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Furniture Making Process: An Interview with Chuck Phillips of CL Phillips Fine Furniture

By Chuck Phillips

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

CL Phillips Fine Furniture is a one man custom furniture shop dedicated to making the highest quality hand crafted furniture in the tradition and style of the American colonial period. My business is designing and building one of a kind, made to order furniture for clients seeking a refined elegance in their home and its furnishings. In addition to custom designs and reproduction of traditional pieces, I also offer restoration and repair services for antiques.

I started the business four years ago after leaving the corporate world and completing four years of formal training in traditional furniture making.

What are some important questions the client should ask you before the process?

Budget and timing I suppose. Budget is often front-of-mind, but people need to know that I generally have a two to six month backlog, and then you have to factor in how long it takes to complete their project. I don't stock inventory, I make each piece to order. That means the client needs to plan ahead.

I wish more people would ask about past work, the quality of materials used, and how things are made. I use materials and techniques that have proven themselves over hundreds of years, but people rarely ask about this aspect of the project. A custom project out of my shop is an heirloom quality piece and I wish I had the opportunity to share why and how all that happens more often.

If you could, please list the steps of the general furniture design and making process:

  • Generally, the client and I narrow the project down to one or two concepts based on photos, a historic piece, key dimensions and or the functionality they are after.
  • I then produce sketches to assist in selecting the final design.
  • Once materials and a design are selected, I work up an estimated cost.
  • If the cost and design are approved, I require a 50% deposit to get the project into the shop schedule.
  • Next I produce a full-size drawing of the piece. The full size drawing is necessary for me to create patterns and a list of parts and their sizes, two items critical to building the piece.
  • Next comes the making. With most projects I start with rough, air dried lumber, not the stuff you find at the home store. I first rough dimension the various parts, let them sit for a couple of days and then mill them to final dimensions. Joinery is next, then shaping the various parts. If there are inlays or veneers, they would go on at this point. Pieces are then fitted together and, if everything is going well, assembly begins. Oftentimes there are stages here, where a case has to be made first before you can make the drawers to fit, for example. Once all the assembly is complete, all surfaces are smoothed with a hand plane or scraper and the finishing process begins. Finishing can take considerable effort depending on the look and finish desired. I tend to use a lot of traditional, hand applied finishes, but I will turn to more modern finishes if the application demands it.
  • Once the finish is complete, the piece is waxed and it is ready for shipment.

How do you suggest clients prepare for a this process?

  • Have an idea of what you want the piece to do, or at least the key functionality of the piece. It also helps if you can describe the "feeling" you are after.
  • Know key dimensions, if they are important.
  • Have a budget in mind. Understand that custom made will cost some multiple of what you would spend on a mass-produced piece.
  • If there is a time deadline, make it known up-front.
  • Be prepared to entertain options but then make decisions.
  • Be open to different approaches to achieving the functionality or look you are after.
  • Know whether you are trying to complement other pieces in the house or if you are going for something novel.
  • Photos are really helpful! There are some great websites out there with lots and lots of ideas. I can't tell you how often I use Google Images to call up pictures of a piece of furniture or even different design elements.
  • Know whether you want to totally control the design or whether you are going to let me use my experience and eye to guide the process. Often, only in actually building the piece will I find the perfect curve or the inlay that is just right. I try to communicate, communicate, communicate, but the client has to know how they feel about control. Most of my clients have trusted me enough to give me guidance but then allow me some latitude in tweaking the design.

What are some common issues you face when it comes to designing furniture?

I view the design phase as the "creative" phase. Therefore it can be time consuming, frustrating and unpredictable. It is also often the most rewarding phase of the project. After design, it is all about execution and craftsmanship. I have also experienced issues with clients having difficulty selecting a design. Sometimes I fall in love with a design long before a client does.

What's the best way for people to get in contact with you?

Email or phone work equally well. I am generally in the shop during the day, oftentimes doing something where I can't answer the phone. I try to return phone calls promptly, but sometimes there is a delay. I also have a website, www.furnituretoorder.com where clients can learn more about the business and see examples of my past work.

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About The Author

I am a refugee from the corporate world, starting CL Phillips Fine Furniture in 2008...

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