Why Is Handmade Furniture So Damn Expensive?
I’ve heard this question more than once, and I can relate. I hope to shed a little light on a few things people may not realize. There is a lot of labor and thought that go into a fine piece of furniture.
I build my furniture with solid wood. Unlike plywood, it doesn’t come in big sheets ready to cut and use. There’s a lot of work involved before I can even get to that point.
First, I hand select boards to match the grain and color as best as possible, which can be very difficult when buying rough stock. Let’s take walnut for instance. Walnut in rough stock is not pleasant, it actually has it's own grading system. It’s bumpy, curvy, bowed, twisted and looks like it’s covered in a thick layer of dirt. This makes it extremely difficult to see the color as well as the grain, even to the trained eye. Often, you’ll need to buy double the amount for your project. Now, you can buy it straight lined (or S4S), this is where it’s cleaned on all 4 sides. A single 1 x 4 x 96″ board will cost you about 4x the amount at a big box store.
Now, because it’s in rough stock, it comes in very random widths, one end can measure 4″ and the other end 5 1/4″, and neither edge is straight. First, I run them over a joiner to get one side perfectly flat, because it’s far from being flat. This can take anywhere from 3 to 6 passes, possibly more. Next, I have to joint one edge so it’s a 90 degree to the face I just flattened. Finally, we can send it to the table saw and rip the other crooked edge so it’s straight.
We’re only getting started.
Next, I need to joint that fresh cut edge to remove saw marks and ensure I have a 90 degree to the face. Once this board is done, we need to do the rest of them. On a small credenza, this can be 40 or more boards of varying lengths.
Once I have all of the boards flat and jointed, I need to thickness them. They are all different thicknesses, they can vary more than 1/2″ through the whole length of the board, picture rolling hills. I send all of the boards through the planer, 40 or more boards will take anywhere from 4 to 8 passes each, give or take.
Once my boards are all the same thickness, I’m ready to start edge gluing them to make my panels. I need to glue 6 panels for a basic credenza (not counting the doors), I will need about 25 clamps, or I will have to glue them individually and let the glue cure before the next one is glued.
Now we have panels, we’re ready to start building right? Wrong.
Time to scrape the glue, scrape the joints, knock down high spots with a hand plane and start to sand. Even with the luxury of having a supermax drum sander, I still have to send every panel through the drum sander with 80 grit, then 120 grit, front and back. This can take 6-8 passes, changing the drum sander paper becomes tiresome but it’s well worth it.
Now, we need to cut our panels to length and width and send them through the drum sander (front and back) with 180 grit and 220 grit, which can take 3 to 4 passes.
Finally, I sand them using a random orbit sander with 220 grit.
Now, we are ready to assemble. This is only one step in handmade solid wood furniture. There are so many more I hope to touch base on soon. It’s very easy to have 100 hours tied up into a piece of furniture. Next time you think “Why Is Handmade Furniture So Damn Expensive?” remember labor is only one part of it, and there is a lot of labor involved.
Now, here are the steps for plywood.
Measure, cut, assemble, edge band or face frame, add your finish, and done. Keep in mind, your finish is pretty much permanent on plywood. The veneer is becoming paper thin and you will sand right to the substrate if you try to refinish it, you may find out you have a mdf core plywood (mdf core plywood is not a wood center; and has a very thin real wood veneer exterior). Chipping the veneer is not a fun repair and takes some serious skills to repair it to be unseen.
Big store furniture is typically designed by a designer who probably won’t have any experience in furniture building, the result is poorly made furniture. I’ve seen expensive couches break in less than 6 months of purchase because of poor construction and cheap materials. Big store furniture is usually built overseas with lower quality materials and shipped to the distributor who sells it to you. Don’t be fooled by terms like “all wood furniture”.
Is handmade solid wood furniture for everyone?
I say yes, but ask yourself these questions. Do you want a long lasting piece you will eventually have a sentimental attachment to? Something that can be passed down? Do you want to pick your color and have the size made specifically for your space? I love seeing how my custom furniture fits the room perfectly; and nobody will say they saw that at (enter store name here). Instead, they ask where you bought your amazing table, they’ve never seen one like it. It radiates and gets people talking. On the other hand, mass produced furniture can be economical, simple and fast. It’s understandable why people choose that route. However, it keeps the same designs circulating until everyone on the block has it.
It can be very hard to make a living as a furniture maker in a world of mass produced items. This is a true art to many of us and supporting small businesses can help keep the creative and unique pieces flowing. As I mentioned earlier, it’s very easy to have 100 or more hours tied into one single piece of furniture.
So, you ask why is handmade furniture so damn expensive? I hope I answered a few of your questions. Stay tuned for more.