Custom versus custom

It is rather like standing
at an unmarked crossroad in the middle of nowhere and trying to determine whether both roads lead to the same place, whether they go off in entirely different directions or whether one road ends abruptly at a precipice. When it comes to the future of fine wood craftsmanship design and production versus computer-designed and CNC-machined pieces, it seems they are two paths destined, for the most part, to continue their separate ways. But they’ll also continue crossing.  How frequently that happens, it seems, depends much more on emotion than economics or market share.

“I’m not sure that how it’s made or how much it costs is a big factor,” says Dave Grulke, executive director of the Milwaukee, Wisc.,-based Cabinet Makers Association. “The general rule is that it either fits in the budget or it doesn’t. If price isn’t their (a customer’s) primary concern, then maybe they can move the budget based on the style they prefer.”

Hendrik Varju, a fine woodworker who runs Passion for Wood in Acton, Ont., emphasizes the emotional connection even more strongly than that. “It depends on what the piece is for,” he says. “I’m not sure that people in general feel that they need to have a personal feeling with their kitchen.

“People see certain types of furniture as utilitarian. It can still be beautiful but they see this as a kitchen cabinet and they want it to look nice but when they open it they don’t care if it’s white melamine inside. They are just going to put dishes in them. As long as it looks good and has a nice style, they’re happy.”

However, he adds, “When they want a hand-made quality piece like a bed or a dining room table, something that’s going to have a special place or be a conversation piece, to me that’s a whole other world. Without that emotional connection, people would not be willing to pay extra for it.”

Varju says he definitely has clients who fall into this crossover category. “You can have one person who believes in the quality but only wants to apply it in one area of their home or to one special piece and yet they are quite happy to buy a mass-produced kitchen or bathroom vanity.”

Designer Kimberley Seldon whole-heartedly agrees that the emotional factor is a big one. “Emotions do impact a client’s decision process. Often, it’s the designer’s job to understand where a client’s preferences lie,” she says. “It’s also the designer’s job to select products that meet and exceed the expectations of the clients and provide the best value. Often that means compromising on less-important items so the budget can accommodate some of the larger, more important items.”

When you ask Seldon whether she, herself, prefers to have something that’s hand-crafted, or pieces that are custom production-built with CNC machinery, she makes her emotional connection clear. “I love to see the artisan’s hand in my furniture,” she says. “I will pay a premium to buy quality because I don’t redecorate frequently and I remain loyal to favourite items indefinitely. I will also pay a premium to purchase locally made product and encourage my clients to do the same.”

The emotional element is just as big a factor on the production side as it is on the client side, says Varju. There is a huge emotional element for craftsmen like himself,
Varju says, because fine woodworkers put their all into building a piece of furniture. “There’s a part of you that is sad to see the piece leave because you have put so much into it, but there’s also the feeling that the piece is going to be around beyond my lifetime, and that is very satisfying.”

Conversely, by its very automated production nature, he says, there’s no emotional factor in CNC production. “It’s pretty hard to have real pride in the product that comes out at the end when you only did one one-thousandth of it, 450 times per shift, and handed it to the next guy who did the next part,” Varju says. “I worked at
General Motors as a student, putting 425 right front doors on the Chev Lumina and I didn’t feel any special pride towards the Lumina.”

“CNC work can be good quality but I think the big distinction is the human element,” he emphasizes.


Chris Moura, who owns Andex Kitchens and Custom Woodworking in Cambridge, Ont., agrees the two streams of design and production will continue to co-exist. However, he also believes craftsmanship is still very much a part of CNC-based design and production, especially in a custom shop such as his. “I think if you are doing cookie-cutter cabinetry on a large scale or building very simplistic kitchens or furniture, yes you can use a CNC machine and a dowel inserter and a case clamp, and not need a skilled wood craftsman. But in a day-to-day environment in a custom shop or a woodworking shop, I don’t think that [craftsmanship] will ever go away,” Moura says.

As an example, he cites the stove canopy hoods that are made in his shop as part of kitchens. Crown mouldings and trim detail still need to be cut by hand, Moura notes. “Even when you build doors you still have to have a person gluing, mitering and squaring everything up, and making sure everything fits.”

Says Moura, “I think there are some things you just can’t do by machine unless technology changes drastically…there are some things that I know even 10 years down the road, you’ll still need a craftsman to do.”

However, the CMA’s Grulke holds the view that smartphones and the Internet today tend to drive consumers down the path of machine mass-produced furnishings. “With your smartphone, you can go online and find anything you want to, in seconds. Then it’s a matter of determining the price and whether you’re willing to wait for whatever the lead time is,” he says. “Because of all the information that is available…that does tend to dramatically shift the market.”

Just how much does the fast pace of today’s society affect the trend of craftsmanship versus CNC production? A century ago, people had to wait for things to be made by hand. Today, just about anything can be made quickly with technologically advanced machinery. Instant gratification is a consumer expectation, especially amongst the younger demographics. But there will still always be people willing to wait, and pay for, quality craftsmanship, says the designer, Seldon.

“There will always be a discerning customer who appreciates the effort and time that goes into quality,” she says. “And, let’s be honest, there are lots of times when the right choice is the less expensive version. If I were a craftsman, I would focus on servicing my ideal customer and not worry about what the other big-box stores are doing.”

That is exactly what Varju does. He started his business 19 years ago, giving up a civil law practice in Toronto because his heart was in woodworking and running his own craftsmanship-oriented business. For years, he never advertised prices on his website. Now, he does. Although almost all his business comes through referrals, he still gets occasional emails from people who think he can make them a coffee table for $500. “When I get an email from somebody whose price point is one-tenth of what it will really cost, no amount of me explaining will talk them into it. They will go elsewhere, and that’s okay,” he says.


Craftsmanship fills a niche market and CNC production fills a broader market. That is why they will continue to co-exist, Varju says. Sometimes, he points out, craftsmanship fills a void in that broader market for consumers. “People hire me because they want something they have not found in the market. They want to be involved in the design of it, and they want to sit down and say ‘Here’s what I want, here are my ideas,’ and have me design it from scratch.” He designs with pencil and paper, the old-fashioned way.

Grulke runs a home remodeling business in Milwaukee, and says it is in the renovation sector where homeowners’ emotional connections are strongest and high-quality craftsmanship design and production tends to overtake the CNC machine-made option.

“With renovations to an existing home where someone has lived for decades and they have decided they want to stay there and fix it up the way they really want it, then they put in more quality or high-end products than they originally got.

“I think for first-time buyers it (the emotional connection) is not a concern until they’ve lived with something that is of lower quality. Then it may be an issue in their next home or renovation,” he says.

Consumers who live in century or post-war homes often have no choice but to turn to custom wood craftsmanship when they want new kitchens, or closets, or even new air vent covers. Replacing an old, 3/8-inch, circa 1946 hardwood floor with new laminate flooring, for example, is one thing. Finding a commercially available vent cover for the floor air vent openings, is another matter entirely. That is because standard sizes of the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s are not today’s standard dimensions. “And that’s maybe where craftsmanship plays a role,” says Grulke.

Grulke laments that consumers are not exposed as they could be to all that wood craftsmanship design and manufacture has to offer. “You see the huge production kitchens or bathrooms in the consumer magazines, but you don’t see anything about custom in consumer media, and that’s a shame,” he says.

In addition to the emotional element, demographics play a role in whether, and which, consumers opt for craftsman designed and made- or CNC-produced décor elements. Varju notes, for example, that his clientele are primarily empty-nesters 50 to 70 with disposable income. “It’s pretty rare for me to have a 30-year-old client,” he says.

By its very nature, acknowledges Varju, wood craftsmanship is “extremely inefficient” compared to CNC production and that is what always makes it the more expensive path for consumers to choose.

Despite this, Seldon, one of Canada’s most well-known and influential interior designers, says there will always be a place for craftsmanship design and manufacture amongst consumers and across demographics. “As a design professional, I am committed to constantly educating my customers, teaching them about the difference between flash and quality. I think Canadians are wise consumers. Our money is earned the hard way and it makes us careful when we consider purchasing. That’s an ideal place from which to make wise buying decisions. But we’re also aware of and inspired by art and the artisans and craftspeople who make it. I believe Canada will always support artisans and good craftsmanship.”


This begs the question of whether there will be enough craftsman down the road to keep wood craftsmanship co-existing with CNC production and continuing to serve that niche market.

Says Moura, “A lot of my skilled carpenters are between 50 and 60 years old, and a lot of the new guys are coming out of college with computer knowledge but no hands-on training.”

He says “it is a little disheartening” to see students coming to him from nearby Conestoga College who can easily operate CNC production machines to build a kitchen, but could never begin to cut the same kitchen by hand. “They would be lost,” he says. “They would be there for days trying to figure it out.”

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