What in your mind constitutes custom woodworking?

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Forum topic by Chris posted 06-22-2011 04:20 AM 1616 views 0 times favorited 24 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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358 posts in 4054 days

06-22-2011 04:20 AM

Topic tags/keywords: what is custom work views on custom projects custom woodworking

What in your mind and or perspective constitutes custom made woodworking? Is it the integration of select elements of an artist or woodworker into his/her work that display their personality and individual style in the work created?

Or is it the creation created from a vast array of customer inputs through which the client and woodworker through communication are actively involved in the development of the piece?

What i am trying to convey is:

1) Is any unique, completed item of the woodworker’s unique style what makes a piece custom such as a piece developed solely out of the envisioning process of the woodworker?


2) Is it the customer input and the woodworker’s response to make that piece to fulfill that individual’s specific desires, what creates a “custom” piece?

Thanks guys for your thoughts and feedback.


-- Chris Harrell - custom callmaker "Quacky Calls" Eastern NC.

24 replies so far

View jusfine's profile


2422 posts in 2895 days

#1 posted 06-22-2011 05:02 AM

Chris, there are a number of descriptions regarding “custom” that I can think of, here is my example.

When I did cabinets for clients, every one was a custom piece, not because they were all distinctly different, but because I do not build modular cabinets and fit “fillers” in where my standard sizes don’t fit.

We “custom fit” each cabinet/vanity/bookcase to the space designated by the customer, and no two were the same.

Don’t know if that really answers what you are asking, does it?

-- Randy "You are judged as much by the questions you ask as the answers you give..."

View Lee Barker's profile

Lee Barker

2170 posts in 2819 days

#2 posted 06-22-2011 06:14 AM

I’m hearing Chris’s question, but I’m starting from Randy’s camp: Custom, to me, is something that cannot be purchased, premade, elsewhere.

If there is a chair in the store, and you want one just exactly like it, I can build a replica. Nothing custom about it—copycat stuff, although it may very well require a high level of skill.

But if along with that chair you want a refrigerated footstool with stereo speakers in it, it would be a custom piece.

In that case I am building precisely to the specifications you, the imagined client here, provide. It’s custom because you can’t get one off the shelf, and for sure there will be challenges and I may solve them on my own or we may work collaboratively. Either case, it’s custom.

If you want a footstool that keeps your lemonade cool and helps you hear your Beethoven better, and you ask me to design it and build it, there will be lots more of my soul in it, yet, in my mind, it still lands squarely in the custom camp along with the case above.

If, on my own, I imagined a footstool that accomplished these two other tasks, I might design it and build it and…it’s custom until I start making 35 units a week…

Now let’s go back and look at Chris’s #1 scenario. A perfect example would be a Sam Maloof rocker. This gets interesting. Sam created that design, (and was as generous as a human being could be with it) and yet when I make one it is not a custom piece. It is inspired by Sam’s design (I wrote this on the bottom of the seat of the rocker I made) and I have no desire to insinuate in any way that I have a better idea. Am I just a craftsman at that point?

Well, to take Randy’s point, no, because I am making the seat lower for your comfort. You wanted no light color strips in the rocker glueup. So perhaps it is custom!

Anxious to hear other inputs,

I remain,

Y’r Hmbl srv’t,


-- " his brain, which is as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage, he hath strange places cramm'd with observation, the which he vents in mangled forms." --Shakespeare, "As You Like It"

View David Grimes's profile

David Grimes

2078 posts in 2608 days

#3 posted 06-22-2011 06:32 AM

Good question, Chris. I agree totally with all above answers.

I have a real life fresh (today) example of what I consider a custom project: A customer’s very small bathroom currently has a small hanging mirror and wall mount light over the 24” vanity cabinet. She needs more storage.

We began making her a 54” wide (wall to wall over both the existing vanity and toilet) by 36” high by 7” overall depth cabinet that will have two pairs of mirrored (inset within the raised outer panels) doors and the top 6” x 54” of the face is free to install her light onto the cabinet (because if left on the wall the light would shine down on top of the cabinet). It will be painted semi-gloss alkyd trim white with hidden cup hinges.

Fancy ? Not really, but it will look nice. Custom because it is made exactly FOR the customer’s application, it would likely not work anywhere else, and it will be one we will probably never exactly do again.

I may post it as a project and I would certainly use the term custom in its description.


-- If you're going to stir the pot, think BIG spoon or SMALL boat paddle. David Grimes, Georgia

View Chris's profile


358 posts in 4054 days

#4 posted 06-22-2011 07:15 AM

Great stuff guys, keep it coming. I have thoroughly enjoyed the perspectives.

So i guess, oft times our pieces are “originals” then if we create them out of our own personalities and style and “custom” when the client’s specific needs are addressed and met in the creation.

As Sam has so eloquently put it “there will be lots more of my soul in it”

-- Chris Harrell - custom callmaker "Quacky Calls" Eastern NC.

View devann's profile


2246 posts in 2661 days

#5 posted 06-22-2011 08:05 AM

Chris I have another fresh example of today’s work also. Like Lee said, if somebody is making a batch of something I wouldn’t consider it custom, I agree. Today I had a customer bring me a shelf that somebody made and it was a unique design but I’m sure that theirs wasn’t the only one the woodworker made. The customer wanted me to modify the shelf for their specific application. And like David mentioned because there are probably not any more made this way and as you stated it was a customers input to fulfill their individual desire I would consider that to be a custom job.

Another twist would be a hexagon shaped table I concocted where I use 32 pieces the shape of 1/2 of a hexagon to make the hexagon shape table top. While I’ve never seen anyone else make one I’m sure that somebody has at some point in time. I cut out five of these table tops before building any. I’ve only built three to date. But none of the three are exactly the same, each one a little different depending on the customers wishes. Because each is made for a specific customer and no two are the same I would consider that to be a custom table.

-- Darrell, making more sawdust than I know what to do with

View DogwoodTales's profile


29 posts in 2504 days

#6 posted 06-22-2011 02:08 PM

My first inclination is to say that if the customer requests a blank, unfinished piece of wood cut to 5”x11” – that’s custom woodworking in it’s most elementary form. So I guess my first inclination is to go with Chris’s #2 scenario.

To me Chris’s #1 scenario expresses more of an artistic expression than a custom built object.
However, to some people it’s a custom built piece due to the fact that it is made individually and not as a factory run piece.

“Custom” can also mean simply that something is not factory built with every part exactly the same. But even we woodworkers may do multiples of something that may be a copy of our own original design. So are they “custom” pieces or is the project as a whole a “custom project”?

If I go back in time and have an encounter with some woodworker discussing the concept of “custom” will the price of eggs in Russia be effected in 2012?

My business card does say “Custom Woodworking by…” because I believe that communicates to the reader something about quality and originality made specificly to his/her needs.
When it all boils down, “custom” is in the eye of the paying customer.

-- Ray

View RogerBean's profile


1605 posts in 2922 days

#7 posted 06-22-2011 03:19 PM

The word custom has been used (and misused) by so many people to mean so many different things, that I suspect that it now means nearly nothing to anyone. ...except perhaps “caveat emptor”. If I were looking for a word to describe something specific about my product or my business, I would look to be more precise. Just my opinion.

-- "Everybody makes mistakes. A craftsman always fixes them." (Monty Kennedy, "The Checkering and Carving of Gunstocks", 1952)

View Don W's profile

Don W

18686 posts in 2536 days

#8 posted 06-22-2011 04:35 PM

its built to specifications one at a time. If I had to build 10 pieces exactly the same, I’d call the first one custom, after that it becomes production. If I had to build only 2 of them, the second is in a grey area.

-- - Collecting is an investment in the past, and the future.

View shipwright's profile


7967 posts in 2767 days

#9 posted 06-22-2011 04:43 PM

In the world of boat building it’s pretty black and white. If it’s one off it’s generally called custom built. If it comes off a production line, it’s not.

-- Paul M ..............If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats he would have given us fibreglass trees.

View Lee Barker's profile

Lee Barker

2170 posts in 2819 days

#10 posted 06-22-2011 05:34 PM

To Roger’s point: I remember feeling disappointed when Ford in the ‘50’s came out with a model called the “custom.” They hijacked the term, I thought, but it did survive.

Darrell introduced an interesting scenario with his octagon tables with stashed parts. I would agree and call each one custom, but I could also understand someone saying if there’s any suggestion of multiples, it’s not. That would be a really literal interpretation which includes the craftsman hand fitting each part, one at a grim, glacial time.

Paul’s perspective is valuable as well. If I buy a plan for a Nutshell Pram and build it exactly per the pictures and paint it to match the client’s big boat, is it custom? I’m askin’....

I can be critical of nit picking historians and I hear myself becoming a nit picking linguist. Augh.

Still, a fascinating exploration. Thank you Chris.



-- " his brain, which is as dry as the remainder biscuit after a voyage, he hath strange places cramm'd with observation, the which he vents in mangled forms." --Shakespeare, "As You Like It"

View shipwright's profile


7967 posts in 2767 days

#11 posted 06-22-2011 07:40 PM

Lee, In my world, even if you followed the plans to the tiniest detail (and it is a giant if, boatbuilders always change something) It would be a custom built Nutshell Pram if you made one and one only.

-- Paul M ..............If God wanted us to have fiberglass boats he would have given us fibreglass trees.

View drewnahant's profile


222 posts in 3058 days

#12 posted 06-22-2011 08:21 PM

I look at it in a literal sense, that it is custom to the customer, built to their needs. Even if you are copying a table design, but making it 6” longer to fit their roo, that is custom. If you build something as a stock piece, even if it is one of a kind, but isnt designed to meet the needs of a specific customer, it is not custom. It is an original piece, an artisan piece, a one-off, but not custom.

Also, a piece does not need to be unique to be custom. If a customer sees something you have built before and wants you to build another, it is custom, because it is built for that specific customer, and no two pieces are identical anyway.

I tend to be a bit picky about the exact meaning of words. Customers often are not, calling pieces by the wrong style, wrong wood species, or calling a unique piece custom, understandable since they are not dealing within their field of expertise, so in that forum, I dont think it needs to be so strict, but within the community of woodworkers, such as here on LJ’s I think “custom” means that it is built to the needs of a specific customer. Even if you are your own customer.

Just my opinion, language is always open to interpretation. Just look at how a contract has to be written to avoid interpretation, it is a language by itself, clearly used because common language is so ambiguous.

View jonasramus's profile


24 posts in 2944 days

#13 posted 06-22-2011 09:17 PM

A unique item, by itself, does not a custom piece make. To me the word “custom” implies a CUSTOMer has requested specific features to the piece. However, that does not prevent a person from making their own custom item so long as the piece being made is intended for use by the person making it. In that way they become their own customer.

An artist who makes a unique item for sale has not built a custom piece, but if he/she has done a self portrait (or for us woodworkers the frame for that portrait) then it IS custom as long as it is intended for their own use.

-- Jeff, Deltona Florida

View KayBee's profile


1083 posts in 3215 days

#14 posted 06-22-2011 09:35 PM

Made to order. Can be one or a set of twenty cabinets, chairs, widgets. No order, no custom. You can be your own customer and order your own ‘custom geegaw’ to sell on speculation.

-- Karen - a little bit of stupid goes a long way

View Chris's profile


358 posts in 4054 days

#15 posted 06-24-2011 06:17 AM

wow, when i first posted this i was wondering where it would go and if anyone would even bother to reply. You guys have surely exceeded my “shallow” expectations and i have enjoyed reading through the different replies.

very interesting

-- Chris Harrell - custom callmaker "Quacky Calls" Eastern NC.

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