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.