Respected fine furniture makers discuss what differentiates their calibre of work from the rest – what to look for, questions to ask, and things to beware of when commissioning a piece of the highest standard.
Australia produces some outstanding fine furniture. But, defining and identifying ‘fine furniture’ is anything but straightforward.
Australian craftsmanship is actually of such an exceptional standard that many of our makers are sought after overseas. Evan Dunstone of Dunstone Design believes by not having a long, well-established fine furniture history like England, China, Japan and many other European countries, Australian makers tend to be more innovative and progressive in their approach.
He says that establishing oneself as a fine furniture maker in Australia is mostly a matter of peer-assessment.
“What you’re looking for is a high level of craftsmanship, high quality materials, and high concept design made by an individual or a small specialist team who have a reputation as artists rather than furniture makers,” adds Dunstone.
Fine furniture is made to last and can only have integrity in decades to come if it’s made properly.
Nick Coyle of WilderCoyle is an accredited member of Studio Woodworkers Australia, suggesting he cuts the mustard as a fine furniture maker.
One of the reasons Coyle began making fine furniture over two decades ago was due to the waste he saw from furniture not being made to last.
“If you’re going to put time and money into something, you may as well make it worthwhile and last forever,” he says. To solidify this belief, all WilderCoyle work comes with a lifetime guarantee.
The combination of exceptional design, structure, and strength with a full finish is what defines fine furniture for him; it is not something that goes in and out of vogue.
“Fine furniture is something that defies trend. It always has a place because the pieces are more classic,” he says.
Dunstone says a key indicator of fine furniture is how well the timbers are colour matched – the process whereby all materials in the piece are coordinated.
“Simply composing a piece with all one timber isn’t enough. Fine furniture goes the next level up, where you’re making sure that not only is the timber selected to be in harmony with itself, but it’s selected for a particular look and presentation,” he says.
He adds that bespoke makers have close relationships with timber millers and constantly source good timber sitting on a stockpile waiting for the right job.
We may think of fine furniture as typically being crafted from wood, Neil Erasmus of Neil Erasmus Designs suggests this doesn’t mean that it can’t be modern, progressive, and use non-traditional material.
“We must constantly remind ourselves that wood is simply another of many materials that can be used in furniture, and that the appropriateness of materials must always be considered,” the third generation maker says. “Woodworkers are too often blinkered in their approach to making and sometimes devise the most complex, contorted ways to use wood when, in fact, the use of some other material would save an enormous amount of time and keep the cost down.”
Good design is more than aesthetics. Dunstone says the most important thing to keep in mind when looking at solid timber furniture is that it always moves.
“The most common error in furniture makers who are not classically trained is they don’t take furniture movement seriously enough, and that inevitably leads to structural problems down the track,” he explains.
Coyle says furniture that is screwed and bolted together is usually not fine furniture. What you should be looking for are slotted screw holes or ways the timber can move. Look closely at all joints – there should be no gaps or dark shadow lines that indicate poor joinery.
Finish is also really important. Most fine furniture will have an oil or Danish finish, instead of the lacquered sprayed finishes more common in mass-produced work.
Coyle applies twenty coats of finish by hand (on every surface, even the undersides) before a piece is complete. To top it off, he makes his own linseed oil and beeswax finishes from locally sourced raw materials.SELECTING A MAKER…
When choosing a furniture maker, Erasmus says it is important to examine their body of work – see actual pieces if you can, and enquire about their training and experience.
“You should match your aesthetic with a maker who produces that kind of work… and beware: some of the older, more well-established makers may be harder to find and not come up on your Google search,” he warns.
Dunstone says if you do your homework thoroughly you will have a better understanding of what you’re asking for and therefore get a better result.
“Once you get a maker talking about the technical aspects of their work, even if you’re not an expert yourself, you’ll get a feel of someone who really understands their craft,” he says.A THING OR TWO ABOUT COST…
When you buy fine furniture, what you’re actually paying for is the attention to detail, which translates into time and, in turn, cost. Of WilderCoyle’s annual turnover, only about five percent is timber or materials.
“We’re basically working on minimum wage. It’s unbelievable just how much labour actually goes into it. What you’re really paying for is the labour,” he says.
Erasmus also stresses the incredible lengths to which fine furniture makers go to build longevity in their work.
“We have to make our work last, because if we don’t, the source of our materials – wood – won’t. Buying fine furniture is an investment not only for pecuniary purposes, but also in the cultural fabric of our contemporary civilization and just as importantly, in the lifeblood of a tiny group of designer/makers who rely on supportive patronage,” he explains.
At Handkrafted, all of our makers produce quality products – they wouldn’t be here if they didn’t! Commissioning a custom piece is personal. It’s a matter for your budget, your style, and your values. Working with a bespoke maker who loves and is passionate about their craft and building quality pieces to last is what Handkrafted is all about. And that’s fine by us.
Handkrafted is a community marketplace connecting people with passionate makers to commission custom goods. We have brought together hundreds of Australian independent, bespoke craftspeople and artisans who specialise in producing high quality, sustainably made pieces.
Our makers can help you realise your own idea or collaborate with you on a new design. Many also feature a range of original designs that can be made to order or customised to suit your specific needs. Whichever option you choose, we’re here to help make it happen. Support local makers and kick-start your own project today.