this way. If your selling line takes five hours to make and you can make for three days a week and you sell it for x then as you can only make six a week  it has to be sold at a least a sixth of a weeks income.

In pricing remember the SAS motto He who dares wins.

Cowardly Pricing: Innocent or Guilty?


Some makers are l shy and so they will do all kinds of things to not face their customers.

You have to get out there at the most basic level and risk a mauling. It hurts when the other stalls sell and you are a lonely island but it happens and you just have to be pig-headed and accept its the wrong place, and wrong people Try again.

You have to understand you are part of what they are buying into, your skill, your lifestyle, so share stuff, if you live in a little cottage in the deepest wood Tell them. BE INCLUSIVE.

Customer Shy: Innocent or Guilty?


When you start out your expectations are often too high, the sooner you bring them down to earth the better.  Be determined, but be realistic or else you are going to feel DISAPPOINTED and unsuccessful when you are actually doing quite well.

£20,000 profit from a sole trading craftsperson is really good, anything over £10,000 is very respectable. It takes time, be patient, you will make  lots of mistakes, just learn from them.

Ignore the monkey on your shoulder who says you don’t have a real job It is about life choices People envy your way of  life it looks great from the solicitor’s office.

Set your mind to I AM NOT YET SUCCESSFUL BUT I AM GETTING THERE. It can easily take five years for a business to bed down.

Unrealistic Goals : Innocent or Guilty?

TELL ME your guilty score in the comments and where I can find you online. I will respond with a piece of tailor-made advice for your enterprise

101 comments later :

I am calling a halt on the tailor made advice on this post as I  want to write new stuff now. Thank you if you  took up the offer and especially to those who came back with feedback on the advice they got.

I frequently felt that I was shooting from the hip and what I had to say would have made harsh reading for many, but finding someone who will really tell you what they think is near impossible and so I told it how I thought it was.

Papier Mache Artist

Juanita Humphris has been working with Papier Mache  for 19 years and lives in deepest West Wales. She is an artist of considerable talent whose development has been rocked by  circumstance

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Having worked for 14 years in London, Juanita followed her sister and parents back to Wales and bought a  village house and two acres in Capel Dewi in Ceredigion    Her partner worked in computers in South East England so they had a second income stream . Most office jobs in Wales required Welsh which Juanita didn’t have, so she needed to start-up on her own . At college she  studied maths, physics and economics but came from an artistic family.

“My parents’ view was you don’t have to worry about studying art, you will do it if you are drawn to it.”

Working in Papier Mache was more or less accidental

“The village knew I had one of those log making machines so bought me newspapers. I got a couple of books on Papier Mache and from there I made it up. It all depends on what you are making, you soon realise that anything goes.”

In the early 90s she started making her first products and sold in local craft fairs, she did a trade show but realised that mass production didn’t please her. Craft fairs always accepted her and  gallery exhibitions gave her self belief.

Her partner had a heart attack and so joined her in Wales. He helped in the business doing the initial white coat of emulsion on pieces,  the computer work and the deliveries. He had a work pension and the business  was viable. Then they had a blow which changed things from being difficult, to being almost insupportable. Her partner became really ill and needed care. He could no longer help with things which  meant that  Juanita had to fight to manage everyday for eight years. Two years ago he died and she is now emerging from that shadow.

All this is personal, but for any craftsman or artist their ability to create is affected by what happens  in their  life. More crucially anyone’s ability to judge  their own  work is fragile and under stress it can become impossible.

Over the years Juanita has produced a huge range of pieces much of it made to sell to visitors rather than collectors. You can see the fashions come and go flowers; angels; sea creatures and kitchen plaques. Then the humorous pieces: the dressed animals; the surreal  clocks; the  furniture as animals.

To be honest much of it is now seems not that exciting. However there are some wonderful pieces of a completely different order, ones that get down to the  essence of the animal she is portraying with some stupendous textures and a real mastery of material. These works tend to date from the period just before her partner became really ill or are current. Yet Juanita said “I respect the whole body of my work”

I bought a piece from Juanita and commissioned another. I bought this cockerel, it has attitude and vigor  and technically it stands with perfect balance and just look at the wonder of those tail feathers.

Juanita said that what she really likes is  construction

“Painting can bug it up”

You can see that her painting is more hesitant and sometimes reduces something of real artistic merit. Look for example at these two pieces, the fox which is unfinished against the polar bear which is painted.

The fox Juanita, laughingly called him the “Spirit Fox”, is gaining lots from his texture, it’s as if the newspaper glimpsed through the tissue paper is his muscle straining through his taut skin, it’s an accident of his creation but its magical. The polar bear  is well crafted but he has become a toy zoo animal with  dots for eyes and nose. The fox is art, the polar bear is craft. Importantly they can carry utterly different price tags. The fox much higher although paradoxically he will have taken fewer stages to create.

Another factor which I think is important is that there has been very little connection between Juanita’s personal style and her work, only now are they  drawing closer together. She has strong personal style; her dress, her interiors and her garden all express a gentle aesthetic.

This is her kitchen where she works, it is calm, deeply timeless with a whimsical Gothic note, but much of her past work is noisy and boisterous ephemeral.

At the moment Juanita is earning a terrifyingly small amount of money £5000 a year. She has used her partner’s insurance to pay for capital projects such as paying off the mortgage but even so nobody can manage on such a tiny income however simply they live. Yes she can grow her own food but imagine the petrol costs. The reality made me feel ashamed

“Each tea bag needs to do two cups of tea, I ran out of black peppercorns and thought well I can do without”

However she has a good way of selling she belongs to the Pembrokeshire Craft Makers who run a full calendar of exhibitions for their members.

“It costs about £70 a year and you pay per show, about £20 a week with 12% commission on each sale  You have to go and set your own things up and take them down at the end and take your turn one day a week to sit and take the money for the whole show”

What is useful about this arrangement is the shows are relatively local and it saves on admin and being locked into a show all week unable to make. It also gives a useful overview of what is selling, prices and the companionship of other makers. It would be terribly easy to test the water for different aspects of her work, she could do a tourist orientated show one week and a grandly priced fine piece one  the next.

I think Juanita’s real huddle is getting sufficient distance from her work to reassess and to not over finish pieces. To notice what happens under her hands and to exploit texture and material without assuming that it must end up painted and varnished.

She is a fabulous maker with an inherent understanding of how to balance pieces. She sits at her kitchen table and makes something out of nothing beginning with crunched paper and masking tape or a chicken wire frame. She works with pulp as well, mixed in her baker’s dough mixer adding wallpaper paste soaked newspaper,  linseed oil  and PVA  She said the Victorians would add garlic to keep the insects away from eating the animal glue.

 In many ways Juanita is on the winning stretch. She has a house, land and outbuildings in a place where she wants to be.  She also has a huge knowledge of her craft, she can think through almost any technical challenge and work out how she can achieve what she wants. She has hardly any web presence but she has a good way of reaching buyers and has established buyers and commission work.

Like almost every other crafts person she under sells her work. The polar bear pictured earlier is tagged at £18 but he would have taken 3 to 4 hours work yet  she told me she charged £12 an hour This financial  disconnect  is one of the reasons she is earning so little. The reality is that she is valuing a day’s work at £36  and from that she must take her costs. If she doubles the price and sells half as many she would get the same income as she does at the moment and have 50% more time to make more pieces. She is not charging £12 an hour at all,  this little polar bear shows she is charging £4.50 That means no more peppercorns – ever.

But I still think that in a couple of years time I will not be able to buy her work as it will be beyond my means. She is a considerable artist attuned to her environment. The important stepping-stones are in place, all she needs to do now is respect her own abilities and really indulge in making what utterly pleases her. She has at last arrived at that point when a good craftsman becomes an artist. She just needs self belief.

Hours worked 35 to 40 hours a week  Earns £5000 a year