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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