When we began woodworking, the question of whether we were to produce a static "line"of furniture, or custom make each piece, surfaced. The complete explanation of our decision is a matter for a long conversation, or a much longer text than I am prepared to offer here. I will, however, define our current position and some of the positive and negative results on our work.
A production shop has the advantage of what I call the "flywheel" effect. When it is set in motion, it tends to keep its momentum and smooth out many of the glitches that surface in the day to day operation. There is not a great loss of momentum if one employee is absent, or if one component is a bit late in arriving. There is always plenty of other work to fill in with. Borrowed money is not only easier handled, it is a fact of life.
There is little fear, however, of debt. Most of the borrowing is done in the context of known, long term commitments and existing orders. Buying or leasing new equipment with borrowed funds is a necessity to maintain production. Skill levels of new personnel are not so critical. A few key employees can oversee the gradual training of qualified recruits, and the weeding out of the less suitable.
A long view is taken of orders, lead times, and delivery. It is much easier to offer absolute delivery dates and sign contracts specifying those commitments.
The system that prevails in the general market is very accommodating of a well run production shop that turns out a sound product, and rewards it with the much sought after, uninterrupted "cash flow".
All of that smooth operation does not come without a price. Innovation or deviation from the established patterns is discouraged. Much of the artistic and creative decision making is first filtered through the persons who are responsible for the mechanical and material running of the day to day affairs. Changes are more apt to come solely in response to economic pressure, and thus an adherence to a generic view of the current trends or styles is likely to be the result.
To innovate is to risk insult, either somewhere in production or at the market level. Borrowed money exerts an effect that few in the positions of creative control are willing to articulate. The domination of production by accountants is almost absolute, and much of the decision making becomes limited choices of alternatives that the accountants offer.
At the shop level, the muting of energetic creativity and innovation has the effect of rendering the product much blander and generic.
One of the first areas to suffer in a furniture shop is the color and grain match in the work. Pieces are run through planers, shapers, and saws, on their way to the sanders. Often, the assemblers are the least skilled personnel. Their only job is to apply glue and fit precisely made parts together with no regard to appearance.
The finish probably suffers more than any other ingredient. The pressure for a "one step" process that will yield a marketable result is overwhelming.
Quick sand, spray on a stain, spray on a finish, and pack are the steps to leaving the shop. Sometimes all of that can be accomplished in a 4 hour period.
A smaller custom furniture shop suffers from the lack of the "flywheel effect". Materials must be purchased in smaller quantities, often from distant suppliers who have much less respect for the small orders than they show to a larger customer. Wood supplies suffer terribly. The worst case scenario is where the small shop must buy the lumber for each project individually. If delivered, the craftsman has no control over the quality, and if personally selected there are often restrictions on how much choice one has. The cost of small quantities of wood is often 100% greater than if it is purchased in moderate quantities.
A broken finger can completely disrupt a small shop's schedule for months. Restrictions on scheduling inevitably cause longer lead times, and often, missed deadlines. Cash flow in a smaller shop is usually intermittent at best.
Lenders are uncomfortable without a clear view of repayment capability. Larger, quality commissions are often passed by because of the inability to fund a small expansion of tools, material, or space. Any employee must be extremely skilled already, and they may only be needed for a short time.
Most of the benefits that a small shop enjoys are connected to the personal attention that a diligent, talented craftsman can bring to a project. A small shop can accommodate individual and unusual designs much more readily.
We have combined the best of both processes.
If the restrictions caused by limited lumber supplies can be overcome, a small shop can match grain and incorporate the natural elements of the wood's beauty into a project. Higher quality hardware that requires more hand inletting can be used, and can have more attention paid to its fit.
The time spent on the finish is invariably longer in a small shop. In fact, many small shop owners intuitively know that the finish is the one place that they hold the advantage.
Careful detailing, especially on the edges of components, and careful preparation of a piece before finishing, are subtle differences that define handmade furniture. The application and smoothing of each coat of finish, and the final "hand rubbing" are features totally absent in production pieces.