Switching Specialties: From Cabinets to Furniture

Can a one-man business successfully make the change? Owners weigh in on both sides. July 24, 2005

My current client base is interior designers and small architects who also act as general contractors. I do built-in cabinetry and furniture. The work that I am supplied with now is fairly steady, and 80 percent built-ins, but I would prefer to do furniture, as I am getting older, and humping built-ins into place is taking its physical toll. I work alone, and would prefer to continue doing so. I have been doing cabinetry and furniture for 30 years, four years as my own business. Design of these items is not an issue, as I do the detailing of the projects I currently get from sometimes rather abstract sketches supplied by my clients. Hopefully, those of you who have made a similar transition will reply about the shift in client base required, marketing changes, attitude adjustment, etc.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
By furniture, I presume you mean free-standing items such as tables, chairs, etc. If so, then the most important attribute you need to specialise in such items is to not need to make any money.

If you actually need to make money, then stick with the built-in stuff. Very few people actually need furniture built, especially to order. Why would they? The vast majority of people select their furniture from stores that have a large choice on display. If they are rich, they go to rich people's stores.

In every case, the store owners source their stock from wherever the labour and every other cost is low - i.e. third world countries.

I'm going through the same thing. I find the biggest problem is moving from a figure-out-what-they-want-and-build-it mentality to a design-it-and-they-will-come mindset, where design is probably 90% of the game. If you do not have a track record as a designer at this point in your career, I would suggest that you approach your client design professionals whose work you think might translate into a viable product and see about working with them to create a line of limited production pieces that you will then have to figure out how to make, market, and distribute. I'm totally energized by the challenge of changing my business, but I ain't quitting my day job! Not yet, anyway...

It's true that there are a million places to buy furniture, but that's not the industry I think we're after. Anyone can build a table, even if you have to buy the legs. We want to design and build custom pieces that you could never find anywhere else. It's only our design. It's art. So how do you market this?

From the original questioner:

I do not have a track record as a designer at this point. I have designed and am currently producing one-off and limited production pieces in between paying projects (don't quit your day job, indeed - we all gotta eat). Perhaps I too find myself more energized (excellent word) while doing this, in part because there is no deadline date, but more because it is totally my design and effort, and it creates a greater sense of pride since the items are much higher end than my everyday work.

I have thought of placing these in commissioned galleries, but don't know if that is the marketing approach I want to take. I suppose that would generate traffic and viewing of my work, but I have not heard of many positive experiences from those who exhibit through galleries.

I don't think customers buy $5,000 items through the internet, unless they are familiar with the product or its maker. I had thought of approaching several of the designers that I do work for, but the resulting conversation and sales pitch may be awkward, given the relationship I currently have with these people. I don't believe I can do all furniture all the time, but in trying to make a substantial shift in type of workload, I wonder how to market that which I would like to produce.

I have thought of taking one of these items and visiting every designer in town, and may still do that. I just don't know how to approach the sales of such items. My practical side tells me much what contributor J said, but I want to know if anybody is doing this and how it is working for them, what obstacles they have come up against, and if it is a pipe dream or a possibility that can be accomplished with some effort. I suppose, as a worst case scenario, I will have a well-furnished house.

You did not say where you are located, something I think has a fairly large impact on becoming purely a furniture maker.

Here in NC, with the flood of furniture available, it is difficult to find good clients, much less clients who understand and appreciate the costs involved with hand crafted work. Now, if you were perhaps in a large metropolitan area... the "eastern corridor" of NY, MA, CT, or San Fran, Chicago, etc., then it might be different.

I think one of the keys in making such a transition is in just how you are perceived by your past and future clients. A cabinetmaker who dabbles in furniture, or a furniture maker who dabbles in cabinets.

You have one large thing going for you and that is years of past (I'm assuming happy) clients. They are the ones I would go back to first with the "new" you. I would also continue to work the interior designers and architects.

Also, you need to build a portfolio of both past and present work. Very seldom does the client have a clear conception of a given piece that they want. We strongly encourage ours to browse catalogs, the internet, etc. to find pieces that, while not exactly what they want, might have a certain detail, base, leg, apron, etc. that they find pleasing.

I, probably along with the majority like me, wish I could say that all I did was furniture. However, not being Sam Maloof or Jere Osgood, and living where I do, that is really not practical. So we still get our share of yet another cabinet, yet another paint grade bookshelf, etc. However, these do pay the bills and we price them such that we do not even try to compete with commercial stuff. Many is the @#$#@ white corner unit that leads to a dining table, so we keep on doing them.

I recently posted an item in the Finishing Forum looking for tips on finishing a "surfboard" shaped form for an ad campaign for a company. We would never take anything like this one... except... the request came from the president who has given us several furniture commissions in the past.

Going back to my original statement about perception... It might be interesting to go back to your previous cabinet clients and ask them if they were aware you made furniture also. You might be surprised to find many of them saying "Oh, really? I didn't know that."

The richest man I ever worked with was a furniture manufacturer. I looked into furniture as a way to remain in shop rather than riding the roads. I will never have enough customers that want custom furniture to make a living. As for building little cash and carry things like tables, entertainment centers, china cabinets, gun cabinets, and curio cabinets and selling them, I can buy those items wholesale, cheaper than I can buy the materials to build those items, so I would be better off just buying wholesale and selling retail. A friend's sister owns a furniture store, and a solid cherry china cabinet that I would have to get $2500.00 on, she was buying wholesale for $750.00. I don't know how they manufacture stuff so inexpensive.

If I was making furniture as a professional furniture maker, I would get a product liability insurance policy. Maybe if you had some designers that really pushed your stuff, and a complete line and a thick catalog to give the designers…

We are also making the switch and it is getting better every year. The business I look at is Thos. Moser Cabinetmakers. They started 30 years ago and today have showrooms in the major cities, with very high end prices. I am sure he had days that it seemed it would never work, but it does pay off. You have to know your market and you have to be where the people have money. The one thing that you have to do is get your mindset away from how cabinet businesses are run these days. You have to only outsource what you cannot do, but do everything else in your shop. You need to have total control of everything you build to keep high quality in your product. Solid wood furniture is what is going to sell, so you must know how to build it. No drawer slides, no euro hinges, paneled backs and sides, dovetails, pinned mortise and tenons and your wood choice is very important. The color, matching grains, finishes. If you get into this quality, you can get good money for what you build. You must sell your own furniture to the public. Do not let other people control your sales. If you are thinking of doing custom furniture, you have to charge what it is worth, not just little enough to get the job. If you have your own line of furniture, make five at one time. For a table, we will mill all the legs and aprons and stock them, so all we have to do is assemble and make the top. Saves tons of time.

The comments below were added after this Forum discussion was archived as a Knowledge Base article (add your comment).

Comment from contributor J:
I grew up as a cabinet maker's son and enjoyed the business immensely however, with the housing glut of the early 80's I pursued other avenues of income. The most work I ever received and contracted was from antique refinishers and restorers. They seem to have quality in mind and ask you to do some of the most unusual works of art. The challenge was always working from a picture or designing what I thought they wanted. The higher end pieces were made of black walnut or white oak lumber. I still have a desire to return to the industry, only in the custom made furniture or my own line of furniture.