Is it Cheaper?

OK, sure, making your own furniture is rewarding and engaging and meditative and enjoyable and all that. But in practical terms, as we’ve been looking at the value of learning to do things for ourselves in an increasingly specialist-dependent society, can you actually save money doing it yourself?

If you’ve ever roamed the spacious aisles of a big-box store, you may find yourself aghast. Here are desks, chairs, and bookshelves that (at the low end) feature a price tag less than you just spent on lunch. “I can’t even buy the materials I’d need for that price!” you might exclaim, shaking your head in amazement as you wander off in search of a gallon-sized jar of pickles. And it’s true – to a point.

Most flat-pack furniture is made from plastic-coated, formaldehyde-glue-and-sawdust pressboard. This stuff can be manufactured cheaply and in vast quantity, but it doesn’t hold a candle to lumber in terms of durability. Pressboard and fiberboard tend to get brittle, to flake off when damaged, and to swell and fall apart when wet. This stuff often has a lifespan of just a few years, dragged to the dorm curb after senior year or hauled to the landfill when the drawer hardware fails. This then necessitates another purchase, which brings me to mention the value of durability. What is the cost of having to purchase a new desk or chair every few years, compared to building one that will last your lifetime (and beyond)? Cheap materials and hardware offer short-term savings, but the overall cost to your wallet and to our planet is much higher with disposable furniture.

In my article from Issue Six, “A Tale of Two Trees: The Radical Efficiency of Green Woodworking,” I mentioned the fact (cited by Mike Abbot) that hardwood planks from a retailer can be 100x the cost of getting the materials yourself from unseasoned logs. This brings up another area of massive potential savings, which I’ll call the value of local sourcing. An enjoyably sweaty afternoon spent in the woods or in your driveway splitting, riving, and thicknessing raw stock from a log can provide a beautiful stack of lumber for future projects, at pennies per board-foot. A friend with a woodlot and bandsaw mill can offer similar savings, and might even mill you up a nice pine log for the cost of your assistance and a 6-pack (to be consumed after the work is finished, please). And further, the use of reclaimed materials can both save money and give access to better-quality wood than is available today. Heck, we take down whole barns to get materials for future projects – and Joshua collects vintage dining-table leaves for the same purpose. There are opportunities all around for sourcing materials locally.

The last point I’ll mention here is the value of enjoyable work. In our modern, rushed existence, this one can be harder to grab hold of, but stay with me.

“Time is money.” “Another day, another dollar.” We have been trained to think of our time in economic terms – if Item X takes so many hours to produce, then the cost of materials + your hourly rate x total hours = the value of the item. Suddenly, your little greenwood chair project costs well over $1000 and you’re feeling a little woozy about the whole thing. But this is a wrongheaded approach for most of us. Sure, if you’re making a living as a furniture maker, the bottom line is a vital consideration. But the vast majority of the readers of woodworking publications and blogs (such as this one) are hobbyists. An hourly rate is an irrelevant consideration for a practice that you’re doing for enjoyment and fulfillment. If you’re going to be at your bench working with hand tools because it’s fun, then the value of your time is in personal satisfaction, not dollars. And that is a big difference.

So picture this: You need a bookshelf. You pull out a few boards from your stash of reclaimed lumber, spend a few hours planing, cutting dadoes, maybe dovetailing the top shelf in place, and assembling the thing. Your financial outlay for the project is a few dollars, you’ve had a great deal of fun, and you have a piece of furniture that you can pass on to the grandkids. Win, win, win.



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