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Behind The Scenes - 3oak Design + Build

by Mike Burns

One of the most gratifying aspects of building handcrafted furniture is the opportunity to build a custom piece for a client. As with any design/build process a key component for success is to try and help our clients visualize the end result before starting the build.


To achieve this we follow a process that we feel works well for us. As with any process it continues to evolve.


Our process contains 4 high level phases:

  1. Conceptual Design
  2. Quote
  3. Detailed Design
  4. Build


The Conceptual Design

This is arguably the most difficult step. We are trying to glean from our clients their overall style, where the piece will be placed, color, texture and dimensional considerations. If possible we like to make a visit to see where the piece will reside. If this is not possible we will ask for pictures of the location and additional photos of the surrounding space. The goal is to build a profile of our client and the space to answer the following questions:


  1. Does our client lean toward a specific style (e.g. shaker, mid-century modern, early american) or do they intentionally mix styles?
  2. Does our client have a preference on wood color? We don’t stain our wood (with the exception of oak which we ebonize) so we need to be sure they can work with the local wood species that we have (e.g. walnut, maple, oak, cherry, poplar).
  3. Does our client have sample pieces that they like? This is one of the best ways to gain insight into the overall style they are looking for.
  4. Are there any special requirements we should be aware of? For example, when building end tables, mattress height is a key consideration. Are there constraints like vents or window locations that need to be incorporated into the design.


Even with these questions answered there is one element of the design that cannot be translated into a visual rendering that will accurately represent the final product…and that is wood selection. Every piece we make is unique because every piece of wood we use is unique. We source our wood from local tree service companies. Much of the wood we use would be rejected by mills and is destined for the fire pit or mulch. This to us is the natural beauty of wood. We also mill and kiln our own wood. This allows us to be highly selective of the wood we use but even more importantly to show the wood we plan to use to our clients before we start the build process. If feasible we will have our clients visit our shop or send them photos for pieces with large surface areas such as tables and headboards. Some clients prefer more texture and movement in the wood, some prefer less. Periodically we will have a request to build a table out of a single slab or bookmatched pair of slabs. In this case we will show our clients the wood after it is milled and again after it is kilned and surfaced. If this does not meet their satisfaction then we will continue our search to find the perfect piece.


The Quote

Once we are aligned on the overall vision for the piece and in some cases the wood selection we produce a quote for our client. The quote details the overall elements of the design, but does not yet include a detailed design. If our client agrees to the quote then we move to the detailed design phase of the project. There is no commitment on our client at this stage. Our goal is to ensure that the elements of the design are clear and that the pricing is acceptable. For those interested the key price drivers for our quotes are:

  1. Wood selection
  2. Size and complexity of the piece
  3. Joinery
  4. Finish


The Detailed Design

We use a 3D modeling tool to layout the final design. This gives our client a visual representation for what the final product will look like. Dimensions are included and when possible wood textures. As discussed earlier the one element that cannot be represented in the design is wood selection, but we have addressed that by showing our clients the wood that will be used during the build process. The design is a collaborative process that includes our client, product designers and artisans. We will iterate through the design until our client is satisfied. If necessary we will adjust the quote and this will become our commitment to the client. A quote will not change unless there is a material change to the design and is agreed upon with our client.


Shown below is a set of renderings for our Middlebrook Bench product:

The Build

A lead artisan is assigned to the build. Their responsibility is to ensure that the implementation meets both the detailed design and the intent of the design. For example, our client may prefer highly figured wood vs. less figured wood (these design elements are difficult to communicate through a 3D model). It is their responsibility to make sure these requirements are met. During the build process we create a photo album for our client. This is where we will upload pictures of the build process so they can see the progress. We will also collaborate with our client for any changes we feel need to be made that deviate from the design. For example, we may have some very special wood that we feel would be perfect for a table top but may require us to reduce the width slightly. We ensure our client is part of that decision.


In The Perfect World

In the perfect world this seems straightforward and simple so I thought I would share where things go off the rails a bit when building custom furniture.


    1. Wood preparation. We’ve sourced the wood, we’re ready to go. We give the wood one last moisture content test only to realize the moisture content is too high and needs additional kilining. We’ve just introduced a bunch of inefficiency to the project. When wood comes out of a kiln it is NOT ready to use. Wood needs time to stabilize and acclimate to its environment. We generally allow wood to acclimate for about 2 weeks before using it. While there are advantages to milling and kilning your own wood it requires good planning to ensure the wood is available when needed.
    2. Human error. We just finished cutting the posts for the Balsam bed (one of our most popular products) and it went perfectly. The only problem is we cut 2 left handed posts. For complicated layouts we generally get a second set of eyes on them, but nonetheless mistakes happen. And when trying to build complicated pieces mistakes happen more often. Some mistakes are small, but some can basically erase the profit on a project.
    3. We missed the mark. We just finished a set of end tables. They look fantastic. We delivered them to our client with a high degree of confidence that our client will love them. Our client would have loved them if we had built them to the correct dimensions. How did this happen? Simple, we were not diligent about following our process and did not confirm the dimensions with our client. We will take a loss on this project.
    4. It took how long?While a number of our commissioned builds come from products we have developed there are oftentimes modifications required to meet our client's needs. A stool needs to be lower, a bed needs to be higher, an end table needs to be lower etc… Sometimes our estimates are just wrong and almost always not in our favor. We are not in the time and materials business nor do we want to be, and wrong estimates are a painful way to watch profit evaporate on a project.


In Conclusion

As stated before, building a custom piece of furniture for a client is extremely gratifying. Experiencing our clients excitement and happiness when their piece is put in its forever home is far more rewarding than the currency received for the project. We are thankful for all of those clients who have put their trust in us and allowed us to build something for them that will last generations.

If you are interested in starting this process for your own unique piece of custom heirloom furniture visit 3oak Handcrafted Design + Build.

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