Jeff Soan is an artist, craftsman, toymaker and creator of incredible, breathtaking wooden creatures. We asked him to tell us more about his career and his Folksy shop Jeff Soan Wooden Creatures…
Can you tell us a little bit about your career path?
After Goldsmiths I became a teacher for four years. Teaching art in a secondary school wasn’t my idea of fun or well paid, so I trained as an international telephone operator. I saved enough to take off a year travelling. I met Barbara, now my wife, and we spent a year on the island of Ikaria in Greece. It was the best and most formative year of my life. There are some drawings of my time on Ikaria here. I then worked as a builder for 17 years as my family grew. I yearned for something more creative and fulfilling and became a toymaker.
Sketches from Ikaria
Are you a full-time maker?
I am and have been since the start in 1987.
How do you sell your work – online, wholesale, markets, galleries?
I started at Greenwich Craft Market. This was an essential testing and training ground. It was cheap to do, so I could experiment with designs, gauge reaction, price the work sensibly and deal with the public. I was then persuaded to do a trade show and started supplying shops and galleries. There is an efficiency to this, but I found it rather soulless. I still did some direct shows, like the Chelsea Craft fair and British Toymakers Guild shows, alongside the trade work. Five or six years ago I tired of the inevitable sale-or-return system and I decided to drastically reduce supplying galleries. Now I mostly sell direct. There was an immediate cash-flow benefit and I was back meeting the delightful people who were buying my work. The better craft shows are expensive to do but usually well worth it. I do Craft in Focus shows and MADE LONDON, along with open studios at home and in Brighton. I still show in some galleries as they can be an excellent shop window. I struggled for years designing and maintaining my website and eventually decided to stop wasting so much time. I now use Other Peoples Pixels because it’s easy to change the overall look and update, and it seems to suit my work. The shop on the site takes you to Folksy where I do all my online selling.
What kind of things did you consider before setting up your online shop?
Even though there is a facility on my website to sell my work, most of the creatures on there have been made and sold already, plus it’s in dollars, so I wanted a UK-based facility and Folksy seemed just right. Good look and feel, low fees and ease of use.
What channels do you use to promote your work?
My customers are my best ambassadors and lots of sales come from their friends and relations. I also use direct shows, of course. I am out there for lots of shows during the year and give out hundreds of cards – that brings in the majority of my work. I haven’t been comfortable with Facebook as it all seemed rather muddled with my personal postings, so I’ve recently created a new account which is solely business. I should be promoting that and getting you to like my page here! I also have a blog on which I post new work sometimes along with life’s ups and downs.
How do you set your prices?
Still after all these years with great difficulty. It’s mostly based on time spent, of course, but often with a gut feeling that somehow this is the right price.
Articulating Fish, £32 by Jeff Soan
How do you balance promoting and selling your work with being creative? How much time do you think you spend on each?
I simply work with priorities, as there is so much to do. I pick up the baby that’s crying the loudest! I try to spend 35 hours a week in the workshop. There is probably an equal time with everything else. I am always behind.
Are you a member of any guilds, and what support do you think they can offer?
I have belonged to The British Toymakers Guild for many years. They gave me fantastic support when a fire destroyed my workshop in 1994.
Is there anything you’ve learned along the way that you wish you’d known when you started?
That a moment’s inattention around machinery can be pretty disastrous. I had a serious accident to my hand a couple of years ago. Keep your scary attenna up around machines that bite!
Finally, have you got any tips for other makers?
- Always have a broad range of prices. It keeps the spirits up to be selling.
- A business card with an image of the work has worked wonders for me.
- Have a good website and keep it fresh – it’s your window to the world.
Read more about Jeff in our Meet the Maker interview
Very inspiring, some good tips and beautiful work.
Thanks for the tips Jeff, I love your work and have one of your fish on the mantlepiece.
Alison – unfortunately they’re sllgthiy curved at the back so your drink would wobble a bit if you used these as coasters! They’re very cool objects though. Every sewing room should have one :D
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