Last year I was approached by a client who asked me to carve “something small” for him. Before he could tell me what it was he was after, he let me know right away that his budget was $80. I began thinking of the items that could work within that price range. As we talked about design ideas, he asked for a figurine of an eagle.
Well, the people that know me will know that I don’t just “carve an eagle”. The carving will include detail, proportionate cuts, and carved lines – not just painted. It would show every effort that would result in perfection.
He believed that since I carved full-sized masks and plaques that start at high-end prices, that surely a figurine as small as four inches high and wide should be about $80. I had a hard time letting this sale go. In fact, I had even started the carving to see how far I could get before agreeing to the project and the price.
The truth is: carving something smaller is actually much more difficult. It takes precision and puts a tremendous strain on my sight and back to make sure the tiny details are all there. I had initially taken one week to rough a small enough block to shape the eagle. It was to be one piece with wings outstretched, complete with the entire anatomically correct profile. I carved away the wasted wood and formed the design freehand for another week after that. Every feather had to be perfect, the beak had to be prominent, and I couldn’t miss a beat when it came to coordinating how it would all come together. Finally when I had the basic outline, I sanded the piece knowing the next step of painting was going to take a toll on my eyes. I hadn’t even thought about the carving process yet! So for me, it was one step at a time. Sanding such a small piece requires a lot more care and special items to get in between the nooks and crannies. Wood is wood, and the coarseness of the material doesn’t matter whether it’s a six-foot mural or a four-inch figurine. It required the same sanding steps from low to high grain in order to get to the painting step. Since I couldn’t use an auto sander, I wrapped the paper around the eraser-end of a pencil and even cut small sizes out to slide in-between, sort of like flossing teeth. But in order to get most of the area sanded, I wrapped a small bit of paper around a Popsicle stick to put some muscle behind it.
It was during this painstaking sanding step that I accidentally broke a wing.
By this time, two weeks had passed. Had I agreed to $80, even if I had completed the eagle, the fourteen days at that point was earning me half of minimum wage. I was looking at another week’s worth of work for repairing, painting, and carving, so in the end my efforts were going to be worth $4 a day. Since I spent at least five hours a day working on it, my wage was now looking like 80 cents per hour. I began thinking that I should just simply run a lemonade stand twice a week on Uchuck days in order to cover the operating costs.
I called my client and apologetically had to decline the order. Luckily I hadn’t agreed to it in the first place, but after spending the time to see how much work would be involved, I knew this project wasn’t going to be fair to me for the amount of work I was doing.
I did offer to continue on with the piece with a fair fee, but this surprised him and he told me it was best to cancel the order.
It’s so rare that I have to backtrack and decide not to continue to do a piece or to start one in the first place. But there are times when I need to defend my time and creativity.
When someone sees artwork with tiny detailing, beading, weaving, painting or carving – it’s likely taken the artist an incredibly long time to make sure that their name and reputation is protected while making the piece perfect. This is why the price tag on such items are in fact higher than work that may be doubled in size.
And so the eagle sits on a shelf in my shop as a reminder. Tourists and guests are welcome to visit me anytime to view this and other pieces as works-in-progress.
(Lemonade is 25 cents per glass. Tips are welcome.)