The More Things Change, the More They [Change]: The Culture of Paying Dues, Cont’d.

The More Things Change, the More They [Change]: The Culture of Paying Dues, Cont’d.

changes in woodworking

Shocking stockings. (Ladies’ Home Journal, February 1927)


Just what are we getting at when we invoke the culture of paying dues? Here are a few insights.

1. Learning the ropes

Paying your dues involves learning not just the skills, but the ethics of your trade.* I don’t mean to imply that there’s just one ethic for any given trade; the sense of common identity and expected practices will vary from one group to another. But paying your dues includes learning and respecting the ethics of the groups to which you belong. I’m talking about matters such as punctuality, treating others with respect, focusing on the work at hand, and not looking at your phone during work time, in addition to expectations about how long particular processes should take, preferred methods of work, and sharing a sense of what’s funny (and what’s not).

Ultimately this comes down to understanding that you aren’t the only one in the room, and you don’t get to call all the shots. There are other points of view to take into account. Whether or not you agree with those points of view, you have to learn to live with them, and if you’re unwilling to tolerate them in silence, you need to figure out how to challenge them constructively. In other words, paying your dues involves growing up, in professional terms.

2. Encountering the non-romantic side of professional woodworking, and making your peace with it

For those who run their own business, paying dues also means learning about the laws, taxes (such as sales tax), and local codes that pertain to your trade – all relatively easy to investigate (provided that you realize you do need to investigate them) – and then observing them. In other words, paying dues is as much about knowing what you don’t know as what you do. What you don’t know can get you into big trouble. And flouting laws or taxing authorities can cost you your livelihood.

3. Pacing expectations

Just as paying your dues involves doing more grunt work than glory – sweeping the floor, maintaining the machines, cleaning the bathroom (if your shop has one), making those 200 coasters/lap desks/cutting boards that pay the regular bills, or routing the dovetails for the current kitchen job’s 23 drawers — it is also about pacing your expectations based on experience gained through economic ups and downs. As with anything else you didn’t know you didn’t know [sic.], failing to allow for sudden and possibly protracted downturns can be the downfall of a business. Boom times are great, but they don’t last forever. Don’t base your financial plans on the expectation that they will. Too many people leverage their businesses and homes to buy new vehicles and expensive equipment, only to lose it all in a recession.

4. Other kinds of learning from experience

You may have exemplary skills straight out of the gate, but there’s a world of critical knowledge related to your work that- – for most of us, at least – can only be learned by living through failures (and, thankfully more often, non-lethal mistakes). My book Making Things Work is a compendium of examples. A perfect one that’s not in the book is this: It’s important to design furniture and cabinets that can actually be delivered. If you can’t get the armoire or coffee table into the room for which it’s intended, well…that’s a problem. Along with the skills and ethics involved in the day-to-day work of the shop, you have to learn about the geometry of interior spaces. The width of a doorway is one thing, but you have to allow for the thickness of the door within that space (or remove the door). An 8-foot ceiling will not be high enough to let you carry a 95-1/2-inch-high bookcase in on its side, then raise it into vertical position, because the hypotenuse formed by its height and depth will exceed the available height. A 40-inch-wide hallway will accommodate a 39-inch-wide dresser – unless there is a 1-1/4-inch-thick chair rail on both sides running the entire length. Oops.

Stairways, with their turns and landings, are a universe unto themselves. If you don’t account for the three-dimensional logistics of carrying a piece up a flight of stairs (or two, or five), you may find yourself having to hire a crane to make the delivery through a window – and paying for it, unless your customer is feeling generous. (The question of who’s responsible for the charges in such cases will come down to what you’ve specified in your contract.)

5. Maintaining existing power structures

We’ve finally arrived at the big one. As much as anything else, paying dues has traditionally been about who calls the shots. In a shop with multiple employees or partners, who gets first dibs at the plum jobs? In negotiations between a maker and her client, who gets to determine the value of a piece? Until you’ve paid your dues, you’ll have to “mind your place” — not necessarily a bad place to be, but one in which you may be more vulnerable to opportunistic abuse, as I described in my last post.

Notwithstanding the important stuff above that’s part of the culture of paying your dues, this culture is on the wane. And insofar as it’s based on perpetuating existing hierarchies in which some wield social and economic power over others, perhaps that’s not a bad thing.

*Among its definitions for “ethic,” the Oxford English Dictionary includes rules of conduct that apply to a particular group.

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