As a maker, I often get asked to make custom pieces for clients who want something a little different. These bespoke furniture pieces can be a challenge, as they’re not always straightforward. Sometimes various aspects need to be taken into account, depending on the piece. Is it simply a minor change to a production piece of ours? Or is it a completely handmade furniture piece made from the ground up? Clarifying what the customer wants is a necessity. Working closely with the client to fully realise their vision is key. In other words, a good working relationship between the maker and the client is important.
So with this in mind, what are some of the key things that need to be considered? What should both parties ask each other before the first drawing or cut is even made? How can the potential buyer be sure that the maker they’ve chosen is going to do the job right? Is the maker able to provide some examples of their previous work? Can the budget and the timeframe for the furniture piece be adequately met? What other variables need to be taken into account when making the furniture piece?
Well, before I get fully into it, there are one or two things that need clarifying.
The Difference Between Bespoke And Handmade Furniture
Now it’s important to realise that the two terms are very different in their meaning. They are not interchangeable, as such, but they can be complimentary. Hand made means, in essence, exactly what it says – made by hand. Of course, the term is often misapplied or misused nowadays. Many furniture makers say that their furniture is hand made when that might not actually be the case. Perhaps it might be more correct to say ‘hand assembled’, rather than ‘hand made’? That is, of course, if the piece has not been completely made by hand from the ground up.
Many handmade furniture pieces can also fit into the bespoke furniture moniker. Likewise, some bespoke furniture pieces might also classify as handmade furniture? This would only be correct though if they were actually 100% hand made – or at least a high enough percentage.
Now purists would argue that ‘hand made’ only means using traditional hand tools. Chisels, hand planes, spoke shaves, mallets and hand saws, for example, would be your ‘go to’ tools here. In other words, the simple woodworking tools of a bygone era. However, I’m of the belief that hand power tools, such as cordless drills and sanders are fine to use. There’s no reason, to my mind, why these should not also be included.
Machines used to break down timber, such as bench saws, are different beasts again. Nonetheless, they cannot be ignored in a modern workshop. I don’t have an issue with saying a piece is hand made, even if the breakdown of the materials has been done by machines.
As I touched on above, the term ‘bespoke’ means made to order. It’s not your standard off-the-shelf furniture piece. It’s personalised to the customer or client and, thus, special. While bespoke furniture has always been quite popular in the past, it seems to be even more popular today. As a result, there are now many new makers who have sprung up to fill the demand for bespoke furniture.
Some of these makers, such as myself, have been fully trained and apprenticed. Their training may have taken several years to complete before they were granted their accreditation. They may have also worked in the industry for years before starting out on their own. In my case, I worked both in Australia and Britain for about 12 years before starting Beeline Design.
It might also be worth noting at this stage that Beeline Design is a registered trademark. Most businesses who make handmade furniture do not have a registered trademark. This is, most likely, due to the costs involved in registering a trademark in the first place. Not that it is necessary to have a registered trademark at all, but it may indicate an extra level of trust to a potential client. Every bit helps, after all. If a business can gain an edge by being trademarked then that’s good for the business.
Other handmade furniture makers may have done a course or two at a TAFE college or school, before starting their own business. While others again may be completely self-taught. The industry contains all types of businesses, large and small, plying their trade. With this in mind, it might be important to know a bit about the maker’s background beforehand. An experienced maker knows more about the materials and methods of work needed to make the piece. They should also be able to quickly determine what needs to be done and how to go about doing it, thus saving time.
In short, having a clear understanding of what the customer wants is paramount.
Understanding The Client’s Vision
This might be stating the obvious here. If the client is not on the same page as the maker when it comes to the piece, then how can the maker proceed with any confidence? The client might have a clear idea of what he or she wants, but it’s not always possible to do – or at least to do under budget. This is where the maker needs to step up a little and help guide the client on what is, and isn’t, possible.
Any good maker should have an innate understanding of how to go about making the piece. There are certain things timber can and cannot do, and it needs to be understood that wood will always move. Wood is an organic material and it will always be at the mercy of changes in temperature and humidity. A good maker will take this into account and allow for this movement. The maker needs to choose the right materials for the right job. They also need to design the piece in such a way that allows for these considerations. If both of these things are followed, then the maker will save themselves, and the client, a lot of headaches down the track.
As a designer of handmade furniture, there are people I definitely admire. Makers such as Greg Collins and Kevin Perkins have had a big influence on the way I approach my own work. The “Cape Barren Goose” cabinet by Perkins remains one of my favourite ever pieces. Both of these local makers used local timbers such as jarrah, huon pine, native pear and other woods. They also combined these with exotics such as ebony and pink ivorywood, and this appealed to me as well. The choice of a combination of different timbers, fresh design ideas and environmental attitudes made an impact on me as a young man. Along with other makers, both Collins and Perkins were instrumental in this.
When I was younger I used to devour magazine articles and books on anything to do with woodworking. I soon got to know the styles I liked and the makers that I naturally gravitated to. Well known makers such as James Krenov and Tage Frid, both from America, are standout makers to me in this regard. In Great Britain, John Makepeace and Ian Norbury were also favourites of mine. I loved John Makepeace’s artistry, design aesthetic and execution. Ian Norbury’s exquisite carvings were a joy to see, and his attention to detail was second to none.
Design is not just about the way a particular furniture piece looks. It also takes into consideration the way the piece is made, what it’s made from, and how it functions. A dining table needs a flat surface, but it can have three, four, six or eight legs. Even more, if required. It could also have a drawer in the middle, or one at each end, or none at all. It could have carved details, inlaid details, mouldings or be simply left plain. In other words, while there are some things that need to be adhered to, there are also variables to consider.
Likewise, while a console might need a flat top for a television to sit on, the construction of the cabinet can vary. For instance, it might be open, or closed or even a mix of both. It might contain drawers or shelves or cabinet doors that swing open or retract into the carcase. It just depends on what the client wants and whether it can be done.
Of course, all these changes are dependant on what it is that you’re making, but the same rules generally apply.
Wood And Material Selection
As mentioned before, I touched on material selection in regards to the choice of timbers used. The right choice of timber for the job is an important aspect of the actual build. Yet part of this is a design aesthetic and part of this is due to functionality. For instance, it’s always a big risk if you decide to make a very large boardroom table from solid timber. This is primarily because the movement of the solid top can be considerable. Some timbers move more than others, but it’s always a risk regardless of the species. This is why most makers use composite materials and veneered boards over solid wood. It’s simply a much safer option.
That’s not to say that composite materials or veneered boards are regarded as a cheaper path to go down. Quite the opposite in fact. Depending on the design, a veneered top is often much more expensive than a solid top made from the same species.
At Beeline Design we use a mix of traditional joinery techniques as well as some more modern ones. On any given piece we could use a combination of fixed mortise and tenon joints, or loose tenons. There’s not a lot of difference, strength-wise. Both methods are very strong, but loose tenons are faster to execute. Time is money, they say. So it makes sense that we’d have a preference for using loose tenons on our production furniture.
Some of our handmade furniture might have solid tops that have been biscuit jointed. Other tops or carcases might be spline jointed or mitred. The construction methods are often determined by the pieces themselves, or the materials used.
The use of complicated joinery in the past was because the glues used were not as advanced as they are today. These glues were often made from animal parts or vegetable matter, and the bonds were not as strong. Different joints were developed to help increase the surface area for the glue, or to lock two, or more, pieces together. Today we have a range of very strong glues of all types, so mechanical joints are of less importance.
This does not mean that we can disregard them completely, of course. After all, some of these joints are visually striking and help add an aesthetic value to a piece. Dovetails, finger or box joints and splined mitre joints, for instance, not only look good but are also very strong. Plus it’s always a bonus to have extra strength wherever possible.
We finish the majority of our production and handmade furniture with oil finishes. For the most part, we use Rubio Monocoat, which can be wiped on and rubbed off to create a nice, hard-wearing surface. We also use Osmo oil on some occasions. When it comes to bespoke furniture though, by its very nature anything can be considered. It could be finished in oil, wax, polyurethane varnish or shellac. It could even be painted in different colours. Again this needs to be discussed between the maker and the client and depends on the type of finish desired.
The important thing here is to always ask a lot of questions right from the start. If possible, try to do some background research into who it is that you have in mind to make your furniture piece. Be clear about exactly what it is that you want in your piece. This includes any constructional elements and the materials used. Also have a clear understanding of the cost of the piece, along with the projected timeframe. If you wish you could ask for a detailed breakdown of the costs involved. Any decent maker would be all too happy to provide this. They wouldn’t have an issue at all.
The more time you can spend here at the beginning of your project, the better your understanding.
Kevin Perkins: Cape Barren Goose Cabinet, 1996 (Design Tasmania)
Pushing Boundaries: Greg Collins (Australian Wood Review)
James Krenov (Fine Woodworking)
Tage Frid on Wikipedia
John Makepeace (Official Website)
Ian Norbury (Official Website)
Furniture maker Melbourne.