Friday, March 27, 2015

Portable Flea Market Display Case

Front view of the completed display case, with legs folded down.

Rear view with the doors open.

What A Winter!

Wow, I hadn't meant to take a 3 and half month hiatus, but that's how it worked out.  Between this project, holidays, and family activities, I was pretty busy.

And then Snowmageddon hit.  The Boston area kept breaking every weather record on the books. Heaviest 24-hour snowfall. Heaviest 3-day snowfall. Heaviest 14-day snowfall. Heaviest 21-day snowfall. And finally snowiest winter ever.

Plus day after day of below-zero temperatures. One morning I walked to the train station at -11 F. At least the extreme cold kept the snow light and feathery. No heavy mashed potatoes to lift or clog up the snowblower. You could almost clear it with a leaf-blower. When the gale force wind wasn't piling it up in 8-foot drifts.

The net affect, other than the snow halfway up our front door and 43" deep in our front yard, was hours and hours spent on removal from driveways and roofs, and hours and hours on train delays.

By the time I got home every night, I felt like I had been clubbed over the head. Fortunately that wasn't the result of being hit by one of the body-sized chunks of ice falling off buildings in Boston and Cambridge.

And yes, it was uphill both ways, because the snow mounds were so enormous! Getting around on streets and sidewalks, by car or by foot, was a major logjam.

Well, Spring is here (along with more snow, but it's just a tease) and life is returning to normal. So now I can return to the blog.

First CustomMade Project

This was my first project through In fact, it was my first ever paid project for someone else. I used it as a learning opportunity for the business side of woodworking. I figured I'd make mistakes in the process, and I made plenty, so I'll pass those lessons along.

Not familiar with CustomMade? It's a website that brings together makers and customers. Customers who have projects they need made post them on a virtual job board. Makers then offer to do the projects. Customers can also contact makers directly to ask if they would be interested in doing their projects.

It's not just woodworking, it's every kind of custom-made item, from clothing and jewelry to furniture and construction. CustomMade acts as match-maker. Once both parties agree and the customer officially commissions the project, CustomMade handles the payment services through There are several payment options to protect both customer and maker.

This commission was for a portable flea market display case. It needed to be light but sturdy, with legs that folded up into the bottom. The final dimensions were 4' long by 2' deep, with a rear height of 12" sloping down to 6" at the front. The client provided a link to a video he had seen online of a table-top display case that inspired the idea.

Many of the customers on CustomMade don't know how to design or build what they want, or the materials to use, so they rely on makers for suggestions, and that was the case here. Based on the video, the additional specifications, and some question and answer back and forth, I created a set of SketchUp drawings of the case, with several leg variations.

My approach for this project was to propose a budgeted amount of time at a fixed rate to do the drawings, and make an estimate for time and materials from that. If the client accepted the drawings and estimates, he would pay for the drawings as well as the project. If he chose to decline, he would pay nothing; I would be out the time I had invested in the drawings and coming up with estimates, but that would be all.

The Design

The project itself was pretty straightforward. It would be a basic dovetailed box with a center divider, slanted top, and two framed transparent doors on top. The door material would be clear plastic rather than glass for durability, installed in a way that would allow easy replacement in case of breakage.

The only complicated design part was the folding legs. The case wouldn't be deep enough to allow the legs to fold up along all four side on the bottom like a card table. My solution was two offset leg assemblies that would fold into the center alongside each other, similar to lacing your fingers together. They would be attached using Rockler locking table hinges. The bottoms would have screw-in "mud feet" levelers wide enough not to sink easily into wet ground.

My main concern was stability. Flea market venues range from indoors in large halls to outdoors in muddy fields. And they can be crowded and chaotic. So the case would need to be able to withstand getting bumped from any direction without rattling the contents around or collapsing and having the legs torn off. My benchmark scenario was kids running around and crashing into it.

While I was confident that a dovetailed box and draw-bored mortise and tenon door and leg frames would be sturdy, I was less confident about the leg attachment. My plan was to evaluate the locking hinges, then see if some sort of additional leg bracing would be required.

To keep the weight down, the case material would be eastern white pine with a 1/4" plywood bottom. The interior would be flocked. For strength, the leg material would be oak, in thin enough dimension to stay light. The weight goal was 25 lbs., but I knew that would be impossible. The wooden case and door frames alone would probably be close to that before adding plastic door panels, hardware, and legs.

Project Management

I made a few construction errors which I'll go through later, but on the project management side, I made all the classic mistakes. I made pretty much every estimation error possible: amount of material or time needed; cost of items; omitted items; and shipping costs. Plus unplanned rework.

I knew going in I was going to make mistakes, and this was a small enough project that it wouldn't be a serious cost, so I just chalked it all up to the price of lessons learned.

There are many ways of charging time and materials. I've seen percentage markups from 20 to 100%, flat rates, and hourly shop rates. Some makers prefer not to publish shop rates, but still figure quotes based on target rates.

Ultimately, the price has to be acceptable to the client. I chose to charge all materials and hardware at cost, with budgeted time to buy them. I estimated the time for all the subassemblies, then for finishing and final assembly. I got supply, hardware, and shipping estimates online.

I charged all time at $20 per hour. That's a pretty modest rate for skilled work, but I'm still just a hobbyist, and I wanted to keep this affordable to make sure the client would want to do it. I was more interested in doing a project this way than trying to make a lot of money. I'll save that for subsequent customers now that I'm experienced in the ways of the world!

I selected the 50/50 payment option, where the client pays 50% prior to project start, and 50% prior to final shipment.

Planning Mistakes

I sent the client a detailed quote, and he approved and made the initial payment. Then I went out and bought all the materials and hardware.

That's where my first mistakes showed up. I was pretty close on hardware except for a few small items I, but the materials were almost double my estimate. There were three reasons.

First, the clear acrylic sheeting I had priced online turned out to be much too thin when I looked at the real thing. It would sag in the frames. The appropriate thickness cost more than double.

Second, I hadn't realized that the flocking required special color-matched glue, along with an applicator tube.

Third, I had completely forgotten about finishing supplies on the quote.

The other thing I had forgotten about was the 10% CustomMade commission and 2.7% WePay fee.

In the grand scheme of things, the total overages were not huge, so I was prepared to eat them, but I informed the client and he approved the additional costs. I hated doing that, because it smacks of the classic bait-and-switch scam: get the project started, then say, "Oh, yeah, I need more money to finish it." But the reality is honest mistakes happen, and he was very understanding. It was easy to make the revision on CustomMade.

As I started working, the next planning mistake became very apparent. Can you guess what it is? Yeah, everything took longer than I had expected, three or four times longer. I had come up with my times based on overly-optimistic estimates about how long various operations took. "Sure, I can do that part in an hour..." Reality was very informative.

I kept a detailed time sheet, so now I have actual data that will allow me to make realistic estimates in the future. I can also track improvement as I get more efficient.

The next mistake was operations which I had overlooked, like molding the stepped double-rabbet for the acrylic in the door frames, and cutting and trimming the acrylic itself. I also didn't plan for the time or materials to package up the case for shipment and drop it off at a Staples/UPS shipping location.

Next were construction mistakes that required rework. Nothing major, but it all adds up.

The final mistake came when I dropped off the packaged case for shipping. I had priced shipping based on the size of the case, without accounting for inches added by protruding hardware and the packaging materials. Plus the packaged weight came in double the original estimate.

The extra size was the real factor. When I got back home I experimented with the UPS price estimation web page and found it had crossed a threshold that significantly increased the cost. It also fell into a higher weight class. As a result shipping cost was nearly three times what I had estimated.

In the end, the project took nearly 80 hours spread over 3 months, and I earned a net $200, or about $2.50 an hour. Clearly not a living wage, but a useful lesson. At least I didn't end up paying for the privilege of making something for someone else!

Even without rework, the project would have been prohibitively expensive had I charged the client $20 an hour for the actual time I took. So I need to increase my efficiency. I probably can't double it, but I can certainly improve it.

Meanwhile, I now have a checklist and actual time measurements for ensuring more accurate estimation. Then it's up to the customers to decide if the prices are acceptable. While we're all conditioned by prices driven down by mass production at scale, the clientele on CustomMade knows that custom work is more expensive.


The first phase of construction was building the box of the case. I glued up panels to get the required width, then dovetailed the corners.

Breaking down the raw lumber.

Jointing the edges for a good glue joint.

Checking the joint to make sure it will glue up as a flat panel.

Brushing on a smooth layer of glue.

Cleaning up the squeeze out with a moist sponge.

The glued up back and side panels.

Planing down the panel flat across.

Crosscutting the panel for the side pieces.

Precisely squaring up the end in preparation for dovetailing.

Checking for a square corner...

...and straight across.

Ripping a side piece to the slope.

Stepping out the dovetails on the back edge of the side.

With the side pieces ganged together, sawing the tails.

Sawing off the corner.

Chiseling out the bulk of the waste.

Final paring to the line on the end...

...and between the tails.

One way to hold the tail board against the pin board for marking. This worked, but I would only do it again if the pin board was too long to stand on end.

Sawing the pins.

Since I used a chisel for rough waste removal on the tails, using a coping saw for a change on the pins.

Chamfering the inner edges of the tails to help line up assembly.

Dry fit. Very satisfactory, with pin and tail end grain standing just proud of the surface so that it will plane down flush.

A better setup for transferring tails to pins.

Dry fit of all sides.

Good snug dovetails all around.

(Continue to part 2)


  1. It looks really good, as do your pics. I have a random question though:

    It seems so big, how do the fleas carry it to market?

    1. It takes a flea flash mob. They tweet to all the their peeps, it spreads on the social network. At least 10,000 need to show up to be able to get it done.

  2. Great description. And a great looking display case as well.
    I made a Barnsley hayrake table for a friend last year. I had just given a rough estimation on the prize based on the amount of hours I figured it would take.
    I ended up using a bit more time, so I lowered my hourly rates, but still ended up 20% above the initial suggested estimate.

  3. Congrats on getting your first one done. The steps taken where illuminating to say the least. I think it'll be a while yet before I accept a project for someone else.