October 3, 2023
How We Work is an interview and essay series by Contrary dedicated to surfacing insights about important parts of the economy that have gone unnoticed or under-explored by the startup ecosystem. It profiles the people who power the modern world and the tools, systems, and processes they interact with every day.
Furniture has changed a lot throughout history. Among the oldest extant pieces of furniture in the world are a set of 5,000-year-old stone dressers in the Neolithic settlement of Skara Brae in Scotland. In ancient Egypt, chairs were a status symbol, and their design was often elaborate, utilizing materials like ebony, ivory, and gold for the affluent classes. In ancient Greece and Rome, furniture was often simple yet elegant, and their designs laid the foundation for much of Western furniture that would follow.
In the modern era, the Industrial Revolution had a significant influence on furniture design. Mass production made furniture more accessible to the general public and an emergent middle class, with simple, universal design forms supplanting handcrafted statement pieces. Innovative design movement styles emerged through the 20th century, as new industrial processes allowed for the broader use of materials like metals and plastics. Today, furniture design continues to evolve and encompasses a range of styles – from traditional handcrafted pieces built by artisans to mass-produced products that integrate technology like USB ports and power outlets.
The workers who build furniture draw upon both time-tested techniques and modern production processes, which include a range of tools with advanced capabilities. For example, CNC (Computer Numerical Control) milling machines allow for the automated cutting and shaping of materials based on digital designs, while innovations in 3D printing offer further possibilities for prototyping and the production of more intricate components.
To understand the modern discipline of furniture making, we spoke to Nicholas Slaton, Production Manager at Skram Furniture. Nicholas learned to build furniture from his father and has been formally working in the industry for over a decade. He explained how a modern furniture workshop functions and the tools he uses, while also providing insight into how the industry works more broadly.
1. Furniture makers use everything from handsaws to 3D printers
Furniture production is a practical discipline that draws upon a wide range of traditional wood, metalworking, and machinist skills. Furniture makers today still use a number of tools that would not look out of place in a workshop a hundred years ago. But the demands of modern production also necessitate the use of modern tools – from large pneumatic machinery to cutting-edge software-assisted tools like CNC controllers. In a modern furniture workshop, chisels and bandsaws coexist with laser cutters and 3D printers.
Nicholas jokes that his companies use both “machines with buttons and machines from before buttons”. The range of tooling in today’s furniture industry also necessitates workers with different skills from the master builders of decades ago.
For example, a modern shop that uses CNC machines may employ an operator or programmer with a strong understanding of both carpentry and computer-aided design (CAD) software. They are responsible for translating design blueprints into a set of machine-readable instructions that will guide the CNC machine's movements for cutting, shaping, or assembling materials. But despite improvements in automation, there is still plenty of hands-on work in making furniture, whether it be producing individual parts or entire pieces.
2. Transferring knowledge to a new generation is a key challenge.
Nicholas says that it’s never been easier to learn basic woodworking skills thanks to the wide availability of content available on platforms like YouTube. However, the skills and intuition required to be considered a ‘master furniture maker’ – which he defines as “knowing when to stop before you mess up and what to do when bad things happen” – only come with experience, which is much harder to develop and teach.
Generational knowledge transfer is an emerging theme across industries we’ve covered in How We Work. In this case, Nicholas expressed concern about the future of the industry because the core skills required to become a master furniture maker may not be successfully transmitted to the next generation. As cheap imports and mass-produced furniture have reduced the demand for custom, handcrafted pieces, and modern technology simplifies the processes required to design and make furniture, there are commensurately fewer people looking to furniture as a vocation.
This also creates problems amid a general labor shortage in the US, where highly skilled workers can be particularly hard to find. Nicholas describes this as the main problem facing the industry, especially as it faces a downturn.
3. The number one challenge for furniture makers is supply chain management
Like many others, the furniture industry faced challenges during the pandemic when international freight and domestic shipping faced COVID-related delays. As many furniture pieces are considerably larger than most shipped consumer goods, the furniture industry was particularly hard hit.
The interconnectedness of modern production means that maintaining effective logistics is more key than ever. Nicholas describes how certain materials like bronze became more challenging to acquire during the pandemic due to supply interruptions, which could then delay the production of an entire order.
Post-pandemic, companies are looking to diversify their supply chains to mitigate risks. This involves multi-sourcing key components, decentralizing manufacturing, and setting up contingency plans to ensure continuous operations. As the customer expectation for rapid delivery has increased, so has the focus on last-mile delivery solutions. Companies are experimenting with local warehousing to decrease lead times and exploring partnerships with local delivery services.
Source: Skram Furniture
Start by introducing yourself and how you got into this line of work.
My name is Nicholas Slaton. I learned about making furniture foremost from my father. I've been making furniture as a profession for 12 years and before that, I was in other lines of work. I was a musician, I did some winemaking. I didn't start working professionally until 2011 when I started an art gallery.
It was sort of a small beginning. It wasn't planned as it turned out, but as word got around the type of work I was doing, I received my first commission to build a kitchen, a larger interior job. I met with the client, and they wanted something that I thought I could produce and give to them, but I didn't exactly know how. And at the end of the meeting, they gave me their budget, and I just said yes before I really knew how to pull it off.
And so that inspired me to gather my materials and to make a plan. What they wanted was a reclaimed, modern rustic aesthetic. And so we disassembled a log cabin and used some of the lumber to put in a hardwood floor and to construct their kitchen cabinetry and a mantle. Everything worked, all the drawers closed and the customer was happy.
I started taking work in interiors more seriously. I continued in kitchen design mostly but also did some bathrooms and other interior work. That led me to furniture. I enjoy interiors, but the problem I ran into was that it was inside people's houses. It required me to travel to the location, unload my tools, do the work, put my tools back in, go back to the shop, and maybe unload again. After years of that, you get tired of all of that transporting your stuff around.
I thought I would enjoy this much more if I was in a central location, focusing on the skills that I do well. I can mail this to people or they can pick it up — but the work should be done in a controlled setting of the workshop where I feel the most comfortable producing the best product that I can.
I continued down that road. In about 2018, I shut that business and started working with my current company, Skram Furniture. I took an entry-level job there because I really liked the company and I thought that I was aligned with their core values. I liked the furniture, but having made my own way as a craftsman, I didn't know where I fit in and they didn't know where I fit in. I was kind of an outsider.
I ended up in their machine shop, which was new to me. I learned that trade over the years. And now I'm working more broadly in the business as a production supervisor, not only managing the metal shop, but the other departments too.
But my core, in my heart, I love making furniture hands-on.
What kind of furniture does Skram make in particular? Is there a particular style that you are associated with?
Heirloom Modern is what it says on our website. It is taking cues from modern movements and minimalism. The furniture for the most part is simple and austere, but it has a very definite proportion and weight and lightness in a pleasing way.
When you're making minimalist furniture, there's nowhere to hide. What I mean is mistakes. If we make mistakes, there's no way to cover them or blend it in. A lot of the beauty of the pieces comes from the execution being simple, but also absolutely perfect. That’s what’s expected of our product and our goal every time.
The pieces are meant to be a hundred-year piece. An Appalachian hardwood takes a hundred years to grow in North Carolina, and what we make should also last a hundred years.
Talk me through the process, from as early as you can speak to, all the way to when it's in a customer’s hands.
In our case, we work directly with interior designers. It’s a B2B model, which is common. It's rare that we actually sell to an end user. The interior designer would contact us, and they have the language and the skill set to communicate with our engineers and our designers to create what the customer is asking for.
Very rarely do we start from scratch. There are lines of furniture that are standard. Those designs can be modified by dimensions and some finish options. So if you have a table, you can have it be a certain size, but it's still going to have the same design elements and the same aesthetic as the original production piece. It might have a slightly different color or material. But the integrity of the design is maintained.
From time to time, a customer will call us with a bespoke request, completely fresh. We do entertain those clients and that's usually more rare and more expensive — and fun for us, intriguing for us, but not our core business.
So once the customer has talked to the designer, the designers talked to us, and we’ve all agreed on a design, I start thinking about making the furniture. I ask myself: what’s the best process to make this? Can I refine this from the last time we made it to make it quicker or better or whatever? We're working with a culture of continuous improvement.
Then, depending on the piece, I'll be working with one of a dozen people in different departments to execute the vision of our company and the original customer. Once it's made, we package it, we crate it up, and we ship it out and hope for the best. Once it leaves our floor, I can't control what happens at the warehouse or on the trucks. And so we package it with as much care as we can and we cross our fingers.
Source: Skram Furniture
What does that production look like? Who is making it, and how automated are these processes? Is it still hands-on?
There's a wide range of skill sets in this industry, and we’re no different. It ranges from hand-tooled, traditional craftsmanship at a bench, all the way up to five-axis CNC machines that are run by computers and need a lot of attention.
We have a full metal shop, by which I mean a traditional metal shop with a lathe and a mill. We have a TIG welding bench and everything that comes out of our metal shop basically comes in as raw materials and it's machined into components, welded when necessary, and then either is finished in-house or goes to a local vendor for finish. If you're going to work in the metal shop, you need to have traditional machinist skills. It's not an entry-level job that someone walks in off the street and knows how to do.
It’s very similar in the handwork. We're dealing with very few available master furniture makers. This is a dying skill set, and we're definitely trying to pass that on to as many people as will listen. In the US, we're having a shortage of available workers in general, and then highly skilled workers are also high in demand. So that's a challenge.
When you're programming a CNC machine, it requires an engineer who has CAD skills and is able to use the computers not only to take a design and turn that into tool paths but to get that to the operator and to the machine and have it not crash. You also need an operator at the machine who knows what they're doing in order to place the parts on the machine, set the machine up correctly, run the program, and not fail or crash. Those jobs are every bit as challenging and stressful as using a chisel and a handplane.
When you talk about master furniture markers being a dying skill set — what exactly is being lost? What set of skills constitutes a master furniture maker?
So, I think most people could learn woodworking through practice. YouTube is a great resource. There's a lot of terrible content, but if you're picky, the answers are there.
The thing that a master knows is when to stop before they make a mistake and what to do to fix the mistakes that have already been made. You can only learn that through years and years of experience. I've been called a master furniture maker, and I still have to go and ask questions to these guys. I ask them, “Hey, what would you do in this situation?”, and they’re able to say, “I would do this.”
It may not be technically difficult, necessarily, but it’s the experience and intuition of knowing when to stop before you mess up and what to do when bad things happen. That's the difference. That's on top of the skillset of being a furniture maker — the detail-oriented nature of what we're looking at, the discipline of how you work through a process, and all of that.
What sort of tools are you using in your daily work? That can mean anything from physical tools to machines to software.
That then goes to Andi CabMaxx, which is a moving bed router — a very typical tool for any sort of cabinet shop. If you're making kitchen cabinets or something like that, that's a tool you're going to have in your shop. We also have a Biesse Rover A, which is a new machine to us in the last two years. That's a five-axis machine, and Biesse has its own proprietary toolpath software called B_SOLID.
We have a program management software that would be competitive with any of the other program management software that is available. We use Revit a little bit, and Photoshop. There are some other programs that our engineers use that I don't have to deal with, but for the most part that's our computer setup.
In the metal shop, we have a Bridgeport Series 1 with the KMX two-axis CNC controller. We have a 15 by 30 Cincinnati tool room lathe, a Miller 350 TIG welder. A cold saw and a metal band saw from MEP. Angle grinders, an oxyacetylene torch. Just your standard metal shop stuff. We can make basically anything with that.
In the bench area, we have some Festool Domino cutters, biscuit joiners. Pneumatic non-directional sanders. Just the stuff you’d see in a regular shop. We have a really sweet Italian guillotine for cutting veneer. It can cut eight-foot straight line glue edge on veneers. It's just a beautiful tool. We have a Streebig panel saw, a vintage Oliver bandsaw. It's eight feet tall, at least.
So we have woodworking tools and industrial tools from like the 20s through the 40s, all the way through to the BSC I mentioned which we just bought last year. I like to tell the joke that we have machines with buttons and machines from before buttons.
So what I’m gathering is that you have a lot of traditional tools, but you’re also a pretty computerized shop.
Absolutely. It’s all married.
How has the furniture industry changed since you started? It could be technologically, or in terms of the market.
The furniture industry fluctuates. In my relatively short time in the industry, there’s been a great amount of change in the world. In 2020, [during the pandemic] our experience was that we just continued to work.
The problems that we started to encounter as an industry were logistical: getting our product to a customer. Sales were going up, but we were having trouble with the change in material costs, the changes in the availability of material, and especially timeframes.
We offer an 8-12 week lead time on most of our furniture. Some of our suppliers went to 14 weeks just to get us their part of a piece, and some of them went to like six months. Getting certain steel or bronze — those types of things got to become difficult.
And then the ocean freight stuff started. I'm going into the office and someone's freaking out and I'm like, “What are you freaking out about?” And they tell me it’s some boat wherever. These are the problems that we have. We worked through and got through the worst of that, but we still are dealing with supply chain issues. We're still dealing with workforce development and labor market issues.
Residential furniture is kind of taking a hit right now. A lot of the larger companies specifically in the United States are going out of business. I don't have all the answers to why, but my guess is that the retail end of their business is so large that it's very costly. And if you have a dip in sales, like people stop buying, it's hard to maintain that, you know? I'm in a different segment of the industry. We haven't had those same problems, and selling to interior designers insulates you from a downturn in the broader furniture market.
For us, it’s all about tooling up our skill set and our people so that we can make the furniture that we want to make and that we love to make and have it be sustainable in both an environmental sense and a financial sense.
On sustainability – is that a big focus for the industry?
Yeah. Customers want to know that part of the story. Is the thing they're spending money on helping or hurting the environment? I've seen other companies pay money to advertise in magazines stating this percentage or that percentage of improvement in some metric as it relates to their production and the environment.
I don't have those numbers for us. But we do think about it. For instance, just now we're redesigning our crate, the way we ship our product. Traditionally it’s been made of oriented strand board (OSB), which is wood chips and glue compressed together into a sheet. You've seen it on the side of a house before the siding goes on. We would make our crates out of that. Very strong from a protection standpoint, but when it gets to its location it goes directly into the dumpster.
So we redesigned our crate to be based on cardboard. There's a cost savings for us to purchase cardboard as opposed to OSB by square foot. So we save money, but when our product arrives at its location and the installers take apart the crate, the cardboard gets recycled. We try to minimize our waste in the plant in any way we can, including human energy. Hopefully, there's a move in the broader economy to make decisions based on those ideas.
Are there remaining pain points and unsolved problems you face in your job?
The problems are basically mostly related to time now. Some of our customers work with a really tight timeframe, and they've made commitments, and they want to keep those commitments, and we want to support them in keeping those commitments. But then you run into one snag like it’s a part that isn’t available. Those are the logistical problems we deal with.
For me, workforce and training is the main thing that's gonna plague the furniture industry moving forward. They're firing people by the hundreds right now from these large corporations that have shuttered. And when I bring in a new person — even if they have experience making furniture or as a craftsman — I typically have to retrain them to do things our way. And a lot of times those people will have their own habits, which may not be congruent with how we work.
If I could afford to, and I could find all of the great furniture makers and then just bring them into a room with me and hang out and make furniture, that would be great. You know, I'm an advocate for American manufacturing. And I want to do whatever I can to help bring that back into a successful, globally competitive state. I'm excited about that for the future. We're slogging it out one day at a time.
Founders looking to solve problems for furniture makers and other manufacturers working with traditional skills and modern technology will see opportunities in two broad categories: logistics and skills.
Logistics and delivery
Logistics and delivery remain a challenge for the furniture industry, even beyond the significant challenges of 2020. There are many startups and established companies looking to tackle various parts of the supply chain, but there are still opportunities to innovate – from collaborative platforms for freight optimization and demand forecasting to new supply chain transparency mechanisms.
Similarly, the growth of reshoring and the focus on American manufacturing presents opportunities, like new supplier marketplaces.
Skills and labor
Local manufacturing requires skilled local workers, and there are concerns that the labor shortage could continue into the future. Though traditional education pathways and online platforms like YouTube have provided ways for people to learn woodworking and other furniture production skills, the lack of available workers demonstrates a deeper problem.
Founders might consider new ways of developing essential skills in furniture and other manufacturing workers and connecting those workers to employers and businesses looking for labor. This might take the form of new labor marketplaces or education platforms.
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