Custom furniture design came into our home by necessity. My wife and I simply grew tired of paying premium prices for low quality furniture that didn’t fit our lifestyle. After several lengthy conversations together, I pulled all of my notes together and started drawing up plans in Google Sketchup for our next addition. We had a long list of requirements, but once we had reviewed the final plans together, I started construction. The end result was a five piece wall unit with an entertainment centre and ample lit display areas, including two curio cabinets. Needless to say, when the project was installed, she was ecstatic.
Custom furniture is unique in that it is built to match the lifestyle and decor of an individual, family or office. Form, function and aesthetics all merge to deliver a piece of furniture which merges seamlessly into your world, unbound by the preconceptions of designers and manufacturers who are often working from plans that have been unchanged for decades. Having a Colonial styled entertainment centre is wonderful, but don’t you think it’s time the manufacturers made adjustments for flat screen televisions, surround sound audio, gaming systems, proper heat dissipation and managing bundles of power and data cables?
So much of today’s factory built furniture looks beautiful in the store, but fails scrutiny on closer inspection. It is very hard to find furniture which is made from real wood and assembled with quality materials and craftsmanship. Picture yourself in the average furniture store, filled with a veritable maze of offerings to tempt you to open your wallet. Imagine if we were to take away everything in the store that has a cardboard backing of any kind. This will eliminate most of the computer desks, wall units and entertainment centres. Suddenly there is a lot more room in the store. Next, imagine that we will take away everything that is held together by staples and nail guns. Magically, there is a lot of extra space in the store where once sat most of their inventory of dresser drawers, night tables, love seats, couches and comfy chairs. Finally, we’re going to remove all of the items made from particle board that is masquerading as real wood through clever use of vinyl or insanely thin wood veneers. If you are lucky, there may be a few pieces of furniture left in the store to choose from.
Since we can’t magically remove poor quality furniture from the store when you go shopping, I can give you some guidelines to help you identify “the real thing”. If filtering out the junk leaves you with a poor selection, consider commissioning someone to design and build custom furniture that matches your exact needs and decor.
Beyond checking measurements, scanning for obvious flaws in the finish such as cracks, checks, dents and scratches, here are a few guidelines to help you shop.
Quick Signs That You Are Probably Buying High Quality Furniture
- Check out of the way places – Look at the inside of drawers, underneath tables, flip over chairs, loveseats and sofas. If they cut corners, you’ll spot it here.
- Advanced joinery (dovetails or box/finger joints) is almost always a sure sign of a well made piece – particularly if it’s hidden from normal view.
- Adjustable hardware – Wood changes seasonally. Hinges in particular should have adjustments to accommodate. This is an easy place for manufacturers to cut corners so if you see quality hinges and drawer slides, that’s a positive sign.
- Raised panel doors – A common feature of hutches and china cabinets, but watch for the real thing and not cheap substitutes. Real raised panels have separate styles and rails which border the panel body like a picture frame.
- Plywood – This one is tricky, but high quality plywoods such as baltic birch are often used as a reasonable alternative solid wood in places where warping is a problem. High quality plywood has many thin layers with no gaps or roughness between the layers.
- Quick Assembly Hardware – I’m listing this one on the positive side just so I can say something nice about European designers and companies like IKEA. IKEA has many great designs and a huge range in the quality of their furniture. These Euro assembly bits and pieces are wonderful,if they are used in high quality wood. Some times you just need to plan for a piece of furniture to come apart. This is where custom furniture design comes in. Personally, I purchase of all of my assembly hardware through Lee Valley on projects where it is required.
Signs That You Should Be Commissioning Custom Furniture
- Cardboard – If any part of the furniture is made of cardboard, you can be sure they cut corners everywhere. This is typically a sign of budget grade furniture.
- Particle board – Never a good sign, but generally the finer the wood particles, the better the board. MDF is often used in less expensive furniture. It is dimensionally quite stable and easy to surface and finish, but it does not hold nails, screws or other fasteners well.
- Plywood – Construction grade plywood has no place in fine furniture. You can spot it easily because it has fewer, thicker layers, often has gaps between the layers and chips easily. Consequently it does not hold screws, nails or staples well. It is sometimes used to manufacture internal sections of lower quality love seats and couches.
- Repeating Wood Grain Patterns – If the wood grain pattern repeats like wallpaper, you can be certain it is a man made veneer (likely vinyl). This is not to be confused with “book matched grain” on very fine pieces of furniture where the grain pattern is mirrored only once and is never the same on two pieces of furniture. If you see two pieces of furniture with identical grain patterns, it’s definitely a man-made laminate.
- Sharp, loose or “catchy” edges are usually a sign that laminates have been used in construction. Chances are the “wood” underneath is actually glue and sawdust compressed into varying grades of particle board.
- Nails or staples will work free over time, particularly if the furniture is moved or bears a lot of weight in normal use. Staples are OK for the little crates that they use to ship oranges in, not for furniture. Nail guns are suited for house construction, not for custom furniture. Screws are preferred over nails and staples.
- White plastic guides, rails or stops are usually a sign that the rest of the furniture is made of particle board. A good craftsman would use hardwood or brass hardware.
- A bag of plastic caps – Usually to disguise unsightly hardware for “do-it-yourself” assembly. A craftsman would use a complementary wood as an accent to the design of custom furniture.
- Quick Assembly Hardware – I have seen some bad hardware and frankly I don’t understand it. It looks almost identical to the good hardware and must cost about the same to produce – it just doesn’t lock properly. Even good quality hardware isn’t going to be able to do the job over time in particle board. It’s tough to judge the hardware until you have the furniture spread out on your floor and you’re trying to fit “H” into “Assembly Q”. By then it’s a bit late. It wasn’t a lot of fun carrying the thing into the house, it’s going to be even less fun to return it now that the packaging is all torn open.
Next time you are out shopping for furniture, have a keen eye for the details. Evaluate your purchasing decision carefully and always consider the option of commissioning the construction of custom furniture through Drakyn.