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Estimating the cost of Custom Furniture

produced for you by Charlie Plesums

©2008 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

The best estimate of the cost of your furniture is the price of a similar piece shown on this web site. These prices are updated periodically with the changing cost of materials, and our estimate of the cost of reproducing a similar project.

There is a lot of information to digest below. If you don't want to bother with all the details, just drop a note to Charlie describing what you want. He will respond with questions until he has enough information to give you a rough estimate. If you are seriously interested at that point, and expect to proceed if the actual price is close to the rough estimate, then he will do a detailed design and give you a firm proposal. There is a minimum $200 design fee, which covers the first part of doing a project, and is applied to the total cost of the project when you proceed. To protect your interests, if the proposal is greater than a budget you specified, or more than 20% above the rough estimate, you may choose to request a refund of the design fee, rather than proceeding.

If you are an engineer (or think like an engineer, like Charlie) then you probably want the details yourself. The discussion below does not represent a quote, but projects how some of the larger choices impact the final cost. We hope these details will help you determine the impact your choices may have on the overall cost of a project. When we agree on the details we will do the detailed design for your project and provide a specific proposal, including a firm price.

Size doesn't matter - usually

If you see a bookcase you like that is 11 3/4 inches deep, but want one a little less deep, a bookcase that is 10 inches deep will cost the same. The 10 inch bookcase will take the same amount of effort, and the same number of sheets of plywood. Since everything we make is custom built, the change in size doesn't disrupt an assembly line. However, if you want the same bookcase to be 12 or 13 inches deep, the price may go up slightly since we can only get 3 sides (rather than 4) from a four foot wide sheet of plywood. Depending on what else we need from that plywood, we may need to buy more raw materials.

A bookcase may be any width, with only a small change in the cost of raw materials, until it reaches about 3 feet wide. There is no magic limit to the maximum width of a bookshelf, but normal construction (hardwood or plywood shelf with a solid edge for stiffness) works pretty well up to about 30 or 36 inches. Beyond 36 inches, the sag will eventually be noticeable. If you need a shelf more that about 36 inches wide, special construction techniques or heavier non-standard materials should be used.

If you want a row of bookshelves perhaps 10 feet long, you could design a single unit with a vertical divider every 30 inches giving 4 separate sections. A single divider panel could easily support the weight of shelves on both sides of the divider. But there are several problems with this approach:

  1. They are not reusable. If your needs change, you cannot take the one of the four 30 inch bookcase units and use it elsewhere.
  2. The single 10 foot wide cabinet will be too large to deliver - generally it will be built on site - "built in", rather than being built entirely in a shop.
  3. I am not a licensed contractor, so if you want something "built in" at your home or office, I cannot legally do it.
Normally, if you specify a large unit with four sections, as above, I recommend a set of four independent matching units, that can be built and delivered separately. They can be moved and used independently if requirements change, and can be attached together on site if desired.

If you want a very large table or desk or cabinet, there are two key questions:

  1. Can it be built out of standard materials? (most plywood is only 4 feet wide and 8 feet long)
  2. Can it be delivered. Will it fit in a normal van? Will it fit through your doors or down your hall or in your elevator?
We can build larger items, but it may involve extra costs, and may not be efficient to build in our small shop. For example, a queen size Murphy Bed is too heavy for one person to move, and too large for our minivan, so you have to arrange for delivery.


Over the years we have learned that using a good furniture wood with a clear finish provides the best quality, and costs no more than spending a lot of effort to make cheap wood look like the good stuff. Our normal finish is clear acrylic lacquer. Lacquer is a hard finish that forms on the surface - for years it was used for cars and finger nail polish. New high-tech versions of lacquer have emerged that are even more durable. Since we are set up for this finish, it is our least expensive. Unless we discuss an alternative, assume we will use clear lacquer, with a satin or semi-gloss finish.

If you want a stain, dye, or other color, it will add at least $150 to the cost of a typical project. Factories that color everything can just spray on a color, often in the surface finish (not readily repaired) rather than in the wood, but we typically spend an extra day or more doing it by hand, coloring the wood. If you want to match something a builder used, we would be glad to create a "stain-grade" item, using inexpensive wood like the builder probably used, and keeping the wood ready to receive stain. Painters who work for your builder may be willing to "moonlight" and finish your item using the same materials and techniques that they used on the original. Your cost for the unfinished "stain grade" piece like this will be about 15-20% below the cost of a finished piece. We are not expert at creating an exact match of someone else's work, since we don't know the exact materials and techniques used, and don't want to spend the effort that furniture restoration shops make to match finishes.

We would be glad to create a "paint grade" piece of furniture, using the same quality wood and workmanship, at about 30% lower cost than a finished piece. We are no better at brushing a paint finish than an average homeowner, and don't have facilities for spraying paint, so we "don't" paint furniture. We suggest you hire a local painter - perhaps the one who did the items we are matching. With paint grade furniture we may mix wood species, to take advantage of remnants from other projects. Sometimes it makes sense to use MDF or other man-made materials in a few places, but we will let you know if we plan to do this.

Panels and Table Tops

A table consists of three or four "parts" - The top, the legs (or base cabinets), and the "aprons" that tie the legs together and support the top. There are extras, too, such as leaves for a dining room table, or drawers, or cup and chip holders for a game table. But this discussion only deals with the table top or the similar panels used for cabinet ends. The estimated prices assume that the top or panel will be part of a larger project.

The simplest panel is a piece of furniture grade plywood with edge-banding - wood veneer glued to the edges of the plywood. This is fine for lightly used areas, such as the bookcase sides or the shelves in an entertainment center, but is not durable enough for a desk or dining table. The cost is about $12-16 per square foot, for furniture grade plywood, matching veneer edge-banding and a clear finish. Red oak would be at the low end of the range, cherry or walnut would be at the upper end.

Plywood with solid wood edges (from 1/2 inch to 3 inches wide) are dramatically more durable - a reasonable candidate for table tops. By using conventional plywood, the center may not be heirloom quality, but it will be quite durable. This raises the price to about $15-20 per square foot.

Solid wood top, less than an inch thick, raises the price to about $20-30 per square foot. Red oak is less expensive, and is available in larger pieces of clear wood, therefore is at the low end of the range. In some species (e.g. walnut) larger boards without knots or sapwood are hard to find, thus are more expensive per unit, and have lower yields (more waste). Thus for larger panels the cost per-square-foot goes up, as well as the total cost. This may sound like a lot, but for a coffee table or end table (about 4 square feet), the cost of a solid hardwood top is only about $100 of the total cost.

Thick solid wood tops depend on the availability and cost of the wood. The weight of the table may also be an issue, so if you want the appearance of a thick table top (not counting the aprons) we may want to make thicker edges on a thinner solid or plywood table, or make a design where the aprons look like part of the top. No magic guidelines available, but the cost of a solid top that is twice as thick as normal, will be much higher than twice the cost of a regular solid wood top.

Exotic woods, or hard-to-find wood such as figured walnut, are best used as a veneer. Separate solid wood veneers that I use are far thicker than the veneer on plywood, and thus can make an heirloom quality panel or table top. We probably are starting with plywood with solid wood edges, $15-20 per square foot (above) plus preparing the veneer (see this example) for about $15 per square foot to make a panel with your flat veneer and few joints, up to $20-30 or more per square foot for a burl or other veneer that must be flattened, repaired, and assembled from many pieces. Gluing and pressing the veneer takes extra work, equipment, and materials, at a cost of about $100 for the 12 hour process. This is in addition to the cost of the veneer itself. The price of veneer varies widely, but there are some really nice pieces starting in the $5 per square foot range, so this provides an opportunity for a very interesting, durable design at a reasonable price. See the page on veneers for more specific details, or let me prepare an estimate for your specific project - there are lots of components of the cost, but the overall cost may not be as bad as it seems.


We will not nail together a few pieces of wood, and call it a drawer-box...back to the old "we stand behind our work" bit. Creating a dovetail drawer joint in a drawer side isn't hard, but it takes a fair amount of time to set up and get started. Therefore the first drawer is expensive, but additional drawers, especially the same size, are cheaper. If we need a lot of drawers for a project, we may choose to use an outside vendor - there are many that build high-quality custom drawer boxes. It may be quicker (cheaper) to build the drawer if we only need one or two, but it may pay to order ten.

Adding a drawer to a table has two challenges: Replacing the strength provided by the apron where the drawer goes through the apron, and matching the drawer front to the rest of the apron (can't use a drawer vendor for this!). Therefore estimate $150 to add one drawer to a table. If you like our trick of a drawer that opens from either side of a coffee table, plan on $200 - it takes a lot of juggling to keep the table strong with both sides open. Additional custom drawers are about $100 each.

Drawers for a cabinet (rather than a table) don't include the cost of materials for the front in these prices. The cost of the drawer box is about $100 for the first drawer, with additional identical drawers as low as $50 each for a small drawer to $75 for a large drawer. To this, add the material for the drawer fronts, whether a plain panel like the table tops (called a "slab"), or a floating panel like described below for doors.

For most furniture, there is a wonderful feel when a wood drawer rides on wood runners, like all the antique furniture. The estimates above assume wooden slides. If you need full extension (the back of the drawer shows when it is open), or have an extraordinarily heavy load (like a file drawer), or will be using it many times per hour (like a desk or kitchen drawer), then you should consider metal drawer slides, either on the sides or bottom of the drawer. In either case you lose space, and have the extra cost of the slides. I do not recommend using $5 builder-grade slides (I don't want to be called to replace them in 10 years). The full extension ball bearing slides on the sides of the drawer lose a half inch on each side of the drawer and add about $25 (installed) to the cost of the drawer. The new slides hidden on the bottom of the drawer have minimal loss on the sides, but lose a half inch on the bottom. These bottom mount full extension slides with a damper to close them softly, add about $50 to the cost of each drawer.


Part of the cost of a door is the door itself and the hinges, but another part is the mounting of the hinges, and the precision fitting and adjustment of the door, which is time consuming.

I often use European style hinges but

The simplest type of door is a "slab" door - a flat wood panel. Basically it is the same plywood or solid wood or veneer options as with table tops, above. For rough estimates, add about $35 to the costs of the panel above. If the door is especially large, the cost is higher, because of extra hinges and structure.

A "raised panel" door is the classic style that is reproduced in many kitchens. Solid wood expands across the grain (but not lengthwise), enough that the design must allow for the expansion of any piece wider that a couple inches. The classic five piece door has a frame about 2 inches wide, with a groove that holds a center panel so that it can expand and contract as it "floats" in the rails and stiles. The panel doesn't need to be the traditional "raised panel" style - there are other shapes that allow the panel to float (needed for solid wood) while giving a different appearance. With hinges and material included, figure about $150 for the first floating panel wood door, with additional doors about $100 each.

"Pocket" doors that open, then slide into the sides of the cabinets were popular in older entertainment centers. I would be glad to build them for you but they are becoming obsolete because:

"Glass" doors, with either clear or fancy glass in the wooden frame. Building the door is comparable to building a raised panel door ($100-$150), with more work on the frame that compensates for not needing a center panel. There are many types of glass, plus new safety regulations about the type of glass that you are supposed to use in different types of doors, so between your requirements, regulations, and the two (or 3 or 4) trips to the glass shop, I normally make the doors and have you handle the glass. (Today's glass shops normally glue the glass into the door with clear silicone sealer, but on request I will make strips to nail in the glass).

Table apron and legs

As a rough starting point, assume that a simple table apron with tapered legs will cost $250. Of course, you will also need a table top (discussed above), and possibly drawer(s). A small end table without drawers might be as little as $350, while most full-size tables start around $700.

Cabinet body

A rough estimate of the cost of the carcase for a cabinet can be determined by computing the area of the sides, top, and shelves, and using the cost per square foot for the corresponding type of construction from the panel and table top section above.

A small lingerie chest is about 1 1/2 feet deep and 4 feet high, or about 12 square feet on the sides. If it is about 18 inches wide, add 6 square feet for the drawer fronts and a couple more for the top. In solid hardwood at $25 per square foot, the carcase costs $500. For 7 identical small drawers, add $450, giving a $950 preliminary estimate. We offer a lingerie chest like this for just under that price.

The large chest of drawers on our site has 32 square feet of sides, top, and front. At $25 per square foot ($800) plus six very large drawers ($150 + 5 at $75) comes very close to the price quoted for that chest

An economy bookcase might be 7 feet tall, and 1 foot deep (2 ends are 14 square feet) with 5 adjustable and 2 fixed shelves, 2 feet long plus top (8 horizontal pieces, total 16 square feet). In oak plywood with edge banding, this would be 30 square feet at $12 or $360. Add a back, some bracing, kick space, shelf edges, and you have the economy bookcase offered on this web site for $450.

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