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JOEL Joel's Blog

Cheap!!!! The High Cost of Discount Culture


Cheap!!!! The High Cost of Discount Culture 4I am too darned depressed to write a cheerful blog today. My wife got a copy of Ellen Ruppel Shell's book "Cheap" from the library for me to read and well so far it's a real downer. We all know about the drive for the cheapest possible price on any product and the consequent long slide in industrial and craft wages during the past 40 years. Actually it's been going on for centuries. Charles Hayward once remarked that early in his career, on top quality work, scribe lines on dovetails were not left visible. But during his lifetime custom changed and furniture with visible scribes was no longer considered of lesser quality.

In any event my son is getting bigger and needs a larger desk. Our original thought was just to go to Ikea. I hate the place but you can't beat the price. The furniture won't last but that's not relevant in a growing boy. In any case I don't have the time to make a proper desk for the lad. I know - I'm part of the problem.

After reading half way through this book I decided that there is no way I can justify Ikea. The problem is that there is very little middle to the market. You either shop at Ikea or Ikea level quality or you essentially get custom made furniture. In the modern "furniture making as a hobby" world there is no low end either. The projects for any desk-like thing in any of the woodworking magazines and books that are around today are pretty fancy and certainly not something you knock off in a few days with a only small outlay in materials and tools. It's a commitment. Maybe that's why more people don't make their own stuff anymore.

In last centuries "Work Magazine" a lot of their designs were middle ground. These projects were designed to get the job done with a minimum of tools and effort. They were nailed together, sometimes out of scrap. I know Adam Cherubini has written on nailed furniture but not enough.

So here is what I am going to do. I am planning to figure out some simple desk that I can easily build, will look reasonable, will get the job done, and if the boy dumps paint on it, I won't jump out of my skin.

I got to get it done soon and I'll let you know what happens.

Join the conversation
12/06/2012 Peter
Check the third tage frid book. The desk in there is still mass produced at RISD for the first year students dormitory rooms. Useful, simple design and very durable.
12/06/2012 Theodore Scott
I had a similar issue when looking for a desk for my daughter.

I built this:

I used of the I Can Do That projects from Popular Woodworking and modified it to fit.
12/06/2012 Miles Thompson
A century or so ago the a desk like this would have been a pine board project. Today plywood or MDF is the similar material. I'm not really a fan of the latter, so consider ply like baltic birch.

Not fine furniture, but for utility and strength it's hard to beat. It allows reasonable case joinery ... or take the approach for modern wooden boats built of ply. The heavy keel and framing are gone, replaced with glued together egg crate structure which provides shape and strength.

Or you can really cheat and knock it together with assembly bolts - as he grows older simply lengthen the sides, then he can knock it flat for university or trade school.

About 10 years ago our city built a new library - the window seating, etc. is all varnished MDF - not as gorgeous as the oak or walnut of the past, but far better than Formica, pleasant to look at, and friendly to the touch.

This *is* a dilemma.

Cheers - Miles Thompson
12/06/2012 Mandalei
My husband, a handtool guy, linked to this post. I'm not a woodworker but a just-starting-out professional quilter, and have similar problems trying to figure out how to convince people that paying the higher prices for the things I make are justified because a) it's going to last b) not made by small children in a foreign country and c) unique to their specifications.
One thing that I wanted to share with you, though, is that there actually are a great many people who make stuff at home, which is not the high end furniture you see all the time. I am not affiliated with the website I am posting, but I think it flies under the radar for woodworking folk because it isn't really for woodworkers, but people who want to build their own stuff. All you have to do is scroll through the shared photos under the "brag" section to see how many people have taken advantage of the plans on this site. I hope it makes you feel a little better, as if there is hope. Real people making real furniture. Sure, they're not "serious woodworkers", but does that really matter? Here's the link:
12/06/2012 Dave
I agree that it would be great to see more articles and information on going the middle route (and I did read Adams piece). Would love to find that spot that is not from ikea and not going to be done in a year when my kid is a foot taller. I hope to see more on the issue.
12/06/2012 KC
For most of my days of home ownership I bought used furniture, mostly antique pieces that were well made and nice to look at. Beautiful solid woods and it taught history to my son as well. Many of those antiques were purchased at garage sales and cost less than I would have paid for Ikea pieces. So yes there is an alternative to Ikea and to making it yourself and it is a very fine form of recycling, saving trees etc.
12/06/2012 Al R.
How about Bob Key's Quick Easy Bench, substitue an H pattern strecher into the base and skip the leg vise and tool tray.

It'll look cool, you could probably build it in a weekend or so and it wouldn;t be too hard to outfit it with a few drawers, or just slide a 2 drawer file cabinet uner one end.

The upside is that you could stick a leg vise on it later and he'd have a perfectly serviceable workbench.
12/06/2012 Harald Hansen
I applaud what you are doing (or rather - will do) here. A lot of woodworking projects on the web are either high-end heirlooms or knocked together from pallets. Not a lot of middle ground. I'll certainly have a look at your finished desk.
12/06/2012 Aaron G.
When I found out that Paul Schurch, the renowned Marquetry guy, believes in "knock down" furniture and most of his pieces are pocket-hole joinery; that was all I needed to consider a different way of building. My last bookcase/desk project went together super fast and it is very sturdy. All pocket joints.
12/06/2012 Rick Lapp
Joel, the problem with Ikea is the materials but the good part is the designs; many of them are easily built using quality stuff, solid wood or high quality ply. I just finished building a bed for my daughter's first apartment. She favors the "mid-century modern" look and showed me her favorite design in the Ikea catalog. It was an easy build compared to the 18th c stuff I favor. It'll still be an heirloom though.
12/07/2012 Eric R
Your blog post is in the same vein as Chris Schwarz's on "Furniture of Necessity".
The idea of either Ikea, or spending a small fortune on materials for a quality piece sickens me.
I will look forward to your build and hope the idea catches on.

I really enjoy your web site and products.
Thank you very much.
12/07/2012 Joe McMahon
Funny you should mention a desk as I am starting one today for my grandchildren. Eight years ago or so, I built the student's desk from New Yankee. I modified it and used solid wood and plywood sides and it came out great! Four years ago I built a second one for my son in three days, again using wood and not the formica as called for in the plan. Both desks have held up and look and work as well as the day they were made, despite the constant use of two kids.

Don't knock "Nawm", with a little imagination there are GREAT desks that will last.
12/07/2012 Kevin
Awesome - my boys (6 & 8) both need desks too, and I was beginning to look for ways to make a sturdy desk in a weekend or two. Look forward to your efforts.
12/08/2012 Mike
Re: materials.
If going the plywood route, Baltic Birch is a great "high end" choice. Lots of plys, few if any voids.

A good middle ground choice to consider is exterior grade MDO. It has a resonated paper surface that takes paint very well.
12/11/2012 Jeremy
Joel, for a "mid grade" desk, you may consider making two of the boarded pieces from Adams article and adding a supplemental top banded with a molding. I just finished 2 such pieces (for service as night stands) and as they were sitting next to each other in the shop I thought a simple add on writing surface would convert them to a smart desk. As added feature/flexibility the top could be removed for moving (to college) or stored and the 2 small tables used as end tables.
12/21/2012 Ken
Do a cutlist. We can cut the parts at the shop.
12/22/2012 John P.
I've built the desk from an issue of Woodsmith magazine twice. One for each of my kids. It's a bonus to be able to change the plan a bit to account for one of the kids being left handed. It's an o.k. desk made from oak plywood. Definitely not my desk made from cherry in Shaker style. :)
12/27/2012 Christopher Landy
Joel-- You should try Gothic Cabinets if you haven't already. It's unfinished pine and made in Queens. Simple straight-forward stuff but at least it is hand-made in the USA. We bought captain beds for our kids there.
01/04/2013 Dean Jackson
Check out Crate & Barrel for an example of the middle ground between Ikea and custom work. Their desks run between $500 and $2000. They're actual wood, and well built, albeit mass produced (which lets some quality mistakes through that wouldn't be seen on custom furniture.)

The middle ground is there, and has always been there, but the demand for it is limited, as it isn't cheap, and the cheap stuff works just as well at the beginning.
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