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The Ins and Outs of Buying Industrial Furniture

By April 12, 2016Blog

Industrial furniture has been my passion over the last 6 years. It’s consumed 20,000 plus hours of my time (so far) which makes me fairly knowledgable about the subject. Part of the reason it became so popular is the quality. These were often old industrial pieces that were used for years in a factory and they held up to abuse. But as with all trends, most of these pieces are newly manufactured to give that feel and maximize profit for a huge company. This means that most of the industrial furniture, in my opinion, is junk that’ll barely last a season or two. And that is the opposite of what set this trend on fire which will eventually pour water on it.

If you think about it, it’s absurd. People want a piece of furniture that looks vintage and was in a factory, but what they typically get is something that was poorly mass produced in an Asian factory. And it often falls apart, or the finish goes south, and it ends up in the trash. So here are some things to look out for if you’re in the market to buy some industrial furniture.

Quality:

How do you tell if the piece is made well? The simplest way is to pick it up. Is it heavy? Can you lift that dining table over your head no problem? Well then it’s probably been made using thin gauge metal, soft woods like pine which scratch easily, plastic, uranium or who knows what. If you tap on the metal with your finger, does it sound tinny or solid? Certain things don’t have to weigh a ton, like a console table, but that weight, at least to me, adds to the quality greatly. It’s more cost effective to manufacture light products. Less material means less cost for material and transportation. But we’ve discovered the cost difference is negligible, and we’re not willing to save a few bucks if product quality is sacrificed in any way. Some people think a 600 pound dining table is ridiculous, and that it’ll be impossible to move. But how often does it need to move? If a lot, just add casters to it, and make sure they lock so it doesn’t roll around by itself.

Of course weight isn’t always the perfect indicator, but it’s a start. Steel can have problems down the line. Wether it’s a bad weld which breaks, or it’s not sealed properly and rusts like crazy. Wood tends to have more problems since it’s basically alive and moves with temperature and humidity changes. This can lead to cracking, splitting, self-destructing, and more. With people jumping on the reclaimed bandwagon, think about splinters or uneven surfaces, which they tend to have. I’ve seen so many restaurant tops with huge cracks in them that collect food. It’s gross and just about impossible to clean, especially if the top is rough. We’ve gone through 7-10 different stains and sealers to find the right one. The one we use now is 10 times better than the first, both in looks and durability. The process of finishing our steel is timely and involves multiple steps. It’s something we’re known for now, and it’s one of our trade secrets. In order to do things right, you have to learn the hard way by screwing up a lot. And you have to have the mind to improve. One of our mentors told us to work on making the business a little better everyday. It’s a simple concept, but absolutely necessary if you plan on staying in business.

A lot of cheaper pieces will use veneer instead of solid wood. Just know that those cannot be repaired if they get damaged. It’s basically a paper thin sheet of real wood glued to a piece of particle board. Most of the wood we use is 1.25″ to 2″ thick and can be sanded down and restained/sealed. It’s serviceable as it should be.

Resale Value:

If the piece you buy is of great quality, it’ll be more likely to have a better resale value down the road. Most furniture today is disposable. The quality and price is low and so it ends up in a landfill soon. We’ve had customers looking to upgrade their furniture a couple times and have managed to resell it for more than what they paid. When I buy a car, I consider the depreciation rate. New cars will often dive in value, others more slowly. Our prices and quality have been steadily increasing over the years. We resold a Crank desk a client bought a couple years back for 40% more than he paid for it. I imagine that down the road our stuff will be on Antique Roadshow hopefully selling for a pretty penny. That’s one reason it’s important that our product is serviceable and can be maintained from time to time. If it’s cared for, there’s no reason why it can’t still be in use 200 years from now. But in order for something to hold it’s value over time, the design needs to be timeless, not super trendy.

Restaurants, hotels and retail change their furniture out typically every 5 years. It’s sold for pennies on the dollar, if not thrown away. If they bought the right pieces, they could get a bunch of their money back instead.

Custom or Not:

Some smaller companies, like ours, have the capability to produce custom pieces. They often build to order and can adjust the size, finish, options, etc. This gives you the most options, but it comes with a higher price tag since these pieces are not mass produced. The great thing about custom is it’s made just for you. Often you’ll have a one of a kind product and that is important to many people. Things have more significance or value when they are unique. And it seems most people don’t know that you can have custom pieces made. But the majority of people can’t afford custom, so they choose off the shelf products. There’s nothing wrong with that. We do it all the time.

Style:

For me, function is important. But without style, the piece has little value to me. If you are not attracted to something, you don’t want it around you. This works with furniture, spouses, really everything. Consumers and manufacturers make compromises in quality and design to reach a lower price point. A lower price means more potential to sell to the masses. You can buy a Eames chair knockoff for $100 all over the web. It looks similar, some would say identical. But it becomes apparent when you have the two side-by-side, that there are differences. And the comfort, longevity of the product, and resale value are seen down the road.

When you see a company with style you know it. We drool over Italian cars or Parisian fashion. And when somebody comes out with a breakthrough design, it’s copied over and over. Really everything is a copy in some sense, but that’s another discussion. Those that are great at picking out style, become the trendsetters. And they surround themselves with beauty that appreciates in value. My wife has 2 or 5 closets full of vintage Valentino, Chanel, Christian Dior, etc., that she got at the vintage store and it’s holding or increasing in value.

Origin:

Where was this stuff made? I can tell you that about 95% of the industrial furniture for sale today was made in China or India. I can go to Alibaba.com and find one of my designs for sale there (often they use my picture) for $40 – $300 if I buy a container of them. They get the cash and try to make something that resembles the design. Months later the sucker gets the container and finds a heap of rusting steel and cracked wood that looks little like what they wanted. Or a place like Pottery Barn has our design copied and made in China for pennies on the dollar. I don’t know about you, but an American company like PB copying a tiny American company like ours and then outsourcing it to Asia is just a slap in the face. But unfortunately, that is what our government promotes. And that is why skilled labor is really hard to find here. And why Asia owns us. So think to yourself if this matters? Some of the quality is decent, but you need to kick the tires so to speak.

Our style is French Industrial. We could make it in Paris, but we make it here where we live. Buy local, shop local, be local.

Reputation:

What is the reputation of the company you are looking to buy from. These days it’s easy to see online reviews. Check Yelp, Google, Ebay Etsy, Angie’s List, etc. I am proud to say that we have a 100% positive rating on Ebay after 325 transactions. We have a 5 star rating with 24 reviews on Etsy. We have 20+ reviews on our website, all at 5 stars. I’ve been doing this for 6 years now and I’ve learned the hard way what not to do. And do our reputation is everything. Even if a client never tells anybody that they had a bad experience, it matters to us. We make sure that our clients are more than satisfied and handle problems to the best of our ability. Every problem is a chance to win over a customer, and to better our process. So we like problems in a sense. How many companies have you dealt with that told you good luck, or it’s not their problem? For me, many, and I never went back. Look for people with an online reputation or get a referral from somebody you trust which is even better. Ask how long they’ve been in business if you don’t know. Because I made lots of mistakes my first 2 years. My prices were a lot lower, and it showed in the product.

Real Vintage or New:

Our company, Vintage Industrial, makes new products with new and reclaimed material. Our trademarked name is also our style. You can find true vintage pieces, but they are far and few between. Expect the quality to be nice. Craftsmen cared more back in the day, companies too. But finding that perfect vintage piece can be time consuming and sometimes impossible. I’ve been looking for some cool Eames chairs for years. I lucked out and found 20 of them a year ago which I snatched up. They are in amazing shape for being made in the 70s. And they have held up well. Most people think they are almost new. If I bought new ones, I could choose the fabric color, or get leather, or have a different metal finish. I could get exactly what I wanted. But they’d be $1,200 each instead of the $120 I paid. So if you have time, start searching online for whatever you are looking for. If you are looking for a table, desk, or storage, good luck finding something vintage that is the right size. That’s partly how our business evolved. Clients needed something a certain size, and we said ok.

Long Term:

I’ve found that Americans tend to think short-term for the most part. A study said we have a 9 second attention span which is equivalent to a gold fish. But thinking long term about your health, well being, environment, finances, etc., will lead to a brighter future. Every choice we make is our chance to vote for something. So make your purchase count. Give your money to a company you believe in. It makes all the difference.

If you have any questions or comments, feel free to comment below…

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