I am a big fan of Paul Sellers, and I was reading his blog the other day. He pointed out how efficient modern machinery is at mass producing furniture, and how a factory with machines set up to produce very complex wooden constructions such as Windsor chairs could still produce and assemble these things at an incredible speed - tens of chairs every hour, all perfect, pouring off a conveyor belt and into the shops. This is how you can buy a Windsor chair online for little more than a couple of hundred pounds, maybe even less.
It takes me a minimum of 3 days of work to make one Windsor chair. That is three full days of work. I have to source the timber and cut it to size. I have to steam and bend the back bows and clamp them in their moulds to cool and set. I have to turn the legs, undercarriage and arm posts. I have to shape all the spindles for the back. I have to find a large enough slab of wood, and then hollow it out to fit the human bottom so the chair is comfortable to sit on. Then I drill all the holes so all these parts fit together. Once this is all done I have to glue the whole thing together - that 60 joints to fit and glue together. Then the chair needs finishing......after sanding it will get maybe 4 coats of paint, with sanding and burnishing in between coats, and then a coat of oil or wax.
When its all finished, its often hard to think of how on earth you would be able to sell such a thing. My finished chairs are never perfect like the ones from the factory. (I leave undulations and tool marks in the seat - probably just so I can see that it is different and unique to anything else.) And, above all, it is expensive. Way more pricey than one of those Windsor's you can find on eBay. Why do I bother at all?
I don't really care if I can't sell a chair - I am not a full-time chair maker and my other job provides me with enough of an income that I can afford to spend some time practising a craft that I really love. Paul's writing made me realise that the days of people being able to make a good living from being able to make things by hand (like chairs) are gone, and the skills these people had are slowly being lost as their craft declines. I suppose one of the joys I find in wood work is the knowledge that I am able to do something which is much less common than it used to be. I've never been a big follower of fashion!
Oh, and the other reason a hand made Windsor chair might just be worth the extra money is in the comfort and aesthetics. My chairs are made of loads of 12mm thick spindles that alone would snap as soon as you weighted them, but when they are woven together in a chair, they hold your weight beautifully, and the chair can flex and will move to fit your body. A mass produced chair can't have thin spindles - they might break and clog up a machine, leading to down time and lost productivity. Mass produced furniture is, more often than not, constructed from big beefy parts that can safely and quickly be turned in a big copy lathe into chair legs and spindles. The resulting furniture is often thick and clumsy. I like to think that the handmade alternative can offer way more in both comfort and elegance.
As long as craftspeople can still make furniture that is too difficult to effectively copy using mass-production techniques, maybe there is still a place for us. But we'll never be rolling in money, that's for sure!