It’s hard to believe, but we’ve been in business for 10 years now. Having no formal training in what we do, it’s been quite the up and down ride. And we’ve learned the right & wrong way to do things the hard way. Pain is the best teacher! And if you repeat your mistakes, it’s a sure way to lose good people / customers, and put yourself out of business.
So here are some things to consider when hiring a custom furniture maker
- Do your homework! The list below outlines some things to consider. Many of our clients come to us frustrated because the furniture they bought failed, or was lower quality than expected, and are now having to buy again or get it repaired. Most of our clients are designers (around 85%), and this can make them look bad in the eyes of their client. Often the purchased something cheaply made in Asia, or from a small in-experienced maker. Price is usually an indicator of quality, but not always. There are copies of our crank table that sell for $2,000 – $4,000, while our sell for 2 to 3 times that. A major tech company opted to buy some of the cheap copies, then 6 months later asked us to repair them when the crank failed and the tops came crashing down. The designer who specified it had to deal with the mess, and they ended up buying new tables from us. Buy once, cry once as the saying goes.
- How long have they been in business? Starting any business is easy, but keeping your doors open for a long time is another story. The longer you’ve been in business, the more likely you are to have your shit together. There are probably 10,000 or more makers that have popped up in the last 5 years. And I know when I first started, I had no clue what I was doing. It’s not just making the stuff, it’s thinking about longevity of the product, finish, how to handle deposits, samples, big orders, employee problems, and so much more. We learned by screwing up, and it cost us a lot of money to fix those mistakes (ie. warranties).
- Ask what sets them apart from the competition? This simple question is very telling. When I first started out in this business, my answer probably would have been there is nobody else doing what I do. Obviously that doesn’t fly now as there are lots of others making industrial style furniture. Now my answer would be that we’ve been in business longer than anybody else doing this, we have an experienced team of people from architects to award winning designers, to amazing craftsmen who strive to do the best possible job, and I would explain our process from beginning to end as it’s quite thorough. Also our goal is to exceed client expectations, and finish the job on time.
- Your word is everything! Ever work with somebody that said they’d get back to you at a certain time and they didn’t? And later they repeated that pattern over and over and over? I learned a while ago that how you do one thing, is how you do everything. We have patterns, and we repeat them in every part of our lives. And if you don’t get back to somebody when you said you would, you don’t value the other person’s time. Sure shit happens, but 90% of the time this falls true in my experience. Hmmm… So you can test others by asking for commitments and seeing if they hold them. “So when can you get me this quote by?” And when they forget, or get it to you early, you have learned a great deal about them.
- How is payment handled & how long is the lead time? Custom furniture is built to order which takes time. Some companies ask for full payment, others ask for a deposit. Some want cash, check, bitcoin, credit card, wire transfer, or they have net terms. A credit card gives you some protection against fraud, negligence, etc., the others don’t, and American Express offers the most protection while charging the merchant the highest fee. People asking for cash are probably not reporting it on their taxes. Companies asking for a wire transfer would be suspect to me. You gotta make sure they are a legit company. We typically have an 8-12 week lead time and used to ask for a 50% deposit. Now it’s a 65% deposit with the remaining balance due upon completion. Without full payment we have to come out of pocket to complete the project so that means we need to have a surplus of funds. One of the BIG issues companies have with deposits is having the funds to make the product. So many have run out of money and couldn’t complete, or even start the piece. I know of a company right now that is taking deposits, promising quick lead times, and using that money to make old orders where the client is screaming the loudest. They are about to go out of business. I’ve been in that spot a few times, where we didn’t manage our money like we should have, and were struggling to make payroll and finish pieces. It’s a very stressful position to be in, and all too common with new businesses. Some companies will also accept payment on terms meaning they don’t get paid for typically 30-90 days after the job is done. You usually only see that from bigger companies which either get a loan from receivables or have a surplus of cash.
- What history do they have? It’s ideal in my opinion to get referrals from somebody you trust, but not always possible. But with the internet, you can do some quick research like a Google search for “(company name) reviews (city name)”. A search for Vintage Industrial Reviews Phoenix turns up reviews from Yelp, Google, and our site. We don’t have many reviews (under 20) because we never tried to get any. But like Amazon, reviews are very helpful. Before I buy anything online, I typically read the reviews. Beware of fake or paid reviews as there are a lot of them out there. If you are still skeptical about hiring the company, you could ask for some references or if they are out of state, ask if there is any local work they’ve done in your city you can see. We also have clients fly in to Phoenix to check us out. And read their blog if they have one. I can’t tell you how many clients read all or most of our blog before buying (200+ posts). Also check the Better Business Bureau which usually only has complaints. There is a local company called the Scottsdale Art Factory and they have terrible online reviews. I found them 6 years back as they had stolen our Bronx photo, photoshopped it, then pretended it was an antique they replicated. Unfortunately many companies seem willing to do anything to make a buck, including lie cheat and steal. It’s survival of the fittest.
- How is the furniture finished & the wood protected? The biggest problem we’ve had by far over the years is our finish failing, or the wood cracking. Most furniture these days is either laminate or veneer as they are less expensive to produce and are easier to maintain. It’s either MDF or plywood core with a thin sheet of plastic or super thin wood on the outside. While those are cheaper to buy, they usually don’t last long and are not repairable and end up in the trash. Solid wood furniture is a lot more expensive to make, especially if it’s made in the USA. It also has the potential to outlast laminate or veneer furniture, but can be ridden with problems. The thicker the wood, the more problems it tends to have. Wood expands and contracts with temperature and humidity changes. And there are a ton of other factors that go into building wood furniture and table tops that can help it’s longevity. We’ve revised the way we fabricate our wood tops probably 30 times, and have stopped selling oak tops as they tend to crack and split down the road. And we have changed the way we finish and seal our steel and wood around 15 times. The lacquer we use now is superior to the way we used to do it, and requires a professional setup and booth. Powder coat is a step up in protection from the lacquer on steel, and it took us years to get the steel finish right. Epoxy coating is a step up from lacquer on wood and seals the product very well for many years down the road, however it has a different thick glossy look. Ask your furniture maker how they finish their products and what kind of warranty they offer.
- Do you care about their sustainability practices? Many companies are trying to go “green”. Manufacturing furniture can produce some hazardous materials and pollutants. Not every buyer or company cares, but it’s something to consider if you do. We plant trees to offset our carbon footprint (10 to 20 times what we use), and we recycle steel scrap, as well as recycle and reuse some chemicals. Asia has very low standards of sustainability and will sometimes use inferior or hazardous materials in their products.
- Shipping, Delivery & Setup: How is this all handled? Most mass produced products come in a cardboard box. Custom pieces are usually palletized, crated, or blanket wrapped for transit. Always make sure the item is insured! Truck drivers are in a hurry and not always careful. That’s why you need to inspect your delivery before the driver leaves. We ask our clients to open up the packages and inspect thoroughly as insurance doesn’t always cover it afterwards. Get the driver to note any damage if any as that makes the claim easy to process. Or refuse the package if its bad damage, and take photos or video to document it. Over the years we’ve reduced the number of damage freight claims drastically with better packing, and going with the best freight companies as some are notorious for mistakes. Also find out how the driver delivers? Some will be curbside delivery, others inside. Some have a lift gate to lower the package to the ground, others need a loading dock or forklift to unload as the trucks as the trailer bed is 48″ tall. And does the furniture need to be assembled? How heavy is it? Will it go up your stairs, elevator, around a corner, or through a tight doorway? One designer ordered a completely custom art desk for a CEO of a major corporation. And the desk didn’t fit through her front door! Most doors are 30″ wide, but they vary from 24″ to 36″. We ended up having to chop 6″ off this desk after she shipped it back, and it cost the designer a lot of money and really upset her client. Liability falls on the person ordering custom furniture that will not fit inside the place it’s going. Although the designer tried to blame us, it wasn’t our fault for building what she asked for. That’s like buying a long bed truck and blaming the dealership because it’s too long to fit in your garage.
- Longevity? The hospitality & retail industry typically changes out their furniture every 3-5 years. And in our experience, most furniture will not stand up to commercial use and abuse that long, and will have to be replaced. “Commercial” quality furniture has higher standards, but do your research. For example, we’ve had 40+ chairs at an MGM restaurant for 7+ years now and got to examine them 4 years in. While they were all still operational, some had signs of being thrown with chunks of wood being taken out of the seat (maybe a bar fight). Keep in mind these are 40 lb chairs. Some of the leveling glides had fallen off over the years. We later supplied them with replacements and they keep a bunch in stock just in case. The seats have a swivel which is rated to 100,000 turns, and all of them were still functioning as designed which was great. We pay like $5 more for the USA made swivels, but it’s worth it for us as our quality is more industrial than commercial, meaning it’s ready for 24/7 use instead of 8 hours a day. Any component that moves or comes into contact with people or wear is something to examine. Is it quality? Will the upholstery & foam stand up to regular use?
- Listen to your gut feeling! Ever have a bad feeling about something only to later have it come true? Well listen to your instincts before you decide to hire somebody. More often then not they will be right (see #4).
If you have any questions or comments, feel free to comment below!