One of the most frequent questions I'm emailed is how I determine what to charge for terrain projects. So for those readers, and anyone else who's curious, I'll shed some light on the subject:
I'm sure most of us have built terrain for our gaming group or a local shop, with little to no compensation other than the satisfaction of a job well done and getting to play on the terrain ourselves. That's different than working freelance or on a commission, where it's being treated as a paying job. This is my living now, so I need to run my miniature and terrain commissions like a business, and try to charge what my time and skill is worth and cover material costs as well. (I've spoken with some people who take commission jobs where the payment barely covers the cost of their materials, never mind the time spent working on the project. That's obviously not a sustainable business model.)
On that note, I don't have a set "formula" that I use when generating a quote. Much of the number crunching comes from my experience on other jobs. Before I did this freelance, I worked making terrain for GW and then PP. My stint at GW taught me how to budget time and plan appropriately. At PP, I was responsible not just for getting the projects done, but I had to write a proposal, and get a budget approved.
This experience has given me a pretty good idea of what my materials will cost, and how much time and work a project will require. I also have to consider what the market will realistically bear. People in my life (who know nothing about the miniatures industry, mind you) try to tell me that I should charge $10,000 for a 4x4 table. That price is obviously laughable. Something in the range of 3-5K is a little more realistic.
When quoting, I estimate what the materials will cost (let's say $500 for a large project), and then estimate what I'll earn per hour with what's left. So a $3000 quote, minus $500 of material costs leaves me with $2500. I divide that by my target hourly rate and determine if I can realistically finish a project in that amount of time. If I don't think it's doable, then I need to either increase the quote or live with less per-hour. The more work I do, the more accurate I get with the quotes.
I guess another option would be to charge by-the-hour and bill for actual time spent and materials purchased, but that doesn't give the client a solid quote in my opinion. For example, if I gave them an estimate of 200 hours and it ends up taking 250 or even 300, that might be a couple thousand dollars more than they were willing to spend. And then what do I do– cut off work where their budget ran out and give them the half-finished table? That's no way to run a business; I'm not a contractor installing plumbing in someone's house.
My method puts the onus on me to stay on budget and work efficiently. I can tell you that I underestimated the working time on some of my earlier projects (the pains of being a perfectionist). But as I said above, experience leads to more accurate estimations on future work.
Speaking of which, it's time to get back to it. I hope that gives you a little insight into my process, and gives you something to think about if you're considering a freelance career of your own.