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JOEL Joel's Blog



Just enough parts and fasteners to make a dining room set
Just enough parts and fasteners to make a dining room set

Pretty much everyone who is a woodworker likes making things. This is why woodworkers are always engaged in all sorts of non-woodworking construction and fix-it projects. Actually there are a lot of hobbies and professionals where fabrication of one sort or another is a requirement; what sets the woodworkers apart is mostly their technical tools and techniques. For every woodworker spending their weekend changing brake pads, there's an auto mechanic building furniture in their evenings. And there are doctors and lawyers and everyone else joining in too. We get a certain satisfaction making things and finishing projects.

And at this point in my blog I am going to start again, with a new introduction on the same larger issue but from a different angle.

Very little furniture survives from the pre-industrial times. Rich people owned fancy stuff that ended up in museums. The middle class had simpler stuff, including Shaker-style furniture that was really typical joiner's furniture made on a large scale and well distributed. Very little of it survived for two reasons: the furniture wasn't fancy enough to stand out and be preserved, and the average person owned very little furniture.

The industrial age ended that practice. Except for comparably small amounts of rich people's custom furniture, most furniture was made in heavily mechanized factories (albeit with lots of handwork). Because museums mostly collect the high and fancy end of things, our own modern sense what most people ate, set, and slept on is woefully distorted by the large museum collections.

In the 1960s, most American furniture was mass-produced in the USA. I think it is fair to say that the predominant style was "machine made Colonial." The Arts and Crafts movement had not hit its revival yet, and "Shaker" was just coming into popularity.

A successor to the Arts and Crafts and Art Deco movements was "Bauhaus." Founded as a German school in 1919 by Walter Gropius, the Bauhaus encouraged simple forms of furniture that could be mechanically reproduced with ease. But as Tom Wolfe said so eloquently in his 1981 book "From Bauhaus to Our House," when Bauhaus hit the shops, the low volume of manufacture and the simple design appealed to very few, and the designer furniture made in small shops was anything but inexpensive.

After World War II, the Danish furniture industry took a hint from the Bauhaus and its sleek designs of bent plywood and metal became the rage. The new furniture was nicer stuff but still handmade and expensive. The long craft tradition of Danish furniture makers, which still exists today, was about low volume and high quality.

Then in 1948 a young Swede by the name of Ingvar Kamprad began selling furniture. Within a few years he offered knockdown furniture for sale by mail order. Kamprad had no special interest in furniture - he was a natural salesman who started selling matches at the age of 5. He didn't invent the concept of knockdown furniture (much less Scandinavian design); rather his unique contribution was putting together several ideas that forever changed furniture design and our expectations of what functions furniture serves.

The company Kamprad founded was IKEA (his initials plus the name of his local towns make up the company's name). The Bauhaus and Danish design lent itself to inexpensive sheet good construction. Modular joinery using metal and plastic fasteners made it possible to assemble furniture without a lot of skill.

A dining table and 4 chairs for $139!
A dining table and 4 chairs for $139!

Naming the furniture after its designers conveyed quality and purpose. Flat packing the parts, with well written instructions, made it possible to ship the module furniture everywhere, and inexpensively. The lesson here is if you are shipping a container of dressers you are shipping a lot of air and you need more containers. If you are shipping boxes of dresser kits then you are not only packing a lot more furniture in your container, but also passing the entire cost of assembly onto the customer directly, saving you even more. You just have to reduce the skill and ease of construction by the user to something manageable.

Regardless what you think about IKEA, its massive influence on our lives cannot be ignored.

Needless to say, Ikea has its finger on the pulse of most significant trends, so a visitor to the Ikea website will see quite a bit about sustainability (along with collaboration, self-care, etc.) The company has some strong statements about forest stewardship, but - as you might expect from a product designed for its easy acquisition and expected disposability - the company is horrible for the environment. I have read a bunch of stories about how they try their best to circumvent environmental and forest preservation laws, but the truly destructive idea is that furniture is disposable. IKEA furniture has has filled garbage dumps everywhere. Whereas previous generations bought and kept furniture for a lifetime, nowadays people feel that every few years you should get new stuff. The average American moves every five years, and for many people it is far less expensive to buy new IKEA than figure out how to move the old stuff. The disposability becomes a near-virtue: not expecting to keep your furniture forever eliminates the need for IKEA to sell furniture that will last forever. And it doesn't.

My temporary computer desk ready for assembly
My temporary computer desk ready for assembly

IKEA furniture is a lot like the old prizes you could get by sending in a few bubblegum wrappers and some stamps. You knew what would arrive was always a little smaller and flimsier than the description on the wrapper but most customers felt happy. This would include me. I am the IKEA builder, in need of furniture for a three month unfurnished rental while my own apartment is refurbished. I knew just where to go. The cost of buying furniture and getting rid of it after three months was anywhere from a third to a half of the cost of rental.

IKEA furniture has co-oped the Danish esthetic. Modern, high-end "designer" furniture in most cases ends up looking like fancy IKEA, and it many respects it is. The difference is usually materials, quality of construction and cost.

IKEA does deliver one feature that appeals to makers and woodworkers. The satisfaction for making things. At the end of the day you have built something substantial. I wonder how many people after building something from IKEA decided that they wanted to make furniture of their own design and followed their noses to our world of woodworkers. I don't know the number, but I bet it's not zero.

Easy to follow wordless instructions make it possible for anyone to build furniture
Easy to follow wordless instructions make it possible for anyone to build furniture

Join the conversation
09/29/2021 wayne heller
really compelling article, thanks! Would love to hear more about environmental impact from Ikea production over the last 70 years...
09/29/2021 Terrence M Curry
Thoughtful and well written/selective overview. Your point is well made. Recently, after working out the numbers, I realized that for the cost of materials I could order and have delivered to my door, 3 32”w x 96”h x 24d IKEA closets with drawers and shelves. I only made the doors. Just didn’t make sense to carry all that plywood, cut it to size, tape the edges, pre drill hole locations, move the parts from my workshop to my apartment, attach hardware and assemble. I figured, as long as I do not intend on moving it, it’s perfect for this use.
When potential customers call for a quote, I always ask if they considered IKEA first. If they have, and thought that I might be able to do it cheaper, I politely explain that I’m probably not the right person for the job. It’s a kind of litmus test.
09/29/2021 Pete
This disposal mentality, prevalent in today’s decent’s, has encouraged the latest trend. I’ve watched appalled as a few households of decent furniture and antiques are piled into dumpsters. It makes me sick. There’s not even an attempt in those cases to have a sale.
09/29/2021 Bill
I have another perspective. I'm an engineer, a sometimes woodworker, a luthier, an auto mechanic and DIY person in general. I have not made furniture except simple shop benches and fixtures. I love fine quality in woodworking and other crafts. I have purchased fine quality Danish and American furniture and inexpensive furniture from the local furniture store. I have also purchased several pieces of IKEA furniture and cabinetry. I was impressed with the high quality of design and construction used by IKEA; far better than the chinese products from traditional furniture stores. I would blame our disposable culture for anyone throwing away IKEA furniture, not the quality and durability of the furniture itself.
09/29/2021 Charlie Driggs
Well said! I find it quite strange that many people who say they focus on sustainability never think about going out and buying (or just ordering online and having it brought to them) their IKEA furniture, fully intending that it might fail and they might trash it in 10-15 years. A serious waste of energy, landfill space, and money.

Two decades ago my wife & I were looking for antique furniture in Adamstown PA, came across a library chair / step stool with a cracked seat in a flea market -- just as a rainstorm arrived. She needed a step stool in the bedroom, so had me buy it to repair & use. The seller was glad to get $15 and not have to add it to the wares going back in their van, out of the downpour. I didn't realize it was an IKEA product until I started repairs and found a small label. Making a new and certainly more comfortable seat was relatively easy, and the maple I used was stronger than the original mystery white wood. I added some support pads for the seat to minimize cracking risk. I also I found some of the structural dowels were quite loose due to glue failure. So I re-glued the dowels using hide glue and put screws through the dowels and plugs over the screw heads. Not exactly, and never was, a truly beautiful piece of furniture, but it will remain functional for decades longer than IKEA ever expected, but then a short life might mean more future sales.

Our preferences focus on styles of the 18th & 19th centuries, and I have been repairing and building pieces in those styles for at least three decades. That used to be done in nights and weekends, and now that I am retired from paid employment, I sometimes spend my days working on these pieces. Far, far more satisfying than assembly of an IKEA or similar flat pack product. I'm just finishing a case piece for my wife that is intended to be handed down through the family for oh, a century or more. I already have perhaps ten pieces in the house that were built by and for my or my wife's ancestors over the last two centuries. Nothing special, just old, reasonably pleasing styles, and treasured. I'm sure my ancestors are pleased to know that I am carrying on that family tradition. Made once, and minimal energy needed to keep these antiques in service for a long time. One piece coming soon from a close relative will have seen nearly three centuries, and with repairs needed over that time, it is still used & useful.

Two of the areas of expertise I worked in as both a consultant and a program manager during a 4+ decade career were large scale energy storage and residential & commercial/industrial energy efficiency. Energy efficiency definitely is part of true sustainability.

For those among us saying they want sustainability improved, they should think about their own practices and question whether buying cheap furniture they intend to throw away in a decade or less is consistent with what they preach. I find it curious that many sustainability advocates don't think about energy usage needed to create the products and services they are using, or how that might be reduced. Buying or building wood furniture that lasts for a very long time reduces the amount of smelting of ores (or recycling metals, which is more energy efficient) to make structural parts or fasteners, the wood used to build their furniture doesn't need to be harvested every decade if we keep our furniture in useful condition, and a considerable amount of energy and resources used in logging, transporting logs, milling lumber, manufacturing, and packaging furniture for shipment is avoided just by buying or making well-built furniture that is handed down from generation to generation. Our ancestors understood that because they often had to build their own furniture. But our 'modern' society is so disconnected from creation of our goods & services that a large portion of the population values convenience over sustainability.

Our government and advocates don't seem to realize that furniture doesn't need to go into landfills whenever someone moves from one home to another, as it wastes both the energy and resources that went into it and the hard to replace landfill space it takes up. But, government regulations and advocacy often focus on stopping other people doing something while not affecting the person who proposes the regulation or law -- regardless of how effective it actually might be. A little education about our families and their furniture certainly wouldn't hurt our efforts at improving sustainability.

Back to making furniture -- a much more productive activity.
09/29/2021 Eric Weissman
We have a few pieces of furniture purchased second hand and cheap 55 years ago when first married – a $6 Michigan oak dresser now in the guest room; an oak rocking chair now out in my wife's studio; and some really good pieces purchased 40+ years ago – e.g. two loveseats in the living room, probably about ready to be reupholstered for the third time in the next few years. The idea of disposable furniture and the mentality to dispose of furniture is just alien. Unless "dispose" means giving it to the local Habitat for Humanity resale shop (or equivalent). We've done that. They come pick it up. Easy – and it doesn't end up in a landfill.
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The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the blog's author and guests and in no way reflect the views of Tools for Working Wood.