a fine finishing primer

What is the finest finish for my furniture?

I hear this question a lot. My stock answer: it depends on what you want.

What will you be using the piece for?

How much use/traffic will it get?

What kind of look do you want?

Do you want the finish to be repairable?

For all the variables, there are only two basic choices for fine finishing: lacquer or oil.

By ‘lacquer’, I mean any finish that lays on top of the furniture surface. This includes varnish, polyurethane, acrylic, latex as well as the so-called ‘high tech’ finishes like polyester, catalyzed varnish and catalyzed polyurethane.

fine finishing - lacquer


These are also called ‘film finishes’.




Film finish? This is a trade term referring to a material that’s laid on either by brush or spray. It goes on as a liquid and when the solvents evaporate, a ‘sheet’ or ‘film’ of the material remains, wrapping the piece of furniture.


Oil is any product, mainly linseed, tung or soy derivative, that penetrates the surface of the wood and forms a bond called a polymerized finish.

fine finishing - oil on cherry


Polymerized finish? Not as complicated as it sounds. This refers to any finishing material that penetrates the surface of the wood, joins with the wood fibers and through the heat generated from hand-rubbing, forms a protective layer that’s actually part of the wood itself.

Aren’t there more choices?


That’s basically it. Sure, there are slight differences between lacquer and varnish and polyurethane but that has more to do with performance than with kind. Besides, nowadays with much tighter regulations on the amount of fumes allowed in the evaporation period, more and more film finishes are waterborne and/or blends of many kinds of materials. It’s hard to find a lacquer anymore that’s pure nitrocellulose lacquer – the old stuff – and not an acrylic. Polyurethane and varnish are both blends now of many different substances all meant to limit the amount of ‘fuming-off’ during the drying process.

The only other choice that a film finish offers is sheen level. That is, you can specify glossy, satin or matte.

With oil, there used to be only linseed oil and tung oil. Nowadays a new variety is available that’s made from soy products and has superior polymerizing – read protective – qualities. It even smells wholesome.

Oil’s sheen level is somewhere between matte and satin, depending on the wood and how vigorously it’s rubbed.


No one size fits all: there are pros and cons to each approach

A film finish has the reputation for providing better protection against damage from moisture and scratches; however, this feature can be misleading.

For one thing, the surface hardness and resistance to scratches, dings and dents is only as sound as the substrate; that is, even if you put the toughest finish on a softer species of wood, its scratch resistance is less than optimal.

For another thing, wood moves (see wood for not-woodworkers). As wood expands and contracts, it opens up tiny fissures in the film finish surface. Each of these cracks has the potential for allowing moisture to penetrate the surface and get between the wood and the film finish. Usually this occurs when liquid is left standing for extended periods of time on the furniture. Haziness in the finish, ‘clouds’ or white areas and particularly white rings are evidence that moisture has penetrated the film finish.

Few if any film finish moves elastically with wood. The very hardness that supposedly protects the surface eventually causes its degradation and decline. The harder the material, the more brittle it becomes over time, the less it moves with wood’s expansion and contraction and the more cracks and fissures open up, further compromising its seal. (In my humble opinion, film finishes are better suited for veneered pieces of furniture which aren’t prone to as much movement as solid wood and also need the protection that lacquer affords).

Polymerized finishes are not as scratch and moisture resistant as film finishes. Some would say they require more care and attention than lacquer finishes, which is true at face value; however, one of the primary advantages of oil finishes is that they can be spot repaired. If a scratch or other damage does occur, that area can be fixed without compromising the finish of the rest of the piece. With lacquer finishes, the whole surface must be stripped in order to perform a repair and then it must be refinished.

Perhaps the biggest pro or con to either kind of fine finish has to do with its look and this is an entirely subjective value. There are those who love to see a certain sheen level uniformly highlighting the surface of a well-made, handcrafted piece of furniture. Others prefer not to have something between them and the wood obscuring the figure and grain qualities they love so well. Over time and through many hands on it, an oiled piece develops a patina which has an alluring quality of its own, a testimony to its usefulness.

How a piece is finished represents the final choice of the soon-to-be owner of a custom made piece of furniture and the last touch of maker. It’s the culmination of a long process and while it’s probably the simplest stage, fine finishing is the most crucial on so many levels. An ill-considered choice or a hasty conclusion can compromise the integrity of an otherwise exemplary effort.



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Custom Millwork by peaslee design

Desk1RszThese days, it isn’t always easy to let your furniture make a statement about who you are and what you want your home to be. In this age of mass production, it seems the only statement you can make is the one the mass furniture manufacturers will make for you and everyone else. At peaslee design I want to change that. I offer professional custom millwork and have crafted custom wood furniture – including custom wood tables, custom wood chairs, and custom wood cabinets – for many satisfied clients. With the ability to design and craft just about any type of custom millwork you can think of, peaslee design creates custom wood furniture that is entirely personal and unique to each client.

Custom Wood Tables

One type of custom wood furniture that I produce is custom wood tables. The centerpiece of any dining area, the family table is where stories are shared and memories made – if you want to make a statement with your furniture, a custom milled table is a great way to do it. Custom wood tables can be as conservative or bold as you want, designed and built with your custom design in mind. I will create a table that is your table, generated from your concept, an heirloom-worthy piece that can be handed down from generation to generation.

Custom Wood Chairs

Many of my clients believe no custom table is complete without a set of custom wood chairs. The best thing about custom chairs is you can order as many as you think you’ll need. Order more if you have a large family or entertain often, and order less if your dinner parties are regularly small and quaint. Order every chair the same or in two different designs – one design for the side chairs and another design for chairs at the head and foot of your custom table.

Custom Wood Cabinets

Many people don’t pay much attention to their cabinets – which is unfortunate considering how much space cabinets take up in a person’s field of view. Every inch of cabinetry and potential cabinetry is square footage that you could make truly your own with the help of custom millwork from peaslee design. No matter where you want to install custom wood cabinets, from the kitchen to the bathroom and from the basement to the bedroom, I can transform cabinet space into conversation pieces that are absolutely striking and practical one-of-a-kind creations.

Custom Millwork

On top of looking amazing, my custom millwork is made strong and built to last. I sell my pieces as heirloom worthy because that is exactly what they are. All you need are loved ones to pass your custom furniture down to, and my furniture can serve your family for generations. Contact peaslee design today. I look forward to working with you. Write to me at clark@peasleedesign.com or, if you’d prefer to talk, call me at 845-594-1352.

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Custom Built‑Ins for Your Home

peaslee design can design and build strikingly beautiful custom built‑ins for your home. In the 24 years I’ve been operating independently, I’ve gained depth and breadth of experience and have become accomplished at my craft. Your imagination coupled with my expertise can create custom built‑ins that are works of art. My one‑of‑a‑kind creations will be a realization of how you envision your living space. If you’d like to take that step and turn your vision into reality, choosing custom built‑ins from peaslee design is a reliable way to get there.

Your custom built‑ins are created with your collaboration. The products handcrafted at peaslee design are not just created with you in mind, they are generated from your direct input.  I guide you step by step through the conceptual process, help you to articulate what you have in mind, produce renderings and shop drawings to flesh out your ideas and then plug in my expertise to bring your ideas to life.  This will truly be your signature piece.

Many of my customers come back again and again; they recognize this process as something that resonates with them. At peaslee design my intention is to provide you with originally conceived items that are tailored to your needs. I use the highest quality and most appropriate materials in all my cabinets and furniture. This is part of what gives your custom built‑ins value unavailable from more conventional stock cabinetry. By choosing peaslee design to help you create your custom built‑ins, you are adding substantial value to your home as well as to the way you live.

I believe custom built‑ins are an effective and practical way to connect you and your family to the place you call home. Custom built‑ins help to convert your home into a personal home.  Some of the custom work I’ve designed include:

• Entertainment Centers
• Custom Libraries
• Murphy Beds
• Cherry Kitchens
• Home Office Desks
• Bathroom Vanities
• And more

peaslee design custom built‑ins are thoughtfully developed, handcrafted using time‑honored techniques, durable for a lifetime of use as well as enhancing your living space. You’ll be delighted with your custom built‑ins in no small part because you’ve been so integral to bringing them to life.

Custom built‑ins often become the focal points of rooms. peaslee design custom built‑ins as individualized expressions turn out to be show‑stoppers. My approach to custom design is about personalizing style. I know that you’ll enjoy the whole experience, start to finish, of expressing yourself with truly authentic and tailored custom built‑ins. At peaslee design building custom creations is not something I sometimes do, building custom creations is all I do. Everything I do is held up to the highest standard, your standard.

I guarantee you’ll love your custom built‑ins from peaslee design. Go through the different tabs of the peaslee design website, get some ideas of what I can do for you and then give me a call. I look forward to working with you.

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handmade furniture design – from concept to finish

first step – the idea for handmade furniture design

Conceiving a piece of furniture is kind of like magic; but not quite. The process is real enough, though how the ideas take shape is a mystery. It starts somewhere – was the seed planted by something seen in a store or someone’s house or in a magazine? Then there’s the need: someone calls or writes and asks for a design that will go in a certain room and be a certain size. They might have an idea of what they want but most of the time they don’t; they’re just aware of the void to be filled.          handmade furniture design sketch

My job, then, is to listen to what those needs are and to interpret them into a sketch that translates an idea into a readable and editable form.

This step begins to anchor the concept because it can now be seen, understood, evaluated and amended. Otherwise, as an untethered idea, it could vanish as quickly and mysteriously as it appeared.


getting from here to there – mocking it up

With an original handmade furniture design, it’s nearly impossible – or at least, very unlikely – that the piece can go from drawing into production without some experimentation. Size, scale, proportions, the relationship of parts to each other and to the whole must all be resolved before the final version is made. It’s far more economical to work these issues out with materials that aren’t dear and with techniques that aren’t as time-consuming as what will come later.                                                                                     handmade furniture design, mockup 1

The product of this step is called a mockup. The parts are cut out of framing lumber, pine and plywood and then screwed together. It’s rough; put together quickly only for a visual and physical check on what the drawing hypothesized.

With this model, I discovered that the legs were a little too plain and needed some ‘dressing up’. But I did get a sense that the outward curve of the leg – intended to mimic the shape of a sofa leg which it would be flanking – was going to ‘work’. Just needed some tweaking.

handmade furniture design, mockup 2So I fashioned a couple of new legs that would both ‘dress’ them up a bit and provide more of a transition from the top section with rails to the floor.   The leg on the left is a little simpler with only one beaded detail and the one I chose to go with.

I also discovered in the mockup that the proportions were basically right and only a couple of dimensional adjustments were needed. Fairly minor.

The major discovery, though, was that the drawer as I’d first envisioned it would be incredibly impractical to make and would probably not be a pleasure to use; sharp points on either side of the drawer front would not be friendly and probably be prone to damage.

There were still a couple of detail questions but I was confident enough in the basic design to move on to making the table ‘for real’ and allow for their resolution in the prototype-building process.


‘prototyping’ the final product

In the best of all worlds, I’d build a handmade furniture designprototype and make the final piece afterward. In fact, for any run of more than, say, 5, I would do just that. In this real world, however, very few clients are willing to pay for that luxury for a run of 1 or 2. The risk is that discoveries, and mistakes, are still being made in this stage of the process. A blunder caused by details that weren’t fully resolved could put a serious crimp in the delivery schedule, perhaps even threaten completion itself. The trick for me is to manage those unforeseen circumstances so that the prototype can be kept true to the design intent with a minimum of do-overs and still hit the high quality standards that are expected. So I proceed maybe a little more slowly than I’d like, doing mini-mockups as needed.

No less magical than the birth of the concept, the final finished version of this handmade furniture design represents the original intent – to be a stylish complement to an existing sofa – as well as the evolution of a simple form to a completely realized product.

The process never ceases to amaze me, no matter how many times I experience it.

link to the finished piece



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solid wood and plywood – design choices, lesson 2

using wood

Remember from Lesson 1 that wood moves. Because of its cellular structure, wood is constantly ‘out of balance’ with its environment. When the air is humid, anything made of wood is absorbing moisture and swelling as it does. Conversely, when the air is dry, wood products are losing moisture and shrinking as they do.

This is a fairly simple law of nature. The difficulty arises when we push the material to do more than what’s natural; like staying straight, flat and not fall apart which are basic requirements for useful furniture and cabinets. Or when we try to prevent wood from moving at all. It’s common knowledge that we make wood products from trees, like lumber, cut the parts to the sizes that we need and glue them together. Is there anything else we really need to know than that?

For most people, no. For anyone who designs a product with wood as the material, though, knowing some basics is essential. In the first place, there are just 2 categories for wood building products: solid wood and plywood.


wood as veneer and plywood


wood as raw lumber

wood as planks of lumber





processing solid wood

Some rules of thumb

Generally, plywood is for large panels and solid wood is for making frames. Plywood is ideally suited for economically covering large, flat areas. It’s also much more stable than solid wood due to how it’s made. Unlike solid wood, plywood is a man-made wood product comprised of several layers of veneer that are laid perpendicular to each other. Veneer can be anywhere from about 1/32″ to 1/8″ thick and from 8″ to about 30″ wide depending upon the species and how it’s cut out of the tree. The core part of a plywood sheet is made of alternating rotary-cut sheets which is not very sightly. The faces, which are the visible parts of the board, are made of matching leaves of the best veneer, usually called ‘fancy-face’ veneer. The reason plywood is so suitable for large areas is that it does not expand or contract in width. The downside of plywood is its edge:

plywood core

There are few designs which call for the edge of plywood to be left exposed. It must either be ‘contained’ by a frame or banded with a veneered edge.

MDF, short for medium density fiberboard, is another type of plywood core. In this case, the ‘ply’ is comprised of many layers of paper laid up or glued on top of each other but having no grain direction like veneer core plywood. MDF is arguably the most stable core available but it’s also much weaker than veneer core plywood without the alternated wood layers. It’s also more vulnerable to water damage as it can absorb more than plywood.


Here are 2 examples of a ‘fancy-face’ table top:

solid wood and plywood

solid wood and plywood

Notice the frame around the perimeter and the highly figured wood in the center of the panel; both are tip-offs to plywood construction. In fact, a frame containing a solid wood top is not good construction as it would not move with the whole top. It would show gaps in the joints after one year.


Another type of veneered top:

patterned veneer top

Marquetry is fancy fancy-face veneer. It could be called the veneer-joiner’s art as it is usually made up of many small and intricate pieces of veneer carefully held together until they can be pressed permanently onto the table top. Then a solid wood frame is built around the outside to protect and conceal the edge of the core.


Here are 2 examples of a ‘plank’ style table top

solid wood construction

Notice the ends of the planks are exposed which is a clear indication of the solid wood construction (in some cases, ‘breadboard’ ends are attached as a way of covering up the end grain if it’s objectionable). All of the boards are running in the same direction, usually lengthwise in this kind of a table. Plank tops are more straight-forward, tending to lend themselves to ‘quieter’ or robust designs. There is a certain predictability about them.


solid wood and plywood

Solid wood tops are best for this kind of expansion table which has all exposed edges and is intended for less delicate use.


Another type of solid wood table:

1 piece plank top

This kind of top is extraordinary because of the width of the plank. In this case, 1 board is wide enough for a full top. The edges are left unworked and if the bark still adheres to them, are called ‘live edge’. The wood is so beautiful by itself – even the ‘flaws’ have a certain wild feel – that very little additional detailing is required. There are not many species of trees anymore that lend themselves to a 1-piece top. Those that are available tend to be relatively pricey.


Which one is better, plywood or solid wood?

It’s a common misconception that one kind of material is intrinsically more valuable and desirable than the other. This is partially due to the unsavory reputation plywood has as ugly and common. As we learned above though, neither one is inherently ‘better’ than the other. Each approach has advantages and drawbacks. Solid wood seems to be more durable because its thickness protects it from superficial damage; but, it’s heavy. Veneer can show off the choicest cuts of the rarest woods in intricate and unique patterns; but, its beauty is literally only skin deep.

The best choice for any design is made from knowing what the strengths and limitations are of the materials and from having a sense of how a product might be used in any given environment. Style and personal preferences also play a part in the equation. Plank or solid wood table tops must be carefully held down or restrained both to restrict a tendency to warp and to allow a substantial amount of expansion and contraction across their width. While plywood tops must be structural, they don’t have quite the same movement issues requiring restraint like their solid wood counterparts.

Summary Takeaway

solid wood: simple, robust design. Thickness, length and width of lumber expressed.

plywood: fancy face. Emphasis upon face; available for matching or patterned veneers.    Primarily 2 dimensional.





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wood for not-woodworkers: part 1/4

understanding wood


woodworker source

lumber in disguise

As a material, wood is all around us; we see it everyday.


It’s all too easy to look at it without ‘seeing’ it though, giving new meaning to the old saw about the forest and the trees.


Almost everyone knows wood is made from trees, but do they know how trees are made?



lumber core

We all recognize that a tree grows up; it’s less obvious that it grows out as well.

Each year, every tree adds 2 layers or rings outwardly, called early growth or spring wood and late growth or summer wood.

Early is light and wide, late is dark and dense.  Any board, when viewed from its end, will show growth rings which have also come to be known as ‘grain’.

What is grain?


The photograph above represents what the end of a board would look like if we could see it with microscopic vision. It’s a magnified view of ‘end grain’ in wood.

The cells that form trees fall into 2 major categories: tubes that are hollow and tubes that are solid. The hollow tubes allow the tree to draw nutrients up from the ground as sap and the solid tubes give the mass its structure.

Woods that are known to be ‘grainy’, like oak, have their hollow tubes concentrated in one growth ring, usually the early growth. These woods are called ring porous.

Woods that are known for ‘tight grain’, like maple, are diffuse porous; that is, their hollow tubes are spread randomly throughout late and early growth.

Grain, then, is another term for the wood’s pores as they appear on the surface of the board. How the board was sawn out of the tree and what species of wood it is will greatly affect what its grain looks like.


Here’s a quick visual of just how porous wood is:


So What?

If there is one takeaway from this primer on wood and wood science, it’s this:

wood moves.

It doesn’t ‘breathe’ – that’s a misnomer – but it is constantly taking on and giving off moisture through its pores. As it takes on moisture mostly in the summer, lumber expands across its width and in thickness but not in length. As it gives off moisture, mainly in winter when the heat goes on, it shrinks in reverse.

It’s unstable.

Wood is hygroscopic. This means the attraction between dry wood and water is so strong it is impossible to prevent moisture gain, or loss if the environment is dryer than the wood. Wood is a lot like a sponge. It’s in a constant state of imbalance due to its cell structure and how it grew. In a humid environment, wood will absorb moisture from the air and expand. When the air is dry, it will give up moisture it holds and shrink.

This is a fundamental quirk of wood and needs to be recognized and accommodated rather than controlled. There is no finish that permanently blocks its pores nor environment so perfectly controlled as to eliminate variation in humidity.

Accommodation of wood

An unusual concept.

Even so, understanding wood’s inherent instability is critical to designing for its use. A 12″ wide, 3/4″ thick maple board, for example, could expand and contract across its width by 1/8″ during a yearly cycle and perhaps 1/32″ in its thickness. While that might not seem like a lot, such a gap or crack can cause problems if it was not expected. There’s also the potential for warping and cupping as a plank tries to ‘return’ to its former place within the tree. The ‘sap side’ of a plank, that side which was closest to the outside of the tree has more ‘lively’ pores than the heart side. That is, as pores are layered over by succeeding cell growth, they tend to collapse and become less moisture responsive. This can set up an imbalance in a board between one side and the other which is usually evidenced by cupping or warping. A solid wood panel must be contained by a frame to restrict its potential warpage but allow for its expansion.  (The alternative is veneered plywood, which is another kind of accommodation and part of the next lesson.)

Besides the appearance of grain – ring porous tends to look coarser and diffuse porous tends to have more subtle grain patterns – there’s a difference to the touch, too, as ring porous woods feel a little rougher than diffuse porous. By the way, neither is inherently ‘bad’ or ‘good’. Understanding their qualities enables a designer to make an informed choice in pairing wood species to a project.

Ironically, water, the source of a tree’s sustenance becomes the enemy of wood in its next life as furniture or cabinetry. A little water can cause discoloration or distortion and a lot of water can destroy a piece. Aside from enhancing the color of wood grain and lending an attractive sheen to the surface, the primary purpose of finishing is to enable wood to resist damage from both sudden and prolonged exposure to moisture. No finish, though, is going to seal wood off hermetically from moisture.

More on finishing in a subsequent lesson.

One of the keys to effective furniture and cabinet design is making choices driven by knowledge rather than relying upon assumptions or misinformation. I’ve structured this mini-course to empower you with practical information about wood as a material. The tools I’ve provided here are basic – there’s always more. If you have questions or would like to build upon what you’ve learned here, please do contact me.



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woodworking course for designers – Intro

pd woodworking course instructorpd woodworking course

furniture 101


Ideally, furniture and cabinet design should go hand in glove with fabrication. It doesn’t always work that way in the real world. With malice toward none, on one side are designers and on the other are builders.

There’s often a disconnect between design and construction; that is, many who design don’t really know the particulars of how things are made. Similarly, those who build don’t understand the thought process behind the design that they’re building. It seems that neither school has been taught the fundamentals of the other.

In an effort to bridge at least the design/build part of that gap, I’ve put together a course as a basic manual – 4 ‘pages’ – that I hope will de-mystify the ‘how’ behind making furniture. The goal is to provide tools that will make everyone’s time more productive in getting furniture and cabinets made.

Here’s what I will cover:

1. understanding wood

wood science for the non-scientist

2. materials

solid wood and plywood

3. methods

frame construction

casegood construction

4. finishes


waterborne lacquer

solvent based lacquer


This course will be in 4 segments or installments. There is no tuition or qualifying exam or quiz at the end. My intention is that you will find some practical knowledge to take away and apply profitably in your world as it touches wood.

woodworking coursewoodworking course - mortise





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What are design details anyway?

A lot has been written about details in furniture, architecture and interior design, but like other words (my last blog), this one’s meaning has become a little fuzzy.

joints details

mortises and tenons


example: are these joinery details? Or design details?




Architectural legend Mies van der Rohe had something to say about details:

famous detail quote





So did the furniture design giant Charles Eames:

design details







But that doesn’t really make it any clearer what details, or design details, actually are.

 All of these are design details:

  • Edge treatmentmortise and tenon detail
  • exposed joinery
  • the sweep of a leg or shaping
  • an inlaid surface
  • the transition from a rail to a leg or a stile
  • proportions
  • choice of wood
  • hardware

Are they integral, though, or added on? Are the details an expression of the design down to its fingertips or are they slipped on afterward like a flashy dress or sports jacket or shabby bathrobe?

If the design, no matter what it is, has been thought through; that is, have its intent, materials and process (construction) all been resolved and fit with the original concept and need, is its execution ‘true’? Or does something happen in the real world that could cause an abort which then sets a ‘save’ effort in motion.

What’s a ‘save’?

The unforeseen always happens. It’s as much a part of the process of making something new, or custom, as finding out that things take longer or cost more than anticipated/estimated.

A good design allows for this, makes it part of the discovery/development timeline and adjusts to real factors.

A ‘bad’ design has not left room for contingencies, problems or complications. The original plan is rigid and inviolable. Any complication or obstacle during the making phase is met with a compromise – some way to ‘fix’ it or ‘save’ it. The design is not whole anymore.

Any new idea – read design here – needs to be tested before it can be produced, marketed and sold. For most products, that means it has to pass some level of consumer standards that have pretty much been accepted, some written and some are just common practice. A chair must hold someone up; a door must open and close safely and conveniently.

Will anyone get sued if a chair isn’t comfortable or a door doesn’t operate easily? Probably not; but most likely, not many of those varieties will sell very well. That said, there have been a number of chair designs that have sold exceedingly well because of their fabulous look in spite of being rigidly uncomfortable. More on that another time.

Why not wing it?

Testing an idea is slow. Making a mockup, building a prototype all take time and it’s largely ‘unproductive’ time; that is, no one wants to pay for it. The reason is discovery. Something unforeseen always happens between designing ‘on paper’ and building with real materials. With one-of-a-kind projects, the potential glitch or conflict can generally be worked out ‘on the fly’ without compromising the original intent too severely, depending upon how good both the designer and builder are. With bigger projects involving production of multiple similar pieces, ‘fixing’ the design during the making phase can be a bit expensive.

Every design has a core

There is a central idea, concept or vision that has been generated by a particular need. A set of expectations, parameters and a certain knowledge of possibilities sets this train in motion.

Every design has a flaw

There is also some conflict, contradiction or obstacle inherent in every new design – it’s an aspect, circumstance or condition that must be overcome, resolved or accommodated to some degree as the design evolves. Sometimes the flaw only becomes evident after the design has been produced and develops later either through its interface with users in the real world or through the introduction of new technology or an evolving environment.

What is ‘bad’ design?

Everyone probably has several mental images of a product that didn’t work as it was supposed to, looked stupid or failed in one way or another. Oftentimes it’s personal experience that dictates this impression but more often it’s hearsay or kind of a ‘collective consciousness’ that develops. In the ’50s and ’60s, Ford’s Edsel got a very bad rap as an undesirable car, obsolete, out-of-touch, a clunker, a lemon. The Rambler and Gremlin were also tarred with that same brush. Chevy’s Corvair became an overnight albatross because of an engineering/design flaw in the interaction between its steering and rear suspension systems. These are design details in the aggregate with impact.

Bad is also a comparative term; there can be no bad without good. 30 years ago, any furniture smacking of mid-century modern styling or Danish modern was certainly undesirable. Was it bad design because it was then out of style?

What is ‘good’ design?

People often can sense good design, literally when they see, feel, hear or touch it. Apple built its business on making well engineered and well built products that responded to and even anticipated their followers’ needs. Good design is a result that is true to its beginning; that is, it starts as a concept that is then worked through its glitches, shortcomings and problems, is tested in real-life conditions and then re-worked again. It’s prototyped and tested again. Its final version in some ways is a magnification of its beginning while still keeping a connection to all of its defining aspects.

Good design is made manifest in all of its parts as well as in its whole. Design details.

That’s the production model. The greatest challenge for any maker like me is to replicate in a one-off a similar result while shortcutting much of the development process. There are few project budgets that would support production-level design development for a one-off.

So, if a design is good, it’s been thought through, its inconsistencies have been resolved and there’s no trace of a struggle. Nothing is left hanging; all the parts represent the whole and there’s no sense of hurry. There’s a feeling of balance. If a design is good, its details bear up under scrutiny; even further, they invite it. There’s a subtle feeling of being drawn in, to discover more, to find evidence of the thought behind the design in the details that bear witness to the birthing of that design. (custom cherry kitchen)

handmade cherry kitchen details

stove hood detail

handmade cherry kitchen cabinet details

mantle detail, range hood

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custom or one-of-a-kind?

one-of-a-kind custom handcrafted table

one-of-a-kind table

Custom or one-of-a-kind or one-off or handcrafted are terms that get bandied about a lot nowadays. They’re so overused that their meanings, well, just aren’t very meaningful anymore. It used to be that ‘custom’ was a derivative of ‘customized’ and usually meant that a standard design had been altered to accommodate some individual need or request. Slight variations in size, color or finish and configuration fit into this category.

Handcrafted usually meant that some of the construction, detailing and finishing was performed ‘by hand’ as opposed to being completely done by machine (in very few cases is it economically plausible to do the more labor intensive operations such as milling, shaping, joinery and sanding without some machining anymore). Nowadays, handcrafted can even be used in description when all that’s been done ‘by hand’ is a final wax rubbing before wrapping and shipping.

Finally, one-off or one-of-a-kind formerly described an original design that was so specialized that it could never be duplicated because of cost or difficulty. One-of-a-kind has come to include more. There is so much furniture coming from so many different sources that it’s not clear what is ‘original’ now. Design, at least as it applies to furniture, cannot be practically copyrighted. Change the dimensions, a detail here and there, add a drawer or a shelf and the proportions and appearance are altered completely.

Is custom the new one-off?

In this particular case, my clients had old bedside tables made of knotty pine. They weren’t all that old but were made to appear so. With a little snooping around, it was easy to identify them as reproductions of a bygone style. My clients liked the basic size and look though, as well as the configuration – the drawer being where the shelf usually is on night or bedside tables. They asked me if I could make them tables like those but ‘updated’ a bit. So I changed the dimensions slightly, made the drawer a tad deeper and put it on undermount slides so that it could be fully extended. I changed the foot detail to a combination I thought would be more ‘articulate’ and I added a bead detail on three sides of the frame openings. Finally, I suggested that the piece be built in birdseye maple. Since the design was relatively simple, such a figured wood could make it pop.

None of those changes was difficult or that costly; however, I learned that the availability of solid birdseye maple these days is unreliable at best. Consequence: some intense ‘custom’ attention from me to locate a source. Luckily, I found one but it meant a road trip to Vermont. Just for the choice of materials, these tables may very well prove to be one-of-a-kind pieces. It certainly turned out to be a custom experience for me.

what’s In Process

one-of-a-kind custom table

raw birdseye end – corner, panel, bead


one-of-a-kind custom solid birdseye maple night table

unfinished birdseye drawer front

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tailor-made fit in a home office desk

tailor-made design, one-of-a-kind desk

custom home office desk

What’s so special about custom or tailor-made?

Simply put, fitting a design to a client’s special functional, spatial and aesthetic parameters all accomplished by way of an open collaborative exchange between the homeowners, the interior designer – Karen Topjian of MTM Designs – and myself.

An 11-foot long solid curly maple top, pullout trays for electronic components, file drawers, large storage drawers, pull-down modesty panel to conceal electrical cables and a hand-rubbed finish carefully matched to other furniture in the room are a few of the features that distinguish this product as tailor-made to the clients’ needs.

Oftentimes, the best solutions are the simplest but here’s a paradox: what’s simple is not necessarily easy. That said, there is no sign of a ‘struggle’ in the final product. The proportions are right; the lines are clean and consistent; there’s a sense of flow and balance between all of the parts. There’s a presence about this product that creates the sense, a feeling that there’s more to it than meets the eye. The subtle detailing of the drawer fronts, the easy action of the drawers, no unsightly electrical cords and an 11-long solid curly maple top made from matching planks out of the same tree – very rare nowadays – all contribute to that presence.

final ‘raw’ preview prior to finishing

tailor-made fit design cabinetry

the new home office

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