Build Your Own Furniture: 9 Helpful Tips For Non-Carpenters

By Craig Ford on 12 July 2010 (Updated 4 June 2014) 3 comments

“Can’t we wait until my dad comes to visit? He knows all about this kind of stuff.” When my wife and I were first married, that is exactly what I said for about a five year period any time any repairs needed to be done at home. I simply did not know anything about carpentry, repairs, or building.

Fast forward 6 years: Daddy, the Carpenter

A few months ago, my daughter told me she was going to grow up and be a teacher just like her mother. She said my son was going to grow up and be a carpenter just like his daddy (I’m actually not a carpenter.)

While I’m definitely not a carpenter, I have built most of the furniture in our house. I’ve built the bed frame and head board in the master bedroom, the bunk bed for my kids, a bookshelf for the kids’ room, bookshelves in the living room, entertainment center for TV and DVD player, coffee table, two couches, and two bookshelves for my office.

Like many other money saving do it yourself jobs you can save a significant amount of money by building our own furniture. Sometimes you will need to do more than one project to justify the cost of tools. However, the more items you build the bigger your cost savings become.

In general I think on average we saved at least 50% by building my own furniture instead of buying the items new. Honestly, if I was still in North America there is a good chance I’d be buying my furniture second hand because that would probably be as cheap or cheaper as making it. However, when you build your own furniture you can (sometimes) get a better finished product and you always get a customized piece of furniture. Here are 9 tips to help non-skilled carpenters save money by building their own furniture.

1. Start with a simple project

My first project was the coffee table. I didn’t add anything fancy. Nothing has been rounded, grooved, or notched. During this first project, you are just trying to learn some basic carpentry skills. In my case, I need to learn how to cut straight lines, do accurate measurements, and join two pieces of wood. The first project was more like carpentry school. Don’t waste a lot of time and money on a big project first. Make your mistakes on something simple.

2. Get on the same page with your spouse

If you are going to build your own furniture, it is important that you and your spouse have a good idea about what design would look best. It is also important to know your limitations. In my case, I am not going to build anything that is a piece of fine craftsmanship. But, if you just want something to put books on, then I’m your man. My wife and I agreed that we were looking for something functional and not necessary beautiful.

3. Start with a sample product: Get your plan

I took pictures of the coffee table I wanted to build. From there, I used my photo editor (Kodak Easy Share Software) and turned the pictures into black and white. I used printed copies of the black and white pictures to write the measurements and dimensions. This really helped me visualize how each piece fit together.

Before you start any building, have an idea of how much wood and supplies you will need and the type of wood you want. From there, head to the hardware store and price out the cost of your building project. If you’re building to save money, then be sure the money savings are worth the time investment.

4. Read a book or search online

Your photo and your plan probably won’t tell you how the joints have been attached. In addition, you might not know the best cutting techniques or measuring strategies. Also, if you are working with power tools that you have never used before, be sure to read the owner manuals.

Let’s just say it would be hard for me to write daily articles online if I only had nine fingers to help me type.

When it comes to joints, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • Typically, the more complex the joint, the better it looks.
  • Using external fasteners like nails, bolts, or screws is almost always easier, but rarely as nice looking.

I borrowed a book on general woodworking and learned everything about building from books.

5. Measure twice, cut once

Since your goal is to save money by building your own furniture, this should be your building motto. Don’t rush the process. Think through and visualize every action before cutting.

It is really helpful to label the pieces of wood once they are cut. This way you won’t grab the wrong piece of wood and re-cut it.

6. Don’t go tool crazy

I think this is one of the biggest financial mistakes first time furniture builders make — tools. They go out and buy the newest and best tools on the block.

In my case, I borrowed tools for my first few projects to see if I was skilled enough to do my own building. Form there, I bought a few essential entry level power tools — electric drill, miter saw, circular saw, and sanding machine.

When it comes to tools, pace yourself, or you’ll end up with a $600 bookshelf instead of a store-bought $100 bookshelf.

7. Accept minor mistakes

Depending on your disposition, this might be a hard one. When building your own furniture, you will make mistakes. I’ve come to learn that builders know every nook and cranny of their projects. However, to the casual observer, those ‘flaws’ go unnoticed.

Strive for a completed project, not a perfect work of art.

8. Invite a friend

If you’ve got a friend who likes to build, you’ll have a lot more fun and work more efficiently if you have a partner. Many woodworking tasks require an extra set of hands. Someone to hold a piece of wood when you cut it or someone to hold the other end of the measuring tape.

Work out a deal with a friend — I’ll help you with your project if you help me with mine. You might even consider forming a frugal community where you share household jobs with friends.

9. Don’t rush the final product

By the time that I got to the end of most of my projects, I was ready to just be done with it. I wanted to skip a coat of varnish or pass over some necessary sanding. However, once you’ve come so close to having this wonderful finished product, stick with it long enough to add that nice finishing touch.

You’ll be more proud of the finished product if you give it the proper attention through the entire process.

What tips do you have for people who might be interested in building their own furniture?

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Julia

This is very good advice! I just built a headboard using plans from http://www.knock-offwood.com/ . I made an $800 headboard for $90! Gave me alot of courage and now I want to build sturdy bookshevles.

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Guest

To save on costs look for tools through secondhand sources.

As for materials, also consider damaged junk wood furniture as a potential resource for lumber and hardware with which to make smaller scale projects. Mostly I pick up this stuff off the curb, but occasionally I get things extremely cheap at yard sales. Last summer I bought a $4 vintage oak bureau, that had cool brass drawer pulls on two of the three drawers. I was unsure if the water damage could be refinished (it couldn't), but if not it was worth buying the bureau for the pulls and the oak. Sometimes we have been able to marry parts from more than one junk item, and make something that looks curiously almost antique.

Aside from price, the other advantage of DYI is that you can make custom pieces to fit into challenging spaces, or to serve highly specific needs. As one minor example, in ever home we have lived in, we have made a simple spice rack that would fit one some small that was available... different in each house. On a larger scale, one might build book cases to fit into an available, or build a book case to house a specific collection of books.

Guest's picture

Craig,

Almost thou persuadest me to be a carpenter.

I appreciate the DIY topic and have had some bookshelves in the back of my find for a year or so. They're for the front room (and for my wife), so it sounds like I'd better try something for my kids room first, to get a better feel for the project.

Keep spreading the "good news" of frugal living. And I appreciate the ideas in the comments. Thanks!

Todd
National Financial Education Center