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James Bullen: How it started vs How it’s going

Many people who come to study at the Chippendale School of Furniture have one goal in mind when they graduate – to set up their own woodworking business.

James Bullen is one such graduate – after studying on the 2019/20 Professional Course, James then went on to set up Black Bear Bespoke Furniture.

In this blog, James spoke to us about how his business has progressed since graduating – and the challenges, successes and highlights along the way.

Setting up for success

Where have the last 18 months gone? One minute you’re spending every waking minute in a huge workshop with expert tutors, amazing machinery and twenty fellow woodworkers, (all in the idyllic surroundings of the East Lothian countryside) - then before you know it, it’s back to reality!

The Chippendale School helped me to hit the ground running by instilling the importance of using social media to document the pieces of furniture we produced and the process of making them.

This generated interest from friends and family which meant I had work ready to go when I left. The work I did for them and then marketed on social media grew my portfolio and helped to bring in a customer base that was gained on merit.

Learning the tricks of the trade

Since graduating, I have worked on a wide range of different projects on a quest to find what I like doing, what is viable and above all, profitable!

I started with built-in wardrobes and storage, which, if you manage your time well, can be profitable. I found working with large sheet material tough but I managed to produce items that were to a high standard.

I worked on a commission with a fellow Chippendale graduate, Sam Alton, which worked well and the end result (a bespoke oak door) was amazing and the customer was overjoyed.

A special (but challenging!) project

The project I’ve most enjoyed to this point and am still currently working on is a commission from a local hardware store to turn their old counter into something new. It held a lot of memories for the owners, having served thousands of customers over it for the last 35 years.

I decided to turn it into a window display piece, incorporating a walnut box frame, with four fork handles morphing into candles (as a nod to the famous Two Ronnie’s sketch) and a brass plaque. I presented this using CAD drawings and a presentation pack - all skills taught at the School and invaluable for making a good first impression.

This has not been a simple project - and is a really good example of the ups and downs you will face as a woodworker!

I planned to encase the elements in resin but after several test pieces and lots of research (it was a deep pour and due to the cost of resin I couldn’t do a practice run) I had to just go for it. The pour went well and it was looking stunning until... the heat started to increase rapidly and the resin started boiling!

Instead of taking 24 hours to set, it took 15 minutes, completely cracking and swallowing all the hard work I’d put into the handles and frame. I had no choice but to remake it from scratch.

Moral of the story: Not everything will go your way and mistakes will be made. Take a deep breath, dust yourself off and you won’t make the same mistake again (hopefully!)

The highs and lows of self-employment

Working for yourself means you work when you want to, and I get to see my wife and children far more than I did when I worked a desk job for a big corporation. You also get to express yourself creatively and you are the BOSS!

On the other hand, there is a lot of competition in this industry, you work long hours and the work can be physical. You will sometimes feel like the profit doesn’t seem to match the amount of time and love you have put into a piece. That said, you will get to work on interesting projects and leave behind the legacy of the furniture you have made.

My time at the Chippendale School was one of the best years of my life and to anyone contemplating signing up, I would urge you to take the plunge and go for it! You will learn many joinery and woodworking skills, but also marketing and design skills that will be crucial if you choose to make cabinet making your career.

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Many thanks to James Bullen of Black Bear Bespoke Furniture for his contribution to this blog. You can follow James’ woodworking journey on his Facebook and Instagram accounts.

If you are inspired by James’ story, you can find out more about the Professional Furniture Making Course here.

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