Cabinets and Furniture: What's the Difference?

A cabinetmaker who seeks greater satisfaction by building furniture sets off a long and thoughtful discussion on why furniture is different. December 12, 2008

I've been building cabinets for a while now and am starting to get a little bored with it. I would like to build some furniture pieces to renew my love for woodworking.

What are the main differences between cabinet construction and furniture construction? Different joinery, materials, finishes, tools important to furniture making? What defines a piece as a quality one? I have a whole house of hand-me-down garage sale furniture, so I have plenty of pieces to practice on.

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor S:
Get yourself a subscription to Woodshop News. They have some of the best articles and pictures on the cutting edge types of modern and traditional furniture, and interviews with guys who make it. It's a good value.

From contributor D:
To me, cabinetry is work designed to be built and put into position one time, such as kitchens, built-ins, etc. Once in place, that's it. Furniture needs to be built to survive constant repositioning, changing hands, being passed along from one person to the next for years on end, without wracking or working its way apart. Whereas simple dado and screw together construction is fine for cabinet work, furniture demands much more durable and permanent construction. Dovetails, sliding dovetails, pinned mortise and tenon, among other techniques, are the secrets to building strong, durable pieces that will stand up to years of use and abuse.

From contributor T:
The finish... Ladies want a smooth, soft touch and it has to stand up to scratches, liquids, and sometimes ill-conceived notions people get about those furniture polishes.

From contributor W:
In your cabinet making you need to be careful of the fit and finish details where people look and touch. In furniture making you need to take that care to every joint, edge, and surface... working towards perfection. People will be touching/caressing your work and it will be out in public view every day.

Where you could work with 1/16 inch error and draw it together with a screw or brad, now 1/64 inch error can be huge. Where you might let a small cabinet door blemish go, now on a table top where people will be looking at it from different angles and different light, a blemish could be a glaring error.

So it is your attitude towards what you produce that will show. Where time was cost, now taking time to make things right is more important. Slowing down your work pace to minimize mistakes actually will help make pieces in a timely manner.

From contributor T:
Nice way to explain it, contributor W. I spent many years in production of quality millwork, but when turning to furniture, it was attitude - a big yes. Slowing down, which is what I wanted to do anyway, is very important, and reading your post just reminded me of that struggle to slow down and live my work. That's important, and good advice!

From contributor N:
Building cabinets you are repeating the same operations over and over again. Furniture is basically building a prototype every time. You need different skills on a daily basis. I think the satisfaction level in furniture is a lot higher. I used to do kitchens and got bored rather quickly, so switched to custom furniture. Wood selection is very important, and time consuming. You will need good quality hand tools. Even selecting sandpaper becomes an issue.

From contributor V:
I second the kudos to contributor W for the near poetic explanation of the difference. Many of our customers do not understand or appreciate the difference, so it serves us well to have a succinct statement like that to offer as explanation for our craft/profession.

As I look at other shops, I see that they, like us, move from built-ins to furniture and back. We often wonder if we aren't missing out by not concentrating on one or the other, or moving the two closer to each other.

From contributor P:
Cabinets: boxes with embellishment. All of them. The quality of furniture is much more heavily dependent upon good design. If you are unsure of your powers as a designer, it's safest to do reproductions. You will want to see what each example of a type of furniture has in common - those are the standards that should be incorporated in your own work. Examples: chair seats are generally 18" above the floor. Dining table tops from 28 to 30 inches above the floor. Furniture which deviates from accepted standards feels (and often looks) odd.

From Professor Gene Wengert, Sawing and Drying Forum technical advisor:
There is indeed a lot of truth to the previous postings, but if quality were such a concern in the consumer's mind, then how come so much Chinese furniture (80% of the furniture now sold in the USA is from China and other off shore sites) and cabinets (off-shore is a growing component) is low quality? If you go to a store (especially the large box stores), check out the samples. See that the doors do not align well, that finishes are not top quality, that thicknesses are thin, that fasteners are not too durable, etc.

Here is the basic problem. The consumer does not know what makes quality cabinets or furniture. They are buying based on outward appearance (quality to them), prompt delivery (the item is in stock today), and maybe price (but price is not a top concern). Are we taking extra time and effort to make a quality, long-lasting piece, but that is not what the consumer wants? Are we not telling the consumer what quality is all about? Is the consumer living only for the short term? (How many consumers are spending $30K for a new car that they will throw away in 10 years? Or for a new computer that will be replaced in 3 to 5 years?)

How many consumers know that the cabinets or furniture we make come from forests that have, for the past 100 years, had more saw timber growing every year than the year before in spite of large harvests, clearing for parking lots and home subdivisions, etc.? How many consumers know that off shore operations are getting cheap wood (wood costs are about 60% of a cabinet cost) because of unethical, non-environmental harvests (cut and run with no concern for replacement or replanting), and lower density woods (than oak or maple) with incorrect moisture contents for most of the USA (leading to shrinkage and warp)? How many insects are being brought (illegally) into this country in the cabinets? How many off-shore producers offer any service 6 months or longer after the sale? (Of course, how much pollution is there in the off-shore manufacturing areas that we have to control (at a higher cost) here in North America? And what about safety issues like lead paint, crib designs, etc.?)

We all know the answers, but the consumer is rather ignorant. Do we need more government control, inspections, etc. and more laws to assure fair trade, product quality, etc.? Or do we need more educated consumers? Do we need evaluations by Consumer Reports and others? If education will help, maybe we need to band together into an association of cabinet makers to educate the consumer. Maybe we need an association of cabinetmakers to assure that government regulations are proper and are adhered to. We probably cannot do it individually.

From contributor T:
Well, Gene, that was quite a mouthful! You're expressing most of the concerns craftsmen across America run into in our work. In my experience, competition is the act of convincing a customer that my product is as good as or better than the other guy. Then comes the effort to show them the difference. While in this conversation, I read them carefully. I let them, or encourage them, to make comments. These comments tell me a lot about what they like/dislike, such as "oh, I don't like the roundovers on that," or "I really like those steps on that moulding." Then we get into particleboard, which is what most of the public recalls MDF as. I'll find, for example, they frown visibly over that term. Now, it's looking like I have a customer that wants something made of solid wood, not an import, not something off the shelf, and so on. It goes from there. True, the vast majority of people are ignorant of quality, but here are an awful lot of them wanting better also. They came to our shop because they heard about our millwork or saw it, or are looking for something special. Just as a lot of these people on these forums here experience. They don't want the throwaway cabinet or furniture piece. They will stay in their home for many years. They want to brag about and show off their possession and they know they can't do that with a big box store product.

Another reason I believe in custom work is from the comments I hear so often, apologizing... "Oh, I picked that up because I needed something quick" when pointing to a Made in China piece, adding, "I'll replace that soon as I can with something nice!"

True, 80% of the furniture is made in China. And it's here because the American consumer bought it... and a lot of it is out by the road a couple years later by the garbage pickup. Far Eastern furniture has ravaged our furniture industry, true; but how did they do that? Cheep for one thing, quickly available as you stated, for another; but I feel American manufacturers got into a rut, looking only at the profit line, and pricing to the point that the mantra was "Whatever the market will bear."

Only lately have American manufacturers, including wood and steel, taken the time and resources to become more efficient and more cost effective in their manufacturing process. Competition forced this, both European and Asian. (Another lesson learned late!)

As for custom built... The term refers to the ability to consider functional diversity of the customer, their needs as they get older, etc. That's what we as woodworkers must give our customer when they come to our shop. Educating the public is a very expensive proposition considering how much a TV or quality magazine add costs now. But I do believe that more can be done to promote our higher quality products. How to teach the consumer to take more pride in purchasing that item? Let them see our work.

Woodworking machinery shows all over the world are attended by thousands of craftsmen every year. Why? So they can improve, both in quality and appeal, their output! We also have to do something like that to improve the customer's thirst for our products. We need to put that ad up with the beautiful evening gown clad lady in that cocktail glass! Thanks, Gene, for wading in. You techs out there are helping us a lot in wood know-how, know-why, and production on the shop floor.

From contributor W:

I have to disagree with contributor P about always building to a standard. In custom furniture, "custom" is the functional term. I have found that no one is truly average or normal. There is no standard person. There are people that will sit okay on a standard chair with a seat 18" high, but many of their friends will not be comfortable at their table for more than 15-20 minutes if the table is 28" high and the seat 18" high. That is why I may make a chair with a seat 17" high to work with their 28" table and even recommend that they may consider a new table to work with chairs 18" high so that they will sit comfortably at their new 30" table. Because I make custom fitted chairs my orders are increasing and customers are willing to wait until I make their chair. I rarely have people complain that my prices are too high, that they can get what I make at any store in the country.

I cannot recommend that people should build reproductions. They should make custom pieces with design elements integrated into their designs that fit with the customer's needs and desires. Tell them up front that the work will take time. Also do not cut corners to make a sale, by using cheap or fake lumber (particleboard or MDF). These are for people (different from customers) who want to throw things out. I have more customers who plan on handing down the chair, bench or stool I made for them. I also have children thanking me for making something for their parent so they have it in the future.

Build the best quality products you can, educate your customers, praise other fine craftsmen and refer your customers to others for items you would rather not make or cannot make yet. I am not a cabinetmaker, table maker... I make seating, period. The best and most comfortable I can, period.

From contributor G:
Amen. Custom means custom. Being 6-8 tall, I've hit my head on numerous ceiling fans, and paid a 15% premium for tall-sized clothing for many years. I can personally attest to the fact that one size does not fit all - never has and never will.

From contributor J:
I build furniture and, once in a while, a cabinet. The difference is that when I finish a nice cabinet, I think thank God that's done, but when I finish a nice piece of furniture, I think wow - I wanna do some more.

From contributor N:
Contributor J just said it . That's how I think about the difference between the two. I can't get enough of furniture making, but cabinets, I could care less if I ever made another one.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for all the responses. I'm even more excited to build something now.