Furniture makers design and craft individual pieces of furniture and storage cabinets such as chairs, tables, dressers and wardrobes. They may also restore antique items of furniture.
Furniture is an essential part of our daily lives. It is what we sit on, eat and work from, where we store our clothes and possessions and where we sleep. Aesthetics has always demanded that furniture must not only be functional but also beautiful.
Each decade that passes is marked by a unique style or set of styles in furniture design, and when enough time has passed that ‘look’ nostalgically comes back into fashion, this time as ‘retro’.
Further back, antique pieces of furniture can be valued at tens of thousands of pounds with painstaking restoration work preserving them for years to come. Different countries espouse contrasting approaches to the solutions of design, comfort and functionality, and thus furniture becomes something more than just a means to an end. For some it becomes a statement of their approach to life, their morals and beliefs; for others, furniture is a simple affair of comfort and choosing the right colour scheme to go with the rest of their house.
On its inception, furniture making was a hands-on trade involving long hours creating individual pieces to demand. These days, however, the vast majority of furniture making is done in large factories with the use of industrial machines operated by far less skilled technicians. Here the role of the furniture designer is much more important than the furniture makers.
The invention of flatpack furniture means that lower storage costs can be passed on to the customer along with some of the construction work involved. Nevertheless, there will always be demand for beautiful and unique pieces of furniture, and thus the most skilled aspects of furniture making, although in decline since the industrial revolution, will never become extinct.
The salary for a furniture maker depends vastly on the amount of work he is able to produce, his level of skill and his reputation.
- Novice furniture makers start on around £12,000 per annum
- Experienced furniture makers earn between £15,000 and £32,000 per annum
- Furniture designers running their own company can earn in excess of £40,000 per annum
In his day-to-day operations, a furniture maker could do any of the following:
- Consulting with clients to find out their needs and begin working towards a concept
- Drafting a design on paper
- Sourcing wood from specialist suppliers and timber merchants
- Working with the wood, cutting, edging and shaping according to design plans
- Assembling the piece and affixing parts together
- Treating the wood with polish to protect it and finalise aesthetics
Many furniture makers work on an apprenticeship basis and learn their skills on the job. There are a number of qualifications available at college relating to furniture making, design and restoration:
- NCFE Level 1 Award in Creative Craft using Furniture Crafts
- City & Guilds Level 3 Certificate in Furniture Production
- City & Guilds Level 2 Certificate in Furniture Production
- City & Guilds Level 2 NVQ in Making and Installing Furniture
- City & Guilds Level 3 NVQ in Making and Repairing Hand-Crafted Furniture and Furnishings
You may be able to work in a job at the same time as studying for one of the above qualifications.
As a furniture designer, the following personal attributes would come in handy:
- Attention to detail
- Creative flair
- Patience to work with great care
- Naturally good with your hands
- An analytical mind for problem solving
- The ability to work alone or as part of a small team
- Ability to follow instructions closely
- Mathematical ability to work out quantities from a design draft
Furniture designers work from a workshop or studio which houses the tools and workspaces necessary for the job. It could be a large workshop or factory set up to produce hundreds or thousands of identical pieces a day with many people operating several pieces of industrial machinery.
Restoration work and high-end, one-off bespoke pieces are likely to be hand crafted in small workshops using rudimentary tools to achieve an authentic look.
In the factory setting, 39 hours a week is standard with shift work being common. Smaller outfits may have less regular hours with overtime necessary to complete particular deadlines. There is also the additional work involved in travelling to see clients in their houses and to source wood. The work can be physically tiring as it involves long stints standing up, and a high level of concentration is required when working with dangerous tools and machinery as well as sensitive materials.
The industry is mostly male dominated but this is changing with many women becoming qualified in recent years.
Any experience working with your hands, such as basic DIY or model making, would be beneficial. Most experience, however, is gained on the job and furniture designer qualifications all involve a good deal of hands-on work.
A common way to gain experience in furniture making is to work for free or very low pay at the outset.
The biggest industries employing furniture designers are the shopfitter, kitchen and furniture industries. Aside from this, there is work available in smaller, specialised workshops. After a few years’ experience, some furniture makers choose to work for themselves and build up a client base through word-of-mouth recommendations among friends and contacts.
An apprentice furniture maker may go on to become a supervisor or teacher after many years of experience. However, the job does not generally lead onto other career paths as it is highly specialised.
Also known as…
- Cabinet makers
- Furniture designers
- French polishers
- Furniture restorers
What’s it really like?
Adam Gaarder, 20 years old, is a recently qualified furniture maker looking for work in London.
How long have you been in this particular job / industry?
I’ve been studying furniture design for nine months or so in Scotland and I’m now looking for work in London. My training took place in a private workshop which made bespoke kitchens and undertook restoration work. They diversified into a school with 17 students studying an academic year split over three terms of three months each. Our actual study involved working on their commissions so it was very hands on. We basically worked as furniture makers while studying.
What did you do before this job?
Originally I went to Art College but I left in the first term of my first year as I found a project I was more interested in undertaking – an art exhibition. I didn’t enjoy being a student.
What do you do in a typical day at work?
There are several phases in creating furniture from design to construction, so it depends on what stage you are working on. If I was in the design phase then I would be looking at the piece in practical terms of what its functions are and how it would work.
Next you work on aesthetics, how things are going to look. These two aspects must blend in a piece that’s beautiful and functional.
In the construction phase, the person who actually makes the piece is known as a cabinet maker. Sometimes that’s a separate job, sometimes it’s all the same person. Often you will receive a life-size drawing, and here you are following what is basically a construction manual which you follow to the letter.
What do you like about the job?
I enjoy the satisfaction of making something that you can see and touch and be proud of, as opposed to fiddling with digital money in the stock market. The job is quite skilled and it’s nice to have something special that you can do, and it’s also very challenging. Lastly, I would say that you can continue to develop your skills as long as your career goes on, so it will never get boring.
What do you dislike about the job?
I don’t like machines or accidents. I don’t like the speed at which the industry is currently working. There are machines that do the same job as a human but much faster so craftsmanship has been lost, and there’s not as much pride in the work as there used to be.
What advice would you give to someone thinking of doing this job?
Go find a course and get your basics down first. Later on you can develop your skills on your own but you need the fundamentals first.
What job do you think you might do after this role in terms of career progression?
I’m looking to work with carved frames and mirrors, big examples like you would commonly see in museums. I would like to work in the restoration and creation of these objects.
What other inside-information can you give to help people considering this career?
You should be in furniture making for the love of it, not the money. At first you’re not going to make much of that!