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Frequently Asked Questions about Custom Furniture

And the decisions you will need to make

©2004-2011 by Charles A. Plesums, Austin, Texas, USA

Why custom furniture?

There are several reasons you might want to consider custom furniture rather than factory built furniture from a good furniture store.

What's in store...

What should you look for at the furniture store if you want good furniture?

Look how the drawer fronts are attached to the side. This is a major stress point that should have a mechanical connection in addition to glue. Dovetails in solid wood are best. Any joint where the wood interlocks is ok. Just nails and/or glue will not hold long, especially in particle board.

Look closely at the wood. If the end looks the same as the face, it isn't wood. If the grain flows smoothly across joints, it isn't wood. The technology of wrapping a fiber core with embossed plastic (RTF - Ridgid Thermal Foil) has become excellent - it looks real, but wears like plastic. If the grain on the face of the wood doesn't match the grain at the end of the wood, it probably is wood, but the wood may have been painted, and the grain of an entirely different type of wood has been printed on the surface. Don't ask about durability or repair.

Isn't technology great?

A store in a national chain of household goods and furniture had a tag on an armoire that said "Solid Cherry wood, Cherry Veneer, Birch, Dark Cherry Stain..." We saw a lot of cheap birch plywood stained a dark cherry color, but neither of us could find the real cherry wood or cherry veneer in the piece.

At a very reputable furniture store a major furniture vendor's brochure bragged that they use "...a combination of solid wood, selected veneers, and grain engraved composite wood cores, with matching grain engraving on plastic tops and hardboard backs. Some parts or decorative embellishments may be made of molded man-made components to ensure strength and durability." With the very small print, few people probably read beyond the "...solid wood and selected veneers..." They probably didn't get to the part about engraved plastic and molded man-made parts (likely glue and sawdust).

If you are interested in more of our "furniture store experiences" or our discussion of different furniture grades see the page on "Value Produced" furniture.

Using real wood or furniture grade plywood, the cost of materials alone is sometimes more than the cost of complete pieces of economy furniture. If you are looking for an attractive dresser that will last for 10 years in a kid's room, man-made materials from a high volume factory will be cheaper than anything we can build. If you are looking for a durable piece of furniture, that will be a pleasure to see and use for many decades or generations, then the investment in good quality furniture is worthwhile. Our quality custom-built furniture is often competitive in price with factory built furniture that has similar materials and features, but much of the factory built furniture (sold on price) has taken shortcuts in materials, techniques, and features.

Key design decisions

When you are just starting, we suggest you review magazines and visit a variety of furniture stores. If you find exactly what you want, great - go for it. But if not, you will have some good ideas to start with when you meet with us.

If you are just exploring options, we would be glad to discuss general costs with you, without going through the details of a design. The prices on this web site reflect our latest estimate for reproducing previous projects, so are an excellent way to "window shop." If you consider them expensive, then we probably won't be able to work together. But if you consider the prices reasonable, let's talk about your specific needs. If you don't see something similar to your needs, we will be glad to help you get a ballpark estimate.

When you are ready to proceed, we will prepare a detailed design from which we can determine material requirements, calculate the cost and prepare a proposal. Our charge for this design and proposal is a minimum of $200, paid in advance, but is applied to the cost of the furniture when you proceed. See our page on "Getting Started" for business details.

An example of options may be helpful... A small table such as a coffee table or end table, with no drawers or shelves, built from common furniture woods such as walnut, pecan, oak, or mahogany, typically costs about $350. If you add a drawer or other details, the cost may rise to $450-500. Adding a shelf under the table may take as much material and labor as the table top, so could add $200-300. Add multiple drawers, especially those that open from both sides, and the cost rises to around $850. With exotic wood, inlays, and artistic features, what started as simple table can easily become a $1,500 piece of studio furniture. You can choose how simple or sophisticated you want your furniture to be!

Changing the size of a piece a few inches larger or smaller generally doesn't change the cost, unless it changes the material we have to buy.

Although wood is expensive, the total price of a project doesn't change "that much" between a cheap wood and "good" furniture wood. What we save on the cost of wood is often lost in the cost of finishing the cheaper wood, to try and make it look like good wood. Staining the wood is never as fast as it seems - it always seems to add a day or two to the project, so normally adds a minimum of $150 to the cost of your project. (We have had a number of requests for a darker wood that natural walnut, which we find easy to stain, so a small walnut project with a standard dark walnut stain may only be $50 more.) We won't just color wood by adding color to the clear surface finish (as done in many factories) since that makes it impossible to repair the furniture without completely refinishing it. Most of the time it pays to choose the wood you really want, and use a clear finish, not what you think will be cheaper!

Specifying a detail such as the machining of the edge of a shelf generally doesn't change the cost - if you like an ogee rather than a roundover with bead, just let us know. Of course, if we must spend hours helping you decide, or make samples for you to consider, that costs more.

Most of the time we use premium European style hinges on cabinet doors, and in many cases use traditional wooden drawer slides, and try to design the doors and drawers so that no knobs or handles are required. If you want metal drawer slides, let us know. If you would like knobs, we will install the hardware you provide at no extra cost, if it is delivered to us early in the project. If the design requires knobs or handles, and you haven't provided them, we will install simple knobs or handles of our choice.

If you want to explore more of the characteristics that impact cost, this is a painfully detailed discussion of costs for various parts of your furniture.

What wood?

Is plywood evil?

Many people want "real" wood for their heirloom furniture, and really mean solid wood, not plywood. I agree that we should avoid byproducts like particle board, but plywood is real wood, assembled in layers that run in different directions for added stiffness and stability. Furniture grade plywood has the desired wood on the outside layer, and is hard to distinguish from solid wood panels. Why is this important?

An expert discussion about humidity in homes and offices, and how wood expands and shrinks, concluded that doors and furniture had to be built differently for different parts of the country (including regional manufacturing centers for doors and windows). Gene Wengert (known as the "Wood-Doc," one of today's leading consultants in wood) concluded that it was probably impossible to make a product from solid wood that will stay perfect anyplace in the country. A century ago that wasn't a problem - people didn't move far.

Today most of us or our heirs have jobs that could suddenly require a move to a different area of the country (or world). The unanticipated environment could cause the heirloom furniture to warp or split. Use of quality plywood for larger panels virtually eliminates that problem. I fully expect that good plywood is heirloom quality - will last multiple lifetimes, and sometimes is the best solution for parts of a project.

We love to work with solid hardwood. On the other hand, we may suggest quality plywood for strength and stability in some areas, integrated with hardwood. Larger panels of solid wood will either be designed as "raised panels" isolated with "space balls" to allow the wood to expand and contract with the weather, without cracking or splitting, or the connecting pieces will be designed to expand and contract. Sometimes you might choose one of the beautiful woods that are so rare or unstable that they are only available as a veneer - a thin layer glued to a solid, smooth base.

Sample box made from oak, maple, and walnut (on the sides shown)

Sample box with Oak, Maple, Cherry, and Walnut wood

As you can see in the pages on choosing wood, there is a huge variety of different wood, and it can be stained or dyed with almost any color. On the other hand, for longest life, easiest repairs, and future matching, a common furniture wood with no stain is often the best solution. The prices on our web site reflect wood with a clear finish; adding color with a stain or dye substantially increases the cost of our work.

For example, we love the color and grain of natural walnut wood, which shows the grain better than our earlier stained walnut pieces, and any damage can be more easily repaired. Cherry is another recommended furniture wood - it starts fairly light and quickly darkens with age; with artificial color it will be impossible to match in the future. Natural mahogany (and mahogany substitutes like sipo) are very light and are often dyed for indoor furniture, but left alone they will naturally become a rich darker brown (as seen in doors and boats). Red oak is often used for interior cabinets, floors, and trim. White oak is used for outside furniture and wine barrels, or is fumed with ammonia to activate the natural tannin in the wood, giving the tan of "arts and crafts" style pieces. Pecan (the Southern cousin of Northern Hickory) is popular in Texas as an "informal" wood with strong natural character, grain, and wide variation in texture and color.

Maple is an excellent furniture wood, with "select white" wood providing an even surface that looks great plain, but it is often is stained a light "honey" color or even a darker color to look like cherry. The grain in maple makes it a difficult wood to stain evenly, so adding stain is expensive.

Normally we will choose the secondary woods, inside the piece, but if you have preferences such as ash, oak, or maple drawer sides, or cedar bottoms for clothing drawers, just ask!

What finish?

The king of fine furniture finishes is boiled linseed oil with multiple coats rubbed into the wood, finished with a coat of fine wax. This is a beautiful finish in looks and feel, as well as being historically authentic. It is easily repaired, which is good because it is also easily damaged by moisture, and provides little protection to the wood. The ideal maintenance is occasionally removing the wax with steel wool, rubbing in one or several new coats of boiled linseed oil, polishing the oil after it has dried for days or weeks, then recoating with paste wax. Not my choice for my own furniture, but I would be glad to do it for you without much additional cost.

Our favorite finish is lacquer. Lacquer is a hard finish that forms on the surface - for years it was used for cars and finger nail polish. After sanding and sealing the wood, several coats of clear lacquer are sprayed on. The gloss finish can be rubbed to a satin smooth finish, or the final coats of lacquer can be "semi-gloss" or "satin" material. Each coat of lacquer "melts" into the previous coats, creating an easily repaired transparent finish. If desired many more coats can be applied, buffed to a car-like gloss. We have largely switched to a high tech acrylic lacquer with better wear rating and damage resistance than traditional lacquer.

Varnish is the "old standard" film finish. Each layer (coat) remains separate, so it is much harder to repair. Conventional varnish is slower drying so more subject to contamination during finishing. Softer spar varnish should be used outside where changes in temperature require a finish that can flex. Harder polyurethane (technically not a varnish) provides excellent abrasion resistance on floors, but is so brittle that I have seen it chip on table tops. We have far more experience with lacquer, and usually recommend that over traditional varnishes for most indoor furniture. Recently we have sprayed high tech, extra hard, conversion varnish as the final layer, over the acrylic lacquer, for an even stronger finish

We would be glad to create a "paint grade" piece of furniture, using quality materials and workmanship, at about 30% lower cost. 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 that furniture. We suggest you hire the same painter who did the items we are probably 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.

As noted, an inexpensive wood stained to look like a more traditional wood costs as much or more than the traditional wood, by the time we add the extra labor of our doing the staining and finishing. But 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. We don't want to try to guess exactly what was used, and their techniques. Your cost for the unfinished "stain grade" piece like this will be about 10% below the cost of a finished piece using furniture grade woods, or 15-20% below the cost of a finished piece using builder grade materials.

Table legs, aprons, and removable legs

The classical design of an heirloom table is a mortise and tenon joint between the apron and the legs - part of the apron is glued into a precise hole cut into the legs, so there is both glue and mechanical strength to the joint. It is wonderfully strong. If there are one or more shelves or braces between the legs, this is the only option. But it means that the table cannot be disassembled for shipping.

Many tables are built with removable legs - a structure is built in the aprons to hold the removable legs. A "hanger bolt" is part of the legs, so that they can be attached to the table with a single nut. The results are stable, and assembly is simple. A test table shows no sign of wobble after years. But it isn't as strong as a mortise and tenon joint.

If we build a table for you, you must choose between classic construction and the cheaper storage and shipping that comes with removable legs - our cost is about the same for either.

Face frames

The traditional North American cabinet has sides (about 3/4 inch thick) that are hidden by a "face frame" (typically 1 1/2 inches wide). Doors are attached to this frame, often with decorative hinges mounted on the outside of the frame.

The traditional European cabinet has sides (about 19 mm or 3/4 inch thick) that have an edge banding but no frame. This provides an additional 1 1/2 inches usable opening width in the front of the cabinet. Doors are attached to the inside of the cabinet with hinges that are normally hidden. The doors and drawers normally overlay the edge of the cabinet, but can be inset within the edge if desired.

The European style frame-less cabinet is becoming popular in North America because of the clean design and the extra usable space. We can build either style, but personally prefer the European frame-less style with overlay doors and drawers.

The European hinges have a great "feel" as well as being hidden. Most euro-hinges can now also be attached to a face frame, rather than the side of the cabinet, with a special mounting bracket. Balancing the larger European hinge on the edge of a face frame is not attractive to me... they were designed to be mounted flush to the side of the cabinet without a face frame.

Drawers and drawer hardware

We recommend a metal drawer slide if a drawer will be used many times per hour (like a kitchen or desk drawer) or if the drawer must have "full extension." Metal slides are an option to consider if the drawer will have an exceptionally heavy load (like a file drawer). If a drawer will only be used a few times per day, like a bedroom dresser or entertainment center, and if 80% extension is sufficient, then wood runners are ample for the wood drawer, rarely fail, and provide a smooth and luxurious feel not available with metal slides.

Traditional drawer slides require about 1/2 inch on each side of the drawer, so you lose 1 inch of drawer width. The old-style under-drawer slides take 5/8 inch or less, but have durability issues. There is a new style under-drawer slide that is durable and smooth, and is largely hidden from view. They are relatively expensive but can be obtained with self closing "no slam" dampers. The better metal slides will probably "last forever," but cheaper builder-grade slides (that we do not use) will probably need to be replaced in 5 to 20 years.

Many drawers and doors can be built without "external" knobs or handles. If you would like knobs or handles, you don't want to pay us to sit with you as you browse the catalogs or internet, saying "whatever you like" (as we have too many times in the past). Use any vendor you like, but if you are looking for a huge selection, try MyKnobs.com - with the hint to note the part number of any possible choices - they have so many options that I sometimes have trouble getting back to something I liked! Once you choose the knobs or handles (we will be glad to comment on your choice), you should buy them - you may have them shipped directly to us. We would be glad to mount your knobs or handles, without charge, as long as you get them to us early enough so that we can do the measuring and mounting early in the project.

Drawer bottoms can be plywood or solid wood. If they are solid wood, they must have room to expand, typically at the back of the drawer. If they are plywood, expansion is not an issue, so the bottom can be "captive" - built into the four sides of the drawer. We strongly recommend plywood drawer bottoms, even if it is the only plywood in the entire piece.

The drawer fronts can overlay the front of the cabinet, typically about 1/4 inch, on 3 or 4 sides of the drawer. These drawers typically have a profile on the edge. Other drawers are flush with the front of the cabinet (or cover the entire front of the cabinet, hiding the frame, as often used in European cabinets), and typically have square edges.

Solid wood, plywood, and raised panels

Solid wood expands and contracts across the grain of the wood. This may only be a fraction of an inch for each foot of width, but it must be incorporated into the design of any solid wood that is more than 2-3 inches wide, or the wood will eventually crack and split. Solid table tops are attached with brackets that can slide, or with elongated screw holes that allow the wood to shift. If the end of a set of boards needs to be supported - such as a breadboard - a special joint (called a breadboard joint - clever huh?) is used. If you want a dresser or other furniture with solid sides, the insides (such as drawer tracks) are designed so that the front can be closer or farther from the back, depending on humidity.

A "raised panel" as seen in many cabinet doors is often used to solve the problem, not only in doors, but also in the side of cabinets. A rectangular frame, about 2 inches wide, is built to be the sides. (The stiles are the vertical pieces that run the full height, the rails are the cross pieces between the stiles). A groove is put on the inside of the frame, often 1/4 inch wide and 3/8 to 1/2 inch deep. The center of the door is a solid wood panel with tapered sides, that fit into the groove. About 1/8 inch is left empty around the panel, for rubber/silicone spacers that are used to keep the panel from rattling, and to absorb the expansion.

Plywood basically doesn't expand and contract like solid wood. Therefore much simpler construction techniques can be used with plywood sides or panels, and the piece is less likely to be impacted by a move to a different climate - a different part of the country.

Engraved message or name

We saw a hand carved headboard that we really liked (although we don't read Hebrew to know what it says!). If you would like something like this, the master who did this would be glad to give an estimate, which he guessed would start around $300, plus we have to get the piece to/from Waco, so figure $500 or more. Then one of the local furnituremakers with a computer driven carving machine suggested he could do the same thing with his machine - $100 for something small, and more if the time required was longer. In either case, you would provide a WORD or similar document, and the font necessary to prepare the text for either tracing or computer carving.

Questions about costs? See more detail on what contributes to costs.

Still interested? See what comes next in Getting Started

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