Lead times are always a sticky situation in building furniture.  Once a client gives the green light for their designer to move on a project everything goes into warp speed in their mind.  It doesn’t matter if it took the client months to make a decision – once that decision is made they are super excited and want their new home completed immediately including their new custom furniture.  Unfortunately, manufacturer’s ability to build is not as fast as a client’s desires.

While building furniture to order has its own lead times, building custom furniture, true custom that has not been built before, has its own unique list of challenges that drive lead times off the reservation.  But why does this occur?  It’s probably easiest to answer that question by first taking a look at how furniture is built that is not fully custom – furniture that is depicted in the manufacturer’s catalog.

Most manufacturers offer a catalog of styles from which you can choose. When you order one of these styles, the build is pretty straight forward.  Each department in the company has a set of patterns – there is a pattern for the frame and another pattern for the fabric that goes on the outside of the frame.  There is a pattern for the cushions and another pattern for the cushion covers – you get the picture.

When building a catalog style, all of these patterns and all of these functions (building the frame, cutting the fabric, etc.) all happen at the same time.  Once the frame gets to the upholstery line it has the fabric cut and sewn, the cushions, etc. – all the pieces and parts in the frame ready to apply.

Now let’s look at a custom piece of furniture where a pattern does not exist.  In this situation, each step of the process has to happen on its own and downline processes are dependent on the process before it.  To start, the frame builder meets with the upholstery supervisor to understand how they intend to upholster the piece.  This includes discussions about how much padding will be added to each section of the piece, how and where fabric will be applied, where “pulls” are necessary for the fabric to attach.  Once the discussion is complete the frame builder begins building the frame.  In the time that it would normally take the frame team to cut out all the pieces and put them together for a catalog design – all the custom team can accomplish is to meet and “design.”  There’s your first time killer in the lead time war.

In a catalog piece of furniture – each part of the frame would be cut out, sometimes by different people, all at the same time.   Then those parts are given to a “knock up” person that puts them all together. In a custom piece, one person cuts and assembles the piece step by step.  They typically start with the back post and work their way forward and to the sides.  One piece at a time.  A catalog sofa can be machined (cut out) and knocked up (put together) in less than 2 labor hours.  Much of that time happens at the same time so effectively it could have occurred in less than an hour.  For a custom sofa – those same processes can take 6 – 8 hours or more if it is a unique style or shape.

After the frame is fully assembled it then moves to spring up and finishing.  If it were a catalog piece, the fabric cutters, sewers and cushion team would already be hard at work getting those pieces together. but since it is a custom piece none of these steps can be completed until the frame comes out of the frame shop including spring up and finish.  There’s another delay.

The same iterative process is repeated on the upholstery side.  The custom upholstery team starts by applying the padding necessary to create the look, feel and size of the piece then they measure, cut and sew the fabric needed for the seat deck or base.  Once that is installed, they start working on the arms and inside back. Each step is dependent on the step before it and no work can move forward until that step is completed.  For example they measure for the front seat rail then they create a pattern for that cut, cut the fabric, have it sewn then install it on the piece. Those few steps for just the seat rail can take 1 – 1.5 hours to complete and nothing else can happen until that step is complete.  The custom teams are pretty great at what they do but there are occasions their plans fail and they have to start over.  After all – the first time they build this particular style is when they build it for you.

Another contributing factor is skill.  The skill required to create a custom piece is very unique and takes years to master. Even  the best of the best often have to bring in advisors to figure out the best way to accomplish the design.  Most plants have only one team that can and does do this work, once they start on a piece they are dedicated to it until completion. Unfortunately, if they run  into problems on that piece, not only does it slow down that piece but all pieces in line thereafter.

These same reasons explain why custom is so much more expensive.  Not only do custom builds take a significant amount of time to build, but they also prevent other pieces from being built. In some ways you are paying not only for the cost to build your item but also for the opportunity cost of the team not being able to build other items while your item is being constructed.

As you can see – custom furniture is a highly complicated business.  Manufacturers do our best to provide a “best guess” timeline but with so many factors involved, predicting with great accuracy is all but impossible.

Custom furniture can be a wonderful addition to a stunning design plan and can be the perfect solution when out-of-the-box ideas won’t work.  But buyer beware! Full custom builds can be costly from both a financial and a timeline perspective.