Our Guild members often get inquiries from people interested in custom furniture, but for whom it is their first such project. We sat down with longtime master furniture maker James Becker who provided information on his process for custom orders. Read on to learn more from Jim so you can get your custom furniture project started!
What is the first step in a custom furniture project?
James Becker: A custom furniture project begins with an email or a phone call. The customer describes what they need, and I take notes and respond with questions. Sometimes the customer knows exactly what they want, and my job is to price the project.
More often, the customer knows only that they want a table or a chest of drawers for example. My job then becomes to draw them out. I ask for dimensions (of the finished item, or the objects to be stored within), for wood preferences, for photos of the room, existing decor, and the furniture the new item is to complement.
I ask for pictures (or links to pictures) of things the customer likes; these can be of similar furniture, a detail like molding or a door, other furniture in a particular style, or pieces of art. The more information I can glean, the more likely I am to come up with a design that will suit to make an accurate estimate.
For example, in a recent email a customer asked: “I am interested in having a cylinder desk made and wondered what your estimate would be to have this made in cherry with ebony handles. I am interested in two designs… as pictured in the attachment?” The attachments included six views (two of which you see here) of the desk that became the inspiration for the project and the one view of another cylinder desk also posted here.
What happens next?
JB: Once I gather enough preliminary information, I usually do a drawing, sometimes two, to use as a point of reference for further discussion or sometimes it becomes the final rendering that accompanies the formal project “Proposal.”
Discussion ensues: what the customer likes or dislikes about the drawing. If I have sent wood or finish samples, the customer can specify a choice. Is the price within budget and what can be done if it is not? If necessary, I will modify or do new drawings. At this point, drawings are done for an hourly rate with this sum being rolled into the purchase price if the item is ordered.
How do you price a project?
JB: In the case of the cylinder desk, I responded with two sets of drawings showing the front and side views. The first set was done to the original dimensions, and the second done to more contemporary standards with drawers wide enough to accomodate file hangers and a knee hole wide enough to accomodate an executive office chair.
The drawings serve to assure the customer that I am serious and aid me in my pricing. I sent the drawings along with an estimated price range. I also specified that such a large project would require a three-part payment plan rather than my customary 1/2 down and the balance upon delivery; instead, I asked for 1/2 down, followed by a 25% progress payment at the end of the first month, with the balance payment being due upon completion of the desk.
The customer responded that the range was within budget, and that he prefered the contemporary dimensions, but asked that I supply more detailed working drawings before sending the deposit. He also asked that I send photos of the project at the end of the first month. I sent the drawings he requested and agreed to send photos. He then sent the deposit and the project was underway.
Once a design is agreed upon and the price estimate (for custom orders this is a price range: typically a price, plus or minus 20%) accepted, I send a formal “Proposal” listing the agreed upon particulars, including method and cost of delivery. To make the order official, I ask that the customer return a signed copy of the proposal to me along with a check for the 50% deposit. Alternatively, the customer can call and pay the deposit with a credit card; I still require a signed copy of the “Proposal” to be sent.
What does scheduling look like?
JB: The cylinder desk base was completed on schedule, but the top took substantially longer than I had estimated; the cylinder, its mechanism, along with the pull-out desktop work surface required more construction steps than anticipated and the degree of precision needed was much greater than most woodworking projects require. This is a circuitous way of saying I underpriced the project, but would love to make another at the more realistic price of $30,000.00.
How is a custom furniture order shipped?
JB: Orders are scheduled chronologically according to when I receive the deposit. I have several moving companies I use to move furniture. These companies specialize in moving items, blanket wrapped, single or multiple, shop to “in-room” placement and can often be hired to do assembly when required.
The cylinder desk was shipped to Hawaii in four pieces. The sections were individually wrapped and crated then added to a container and trucked to a ship, carried to Hawaii where they were unloaded onto another truck and delivered to the customer’s home.