The Transition from Building Boxes to Building Your Own Furniture

I’ve been pushing at the borders of my woodworking knowledge lately. I can feel a growth spurt coming on. For me, that growth will entail a move from the “building boxes” camp (mostly cabinet-sized boxes) to the “build your own furniture” camp.

It’s a common transition for woodworkers – and not just beginners or amateurs. In the professional cabinet-making world, many woodworkers move from kitchen cabinet shops to studio furniture shops. For several pros I’ve met or worked with, that was their stated career goal. There is something that seems more profitable (and less work-intensive) about making free-standing furniture, as compared to the headaches of designing, building and installing cabinets and built-ins.

In any case, I think “building boxes” versus “build your own furniture” is a much more useful distinction than “beginner,” “intermediate” and “expert” designations. No matter how much experience you have in woodworking, you’ll always experiment with the full range of projects and draw on the knowledge you gained in different areas. It’s all about building things, in the end.

How to Build Your Own Furniture – a To-do List

1. Determine your workholding strategy. One advantage to building boxes, especially larger ones, is that you never have to think deeply about workholding. You can easily get away with a $65 Workmate and, as the project goes forward, the boxes themselves. Building your own furniture is different because you’re working with smaller, thinner and more oddly shaped pieces – like table legs and chair spindles. You can’t get by without proper workholding tactics any longer. These may include building a good workbench first.

2. Increase your design knowledge. There is no need to reinvent the wheel – or chair or table, for that matter. Even if you’re not quite ready to jump in and build a project, you can learn a lot by studying furniture designs from a wide range of eras and makers. Don’t feel bad about being an “armchair” woodworker for a while – armchair reading can lead to better armchair building.

3. Fill your lumber pipeline. In the transition from boxes to furniture, you are likely moving from mostly sheet goods to mostly solid material. That’s expensive. Give yourself a margin for error by filling your source pipeline with a diverse range of good-quality wood that doesn’t cost a lot. These days, I am looking at Craigslist, ReStore and other inexpensive, local options as I try to build inventory.

I think that pretty much covers the preparatory phase of building your own furniture. If you’re leaning toward Shaker furniture, check out the free PDF I assembled recently. When you download your copy, you’ll see that I was compiling information and project plans that follow the transition from “boxes” to “furniture.” And I think it will help a lot with your work on step #2 above.

For step #1, buy a copy of “Workbenches,” our classic volume.

Are you a long-time magazine subscriber and very experienced woodworker who has been through this transition? Please provide your examples below in our comments section for the broader community!

Dan Farnbach

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Dan Farnbach

About Dan Farnbach

Dan apprenticed and worked in two professional shops during the years after college. But sweeping shop floors only goes so far toward learning woodworking. These days Dan is online editor for Popular Woodworking, and is learning new skills every day. He divides his time between Boston and Maine.

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