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A Formula for Figuring Your Time

Time Sheet

How long will it take you to complete the project?

When I worked as a General Contractor, one of the most frustrating things was dealing with subcontractors’ schedules.  I ask a simple question.  How many days do you need to complete your portion of the project; typical response “2 days, boss, 2 days”.  Four days later, they’re still not done.

I often wondered when they gave me a hard bid of a $1,000 and it took them three more days to complete the job than what they thought, are they making any money?

This got me thinking, as I have fallen into the “oh crap, it took me longer than I thought” scenario from time to time.  How to be sure you are charging enough to cover your time, and how long is this job really going to take.   Even if you charge a day rate, our figure your price by other means; my formula below is a good exercise to go through to be sure you are charging enough for your time and turning a reasonable profit

As custom furniture makers, artists, and makers, we rarely build the same piece twice, so knowing exactly how long it will take to build a custom piece is somewhat of a guessing game.  Each piece is invariably different from the last.  This makes it difficult to come up with a price and what delivery date to tell the customer.

This is when experience comes into play. If you have been paying attention all those years, you may just intuitively know.  My experience when dealing with most people is they think they know how long it will take, but they don’t.   On the other side, you may be just starting.   Don’t let that hold you back; everybody needs to start somewhere.  When first starting out, you will have to play the guessing game until you have made enough things to know how long it will take.

To combat the guessing game and to give me peace of mind that I was charging enough hours to build my custom furniture, as well as provide better service to my customers with accurate delivery dates.  I started tracking how long it took me to do specific tasks.  I kept track of everything, even how many hours a week I spent working in the shop versus sitting at my desk doing marketing and invoicing tasks.

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Keeping track of the business operations outside of the shop is just as important as inside of the shop.  It will help you determine your time for non-billable hours verses billable hours, which is especially important when figuring your hourly shop rate.

The first step is to create a simple time sheet to keep track of your time.  I’m sure there are apps out there that can do all of this for you.  However, I wanted to be able to quickly log my time between tasks and not have to put my password into my phone and open the app every time I needed to log my time.  I found a simple paper time sheet worked best without affecting my workflow.

I kept the timesheet simple to create.  I made a spreadsheet with five columns.  Date, start time, end time, total time, and the task I did. You can download a copy of the Time Log I use to keep track of my time. 

Next, I kept track of my time. Every time I cut a mortise and tenon joint, I logged the start and stop time it took me.  If it took me 1 hr. to cut five joints, I now know that, on average it takes me 12 minutes to cut a mortise and tenon joint (60 minutes divided by 5 = 12 minutes)

Now I have a benchmark for how long it takes to cut a mortise and tenon on average.  When I bid on my next project, it may have 10 mortise and tenons.  I now know it will take me 2 hours to cut those, and I need to add 2 hours of labor to my bid.  (10 mortises X 12 minutes = 120 minutes)

I did the same thing for every common task, such as sanding, milling rough stock, applying finish, etc.   I timed how long it took to sand the project and divided that by how many board feet I bought for that project.  This allowed me to figure out how long it takes to sand a board foot.  I can then apply that to each project, number of board feet times how long it takes to sand a board foot.

Of course, this system isn’t without its flaws, and there is still some guessing going on to determine how long it will take to do custom tasks that are project-specific.  It also doesn’t take into account that a little mortise and tenon for a spindle will take less time than a large mortise and tenon for a bedpost.  However, I keep track of my time on every job and average all my jobs together.  This gives me an accurate benchmark to tell me on average how long it takes me to do each task.

After all averages are in, I have a frame of reference when figuring out how many hours of labor I will have in a project.  All I need to do is multiply the board feet I need for the project times the various tasks, such as rough milling, sanding, assembly, and applying the finish.  I also add the per piece items into the equation, such as, how many mortise and tenon joints I need to cut, how many dovetail drawers there are, etc. and multiply those by my average times.  If a particular piece of furniture has unusually large tenons, I know it will take longer than average to cut.  I can make an educated guess of how much longer and add that to my average.

Once I add up all my hours based on my average, I multiply that by the hourly rate to give me an average labor cost for this project size.  This is not my final price; I also compare the material cost, overhead, and profit to the perceived value to determine my final price.  By using this formula, I can be sure that I am charging enough to cover my time.

You can download my Bid Spreadsheet to help you create bids and keep track of your averages.  

I can also take the total estimated hours and divide that by how many hours a day I can spend building the project to come up with an estimated completion date.  If the formula tells me the project will take 90 hours to build and I spend 5 hours a day working on it, I will know that it will take an estimated 18 days to finish the project (90/5=18 days).  Before you tell your customer 18 days, be sure to add a few days for drying time between coats of finish, waiting for the glue to dry between steps, and days off/sick days.

Weather you charge by the hour or a day rate, knowing how long it will take you to do each task will help you better decided how many days or hours to charge for.  It will also improve your customer service; if you tell your customer it will take two weeks to complete, you will have some confidence that you will finish within those 2 weeks.

I’m the owner of Benham Design Concepts, a mixed media art studio where I design and build custom furniture and other works of art using wood, glass, stone, and various metals.
In this blog, I talk about the art I create, my journey, and the things I learn along the way.