Selecting Handcrafted Furniture

An investment in handmade furniture can reap rewards for generations to come. Here is a look at a few of the factors involved in making smart purchasing decisions.

By Bob Vila | Updated Jul 28, 2020 8:55 PM


A piece of handcrafted furniture is at once a practical and aesthetic purchase. It graces your home, reflects who you are, and performs a specific function in your home. A piece of fine furniture is a part of your family’s material legacy and, as such, should live beautifully today, tomorrow, and for succeeding generations.

First and foremost, remember that a piece of handcrafted furniture has a life of its own; it imparts a special feeling, character, and personality through its design and appearance. “Design is the heart, humanity, and spirit of the piece,” says furniture craftsman Bruce Beeken of Beeken/Parsons Fine Furniture of Shelburne, Vermont. It is only after your heart has been captured by the design and lines of a piece that you will ask questions that will confirm your selection and enhance your satisfaction.

The Craftsman and the Craft
You’ll want to know who made the piece, where they lived, and when they worked. “Different people will have a different amount of interest in this aspect,” Beeken says, but quite often it strikes to the heart of why people buy handcrafted furniture. People often buy native, handcrafted pieces because they love a place, are invested in that place, remember a treasured visit, or cherish a specific moment in their lives. To that end, you will want to know who the craftsman is, where the wood comes from, and which traditions inform his or her craft.

You should definitely interview craftsmen, learn about their background in the business, and find out where they did their training. Quite often, this information can tell you more about how the piece is constructed than what meets the eye.

The construction of the handcrafted item is critical. A fine craftsman, well trained, with a commitment to the furniture, the art, and the tradition, will almost certainly guarantee a high level of craftsmanship. Ask about their guarantees and how an item will be repaired should it fail in any way.

Check that the joinery is superior and will maintain the piece throughout your lifetime and into successive generations. Beeken/Parsons specifies mortise and tenon joints that allow between .001 and .002 of an inch between the faces of the joint. This determines how the wood fibers fuse together to maintain the integrity of the joint. Check also to see if any glue has squeezed out of a joint and whether there are gaps or ragged edges at the joints. These are indicators that the piece may not endure as it was intended.

The Finish and the Legacy
The finish is perhaps the most visible technical aspect of any handcrafted item. “It’s all about light,” says Beeken. A finish is meant to draw the light and allow it to play on the wood fibers, bringing out the very richest aspects of the wood’s character. Beeken tends to put a piece of furniture between himself and a window and watch the way the window is reflected in the finish. Light should enhance the object’s beauty, not merely bounce off of it.

A finish should also protect the wood while aging beautifully, gaining a patina over the years. Natural finishes like linseed oil tend to age beautifully without releasing dangerous toxins into the environment. High-gloss finishes can endure beautifully, but be certain to learn how to maintain the finish and luster of your piece. Some finishes lend themselves better to busy, active homes than others.

The life of a piece of wood is extended through a handcrafted furniture piece. Where that wood came from, how and why it was logged, when and where it was milled and dried all become character elements in your piece of fine furniture. Craftsmen like Beeken/Parsons or Charles Shackleton demonstrate a commitment to the land, forests, and habitats of their region by using certified wood. This certification indicates wood that is used in compliance with forest management practices designed to promote, improve, and maintain the health of local forests and their wildlife populations. Indigenous wood also speaks to the life of the area it comes from, imparting a sense of integrity and commitment to the piece and its owner.