POSTED: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - 7:29am
UPDATED: Wednesday, October 31, 2012 - 1:39pm
A few weeks back I got a call from one of my long time clients. He had recently picked up some IKEA furniture and wanted me, a Denver-area carpenter , to do the assembly for him. With 30 plus years of custom furniture building experience, both from a design and build from scratch experience. I said yes, building from a box is pretty simple, and I have always admired the detailed engineering of some IKEA products.
Engineering and Design
When it comes to engineering and design, IKEA is indeed a leader. They offer a wide selection of modern designs and the ease of assembly makes the time pass quickly. Unlike the furniture I build, most IKEA products come completely unassembled and require the owner to spend a bit of time reviewing the instruction manual and familiarizing themselves with a multitude of parts. These parts are a mix of panels, braces and knock down specific hardware. The geek in me sees the complex intricacies of this collection of parts magically transform into useable and workable piece of furniture. I am also surprised by the efficiency of their packaging. I look at a small dense and heavy box and wonder how a full sized bookcase “fits” in there.
Once all of the parts are laid out and the build sequence is established, the project goes together quite smoothly. The precision of the machining is topnotch and everything fits perfectly. This is a lot different from some of my native edge furniture  where Mother Nature exerts her own style and I work with the curves and bends of real wood.
But Then There Is All That Particleboard...
That furniture I built for this client consisted of two “Billy” bookcases in white and a “Besta” TV stand. The materials in these pieces ranged from wimpy cardstock to slightly better particleboard with thermofoil “woodgrain”. The only “real” wood in the entire set were a few dowel rods used in the assembly. To me, particleboard and cardboard are not acceptable building materials. The furniture I build is nearly all solid wood. IKEA does offer some products made from real wood, and when these more premium materials are used with their fine engineering, the end product is nice. Obviously finer materials mean increased cost. The “Billy” bookcases I built sell for whopping $60 and this price reflects the raw materials, the machining and packaging of these materials and then the transport of these “kits” from the Far East.
Locally Sourced vs. Imported Wood
There is some economy of scale here. IKEA is the third largest “consumer” of wood globally, and since the bulk of their furniture is particle board based at lot of this is waste wood. One of their marketing strategies is to be perceived as a “green” company with lots of practices that show responsible harvesting, and labor practices for manufacturing workers etc. Their own “Iway” code of conduct  document is an 18 page document that details what practices are “allowed”. When I reviewed this document I noticed many references to “local” regulations. Since the bulk of their manufacturing is located in overseas facilities…
There is also a lot of controversy over their logging operations . This is one area where I have a distinct advantage with most of my furniture. Not only do I source locally, which greatly reduces my products carbon footprint. I’m on a first name basis with my sawyer and know exactly where my lumber was harvested.