Just what you want

Part 2: Furniture that fits

Every millimetre was valuable when Jim and Elaine Cowan moved into a small condominium in downtown Toronto. The couple, who both run businesses from home, needed an office, but the only place to put it was their living room, which already contained a dining table, breakfast nook, china cabinet and wet bar. So they went out looking for a desk with doors to hide their clutter.

Easier said than done. After spending weekends scouring big box stores and specialty shops, they couldn’t turn up anything suitable within their $3,000 budget. Indeed, the best price they found was $6,000.

Rather than double their budget, the Cowans decided to go the custom route. They hired a woodworker who, for a mere $2,500, built exactly the desk they envisioned inside an elegant armoire. “I have almost a friendship with it because we watched it being born,” says Elaine, who named the armoire George after the builder. “Plus, we know the craftsman. When you look at it, it’s not like looking at a piece from Ikea.”

Like the Cowans, many homeowners are learning that commissioning a craftsman is often more rewarding than scouring every store in the city for something that will simply do. Not only do you get exactly what you want, built to the specific measurements of your space, but the total bill is often surprisingly reasonable.

Just ask Edmonton’s Joe and Paula Yurkovich. They needed a pair of natural cherry end tables to match their living room decor. During a trip to the Alberta Craft Council’s gallery shop, they found a piece that was almost right and jotted down the e-mail address of the local artisan, Gerry Russo of Gerrybuilt Original & Custom Design. The Yurkovichs hired Russo to build tables that exactly suit their decor and space. Total cost: about $800.

The Yurkovichs are now converts to custom furniture.When their daughter needed a desk, they asked Gerry to build her one. “There just wasn’t the room in her bedroom for the type of desk that would be built commercially, but Gerry was able to do it,” Joe says.

The key to ordering custom pieces is knowing what you need, says Martyn Armitage of Wood That You Could, a Toronto furniture business. “Decide what you want to do with the piece and how it’s going to be used before you start considering design and finishes,” he warns. If you need a television cabinet, for example, the builder needs to know the dimensions of the electronics that will go inside. An underestimate can inflate the bill by 25% if the piece needs to be modified. Even worse, sometimes a problem can’t be fixed at all.

If you want the ultimate in control — and you’re willing to get a little sawdust on your clothes — you may want to consider taking things a step further and become your own custom furniture maker. After enrolling in a woodworking class, Marnie Marshall and her boyfriend were happy to discover that they could build furniture they wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford. The Mission-style-inspired dining room table they built at The Joint, a studio and fine furniture showroom in downtown Vancouver, will become an heirloom. Made of solid walnut, the top is about six feet long and two inches thick. The table’s four-inch-thick legs and crossbeams have a lighter stripe of walnut running through them. The entire project cost $2,900, including materials and class time. “It’s just incredible,” Marshall says of her table. “We couldn’t buy a table of this quality for under $5,000. Trust me, we’ve looked.”

Have it your way — these tips can help you get the custom product you want.

Part 1: Introduction Part 2: Furniture Part 3: Jewelry Part 4: Clothes

From the September/October 2004 issue.

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