Pricing Furniture

Cost is a hard fact, but the market value of a unique furniture piece can be very subjective. October 28, 2008

With the myriad of posts regarding pricing particular pieces, I thought it would be interesting to see how people who primarily build commission and one-off furniture actually price their work.

I price cabinetry differently from furniture. On cabinets, I use a formula which takes into account materials, shop rate, overhead and all that. But for furniture, which I find myself doing more of, I don't do that. I'll take into consideration the material cost and shop rate, but I think that furniture should stand on its own when priced.

For instance, a small mahogany table might have a hundred dollars worth of material and 20 hours of shop time. Now using whatever formula, let's say that the formula price is $1500. But what if the work is extraordinary? What if the design is unique? What if the builder is a well-known cabinetmaker and is collected? Is there a formula that can cover these variables? Or should the gallery or auction determine the price?

Or what if we take that same wood and put it in the hands of someone who is less skilled or attentive to detail? He may have forty hours building the piece, but his end result may be lacking. Should he set his price in the same manner as the fellow who has work in museums?

Forum Responses
(Furniture Making Forum)
From contributor D:
Pricing custom pieces is at best an educated guess. It's the biggest challenge in custom work, since often you have to reinvent the wheel on every new piece. I usually try to use similar pieces I've built in the past as a comparison for estimating time involved, but again it's an inexact science. The biggest challenge is to charge enough. An old acquaintance of mine once told me that if they don't complain, you're not charging enough.

From contributor J:
"A hundred dollars worth of material and 20 hours of shop time, let's say that the formula price is $1500. But what if the work is extraordinary?" You're leaving out the fact that someone whose work is consistently extraordinary can charge a higher shop rate. I think you need to approach it in different ways, depending on whether a piece was built speculatively or on commission.

If you build something to go into a gallery in hopes a buyer will like it, the price has to fit what the piece is worth in the market. The amount you've invested in it in time and materials is irrelevant, because the item hasn't found a buyer yet and if you price it too high then it never will find a buyer. And yes, of course, the talent, reputation and name of the maker affect the price that can be gotten.

The formula is probably more important when estimating commissioned pieces. The formula itself is fairly easy to come up with; the challenge is figuring out, before you've begun it, how much time, material and other resources the project will require.

From the original questioner:
My thinking is that for very good and up work you don't worry about a shop rate. I saw an incredibly detailed inlaid table awhile back that the maker had, "about a couple hundred hours in". I can't see pricing that table based on how many hours were put in.

Does a painter of wonderful landscapes charge by the hour? Or the sculptor? There was a painter and maker of very folky things in town. He would sell his pieces for whatever was handy. He might trade a painting for lunch, or sell it for a couple hundred dollars to a collector. Now that he's dead, people clamor for his stuff even more.

I've been in and out of furniture and cabinetmaking my entire life. I've come to the conclusion that you have to decide if you're an artist or a tradesman and take the path that most suits you.

From contributor J:
I don't build furniture myself, but pretty much agree with the others here. Really custom one of a kind pieces of furniture are more like art than cabinetry. You can buy a no name painting almost anywhere for $100 or less, but if you want to commission a painting from an artist your talking a few hundred minimum with potential to spend thousands. Both have about the same in materials right? They could also have similar amounts of labor invested, but the bottom line is you’re paying for custom and/or the name. I don't believe there's a one size fits all formula here. Each individual artist/furniture maker must find their niche and gradually build a clientele that's willing to spend x amount of money on their work.

For instance, if you had hired someone to build you a piece of furniture, you would expect to pay a premium. So if you go to your local trade school and find someone very skilled and able to build something of high quality, you wouldn't expect to pay them the same would you? No you’re paying for the name and also for the experience the known furniture maker. At least that's the way I see it.

From contributor J:
I'd say that formulaic, T and M pricing isn't useful when setting prices for speculative or "art" pieces, but it's still useful to look at T and M data and compare it to the price an item is able to fetch, if only to decide whether a piece is (or was) worth building, or whether one should do more pieces like X, fewer like Y.

From contributor T:
Do you market yourself as a custom designer or an artisan? If so, then the pricing has absolutely no relationship to your cost!

From contributor S:
Pricing is and always will be subject to so many variables that to get it right is like a minor miracle. In the end, experience and your gut are what win out. I used to do one of a kind furniture, and was at the same time the president of our local carving club. I could build a table for example that took about 100 hours to build and might sell it for $7,000.00. One of the carving members would do a carving that was so intricate and took 180 hours to carve, and was lucky to get $1,200 to $1,500.

So how do you fairly determine what is art and what is furniture? Does it get down to simply what the market will bear? Are a person’s skills taken into account only if they have established a name for themselves? I once hired a glass artist to create a piece for a wedding present based on the fact that everything I had seen before was amazing. There was a waiting list to get her sculptures. When it arrived I thought it was terrible. Does your skill and talent appear in everything you do? Are you justified in charging a high rate no matter what you build? No matter what the price is, it is only worth that if someone is willing to pay it.

From contributor W:
My chair making has two components to it. First, I have a price list for the base prices for typical types of chairs with a 'standard' cord. The second component is when the customer asks for special work to be done which on the price list are shown as “Call for a Quotation” or a new variation on an existing design or development of a new design. I think about the amount of time developing the design, prototyping (materials and time), special features, if it will be a one-off or possibly evolved into a new piece on the price list.

All of my work is “to order to fit” the customer. At this time I am quoting 18-20 months delivery times so customers are accepting that there will not be any discounts. I also will not accept a bonus to jump someone up the production schedule.

From contributor H:
There are fairly standard prices for fine art, paintings, based on their size. These prices don't apply to the best artists. I have used the long shop rate, etc. calculation and am shocked at high the final number is. But that number always turns out to be too low.

When I charge more I have lost the project. It's all a matter of marketing, finding and building up the right clientele. This is an art in itself and a dynamic personality is an asset. I no longer do much high-end custom work. I'm much happier building 2-3 day furniture pieces for a growing furniture retailer in my area