getting there by ‘custom made design’

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I make furniture and cabinets from scratch. So what does that mean exactly? The design process is every bit as ‘custom’ as the building and it’s a phase I’d like to call custom made design. I don’t start with a … Continue reading

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completion of a custom cabinet project

I’ve spoken here before about a certain psychological as well as physical let-down that sets in upon the completion of a custom project that’s been months in the making. What I haven’t touched upon is the transition that occurs between projects; that is, how letting go of the old one and ‘tooling up’ or preparing for the new one occurs.

A crucial part of that process is photographing my work. Since just about everything I build is one-of-a-kind, a photographic image is all I have to show for what I’ve created after the piece leaves my shop. Oftentimes, once I’ve delivered an order, there are few subsequent opportunities for me to get back to photograph it. Either I bring my camera and lights along with me at delivery or set aside some time before delivery to shoot the piece in front of a seamless backdrop. In the case of a 28′ long installation , as is often the case for a custom cabinet installation, on site is the only option!

I’ve had to learn a few tricks, mostly the hard way, about doing my own photography over the years. The first and most important is that controlling the light is critical. The second is that the camera doesn’t lie – it shows everything that’s there, whether you actually see it or not – glare, shadows and reflected images are a few examples. Another trick is that images are 2d and while they give the illusion of being 3-dimensional, they aren’t and the magic and art of photography lie in the manipulation of that illusion.

So, one of the biggest tricks I’ve had to learn, and accept, is in using photography not just to document the work that I’ve done, but to create, or contribute to a feeling about it. It may not seem like it, but, as is true for much about creating custom-made furniture and cabinetry, there’s a lot most people don’t see.

Just as I virtually build a piece when I draw it, when I photograph it, I lay the ground work for generating future interest in that kind of custom work.

custom made living room cabinets

Custom built-in cabinets

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has ‘built to last’ gone quaint?

Last week our microwave errored out. A new one for me.The keypad, which is the link to the brains of the thing, kept telling us there was a short circuit and we’d need to get it serviced. Unfortunately, the way most electronic appliances are built nowadays, the components are not meant to be ‘serviced’ or repaired. It’s far less expensive just to buy a new one than to pay someone to take it apart only to find out you have to order a new part from China, or India.  New, comparably equipped machine: $159. The proverbial no-brainer.


On my way to the dump, I made a mental balance sheet of the things in our lives that we do repair vs. those we toss. The ‘keep and fix’ side was pretty light: house, car, bicycle and maybe a few major appliances. Very few. Just about everything else is throwaway or headed for Sal’s Boutique (aka the Salvation Army store).

As a society, we’re probably the victims of our own success. We developed and improved manufacturing processes to such an extent that the technology could be exported anywhere. We don’t make as many things as we used to because people overseas can do that for less money. We consume. When something is used up or out of fashion, we come up with the $159 or comparable and move on. For now, it’s less expensive to throw away.

I think, though, there’s a new collective yearning for having and using things with intrinsic, lasting value like high quality furniture because that is now the exception, not the rule. Finding such things is also more and more difficult. Being able to recognize good quality is as much a challenge as finding it. Consistent with our ‘replacement mentality’, readily available, mass produced commodities such as wood furniture and cabinetry have beauty that is only skin deep – just the thickness of veneer or a coat of paint.

One of the tricks for dealing with this rapidly ‘homogenizing’ and globalizing market, where more things are mass produced – less expensively – is to be able to talk to the maker, learn about what goes into a custom table or hand-crafted cabinet and start to get a sense of what’s beyond the appearance. Nowadays, that’s going to take some effort – probably not worth it for a $159 appliance but it just might be for a table you’ll use the rest of your lives and pass down through your family.




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quality – expensive or priceless?

What makes for ‘quality’ in custom made furniture?

How do you distinguish high quality from mediocre in cabinetry?

Can you really tell the difference between ‘good enough’ and the best?

Does it make sense to pay more for the best when ‘good enough’ is readily available?raw3-4

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post partem

I just delivered!

This happens whenever I complete and deliver a custom piece of handmade furniture to its new home: a sense of deflation, a feeling of loss and even, well, separation. It sounds odd, even a little weird, that one could get so attached to a freshly made piece of furniture or custom cabinet; however, as much as I’ve tried to fight it, this happens over and over again. I’ve come to accept it as part of the territory.

After all, in most cases, I’ve spent months thinking first about the design of this one-of-a-kind ‘baby’ and then planning how I’ll actually make it. That means several drawing iterations and probably a full-scale mock-up and then the trial and discovery process that’s part of the custom making.

The thing is that most of what I make is unique which means that the first piece, the prototype, will become the actual finished piece. To anyone familiar with production processes, this makes a mockery of ‘true product development’ because it means that there can be no unfixable mistakes; that is, any screw-up that’s part of the learning process of building a new design must be resolved seamlessly. Scrapping the ‘real’ materials that go into what will be the finished product simply is not an economic option.

So, what I develop is precious, irreplaceable and, hopefully, adorable. Not exactly the flesh and blood variety but part of who I am as a custom furniture-maker just the same.

custom made, movable library steps

cherry library steps

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building custom furniture from scratch – diy not

This gallery contains 4 photos.

The process of making furniture never ceases to amaze me. No matter how long I’m at it or how many pieces I produce, the starting point is always a little different and the end result is always something of a … Continue reading

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Original design – it’s not as easy as it looks






When I look at this image below, posted by a friend of mine, Rick Gabrielly (, I can only think, dirty fingers? there is so, so much my clients don’t know about what goes into their product.

buy from an artist

When they see their piece (of furniture) for the first time, they’re wowed and express surprise, delight and sometimes shock.  If they saw the mess(es) created in the process, if they were witness to the mistakes and the surprises I encounter en route to delivering a one-of-a-kind knockout, I wonder if they’d be more appreciative of the value of their piece. Dirty fingers, while graphic, is a very small part of the picture.

I realize that what I deal in is kind of magical: taking a concept from an idea to a line drawing to an actual, ‘real’, solid product of solidly joined wood is nothing short of miraculous and I am awed every time it happens.  When I embark upon producing a design, it is like a journey: I have a pretty good idea of where I’m going and how it will turn out, but there are no guarantees.  The wood I buy and invest hours of my life and labor into might just as well end up as firewood as an heirloom.

That’s both the spur and the reward.  In a piece of finely designed, built and finished furniture, the tracks are hidden; no struggle is apparent. I can promise you, though: what looks easy actually was years in the making.

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design in a vacuum

There have been many, many times in my career when I wished I didn’t have to deal with people.  Seriously, my work life, my romantic life and even my social life would all have proceeded so much more smoothly solo, or so some part of me believed.

Of course, it wasn’t meant to be but the fantasy lingers.  The demanding client, the dissatisfied homeowner, the disappointed spouse all bring layers of complication and stress to what ought otherwise to be a tranquil journey.  If only they’d see things from my perspective…or, if only I could persuade them that my point of view outweighed theirs.  If only.

In fact, I saw a quote today that captures my dilemma more eloquently than my kvetching:


So, in the first place, if I accept that I’m such an ‘artist’, then evidently this is not an uncommon struggle.  Secondly, there might not be a ‘solution’; rather, this may be what goes with the territory of creating.  What becomes clearer to me as I go along, is that there’s no ‘escape’ from this tension, either through achieving perfect communication or by chasing the ‘freedom’ of complete seclusion.

Successful design, however it’s measured, is a journey or process that reaches fruition first through acknowledging and then managing the conflict.


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collaborative design

What exactly does that mean?  It’s almost an oxymoron, and brings to mind terrible images under the heading ‘designed by committee’.

Is design a personal process or is it best developed from more than one vantage point, making use of different disciplines?

My experience is that great design does not happen in a vacuum.  Occasionally, I’ve scored with an original concept that I’ve conjured up somewhere between my subconscious and my sketch pad, but there has to be a seed, a germ of an idea that started the process.

In most of my dealings, I’m designing and/or building pieces of furniture or cabinetry that someone else is going to be using, probably for a very long time.  I want their input; in fact, I want their participation throughout the design development phase (which can include the prototype, by the way), because this is their baby as much as it is mine.  Likewise, if there’s a third party involved, an architect or interior designer, they’re part of the ‘steering committee’ as well.

For the best shot at creating a successful product, everyone involved needs to be a partner without dominating the process…which is no small feat.

handcrafted sideboard, wine server, custom furniture, dining room furniture

a collaborated design



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law of accumulated tolerances

Sounds foreboding and made to be broken or having dire consequences, depending upon your point of view.

Maybe even something like when you were a kid, were there just so many things you could do before you provoked your parents into a fit of anger.

Well, not quite.

It’s not really anything legalistic; it’s more like gravity – it just is.  All things made are made according to some kind of plan, whether highly sophisticated like a machine or very simple like a baseball bat.  There are always deviations from the plan in the process of making and the range of acceptable deviations is also laid out ahead of time or by experimentation according to a plan.  These are generally referred to as tolerances.

Well, in woodworking, tolerances also have a range – from what’s commonly referred to as a hair or a whisker.  Joinery and fitting follow fairly tight tolerances while milling and shaping follow a slightly more relaxed standard.  One of the main reasons is that wood, as a living material, does not stay immoveable.

So.  All this to say that in putting together 60-odd pieces of wood to make up a table base blank, I encountered a HUGE example of what accumulated tolerances look like that would never show up on any drawing.  Imagine the effect a variation in thickness of say .005″ (a black whisker), which ain’t too shabby in milling lumber, would have multiplied 60 times!


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