10 Most Common Mistakes When Specifying Custom Furniture

I’ve seen probably tens of thousands of custom furniture RFQs (request for quotes) and several thousands of orders produced. Thinking back on the issues that come up again and again I’ve put together my list of the top ten most common mistakes made when specifying custom furniture.

Designer mistakes happen. It’s just the reality of working in a creative field – we see them every week from both new designers with those with decades under their belt!

Here at Buildlane we’re always trying to push the education and expertise of our designers and this is just another step toward that goal.

10. Mismatched Finish Samples

Believe it or not, it is common for a designer to specify a particular wood species, but when they send in the finish sample, a different wood species arrives.

The problems this causes for the workshop are two-fold.

First, there could be a difference in lumber costs that should have resulted in a different initial quote. Now everyone is in the position where the end-client has approved a price and the workshop is forced to change the price mid-production. Price could also be a concern if the sample arrives and has a special treatment (like bleaching or cerusing) that wasn’t specified in the initial request. Once again this means more material costs and more labor needed.

Second, if a finish sample is very different from the initial spec the vision of the build might need to be changed. Certain woods are better used for different designs. Outdoor wood versus indoor wood is the most obvious example. But also certain woods specified as solid wood are only available in veneer.

9. Not Indicating Fabric Has A Repeat

When you receive an initial upholstery quote back it will include the required yardage needed for the piece. Without specific instruction, the builder will always quote for a plain fabric. Meaning, it doesn’t matter how the fabric comes off the roll – it could be able to be applied in any direction.

A fabric with a pattern and a repeat will almost always require more yardage quoted to ensure that the pattern is laid out in an attractive way on the furniture. This rule also goes when you request that your fabric be applied railroaded.

Coming up short on fabric always results in further delays to source that extra fabric needed. But, it could also result in a mismatch in the dye lot of the fabric currently at the workshop – then you’re really in a pickle.

8. Requesting Inappropriate Premium Options

It is an easy tendency to pick all the premium options when sourcing custom furniture – especially when you have a client who expressly says they “only want the best”. But often certain premium options aren’t possible or appropriate for every build and asking for them might reveal your naivety.

One good example is 8-way hand tied. Even after advancements in sinuous spring techniques, this still seems to be the standard in what everyone assumes quality is. But this is a great example of our point – there are a lot of upholstery styles that have front decks that are too short to accommodate the space needed for 8-way. You definitely never want to request 8-way with a sleeper sofa as well.

Another example is requesting a premium wood – say rift sawn on a case good that has very little surface area to showcase the grain. Or knowing a desk will be against the wall and requesting the backside of a privacy divider be in the same expensive wood as the top. 

7. Missing Overall Dimensions

While it seems obvious, missing dimensions is something we see everyday. 

Not that we need every little dimension when requesting a quote. But the rule of them is to provide anything that might alter the cost of the furniture.

It is assumed that the inner details will be worked out during the shop drawing phase and minor measurements are accounted for in the price.

But if we don’t have the height it is difficult for the shop to budget the cost of lumber or other materials they might need to complete the build.

6. Ignoring Gravity

Ignoring gravity is a popular hobby of bookshelf designers. However, this phenomenon is also common for lots of different case goods.

To be honest, it isn’t always easy to tell what design is going to be wobbly or unstable until you talk to the carpenter. But here are a few tips.

First, for table legs the smaller they are the closer to the edges to want them. A nice huge pedestal base is fine for the middle of a dining table but a pool cue isn’t.

Second, speaking of legs you don’t want them to be skinny. Skinny legs might support the table top but they will be prone to wobbling.

Third, I know you’ve only got eight inches to keep the bookshelf profile tight to the wall, but this means you’ll have to stagger the shelving so the top shelf isn’t the same depth as the bottom. Or you’ll need to install some french cleats to keep it against the wall.

And finally you have to imagine what could be put on or inside the furniture that might “tip the scales”. 

5. Picking the Wrong Wood Species for the Look

Something we like to say is, “If you want a light colored piece of furniture pick a light colored wood species, if you want a dark colored furniture piece pick a dark colored wood species.” This same sentiment can go for grain, if you want a nice cerused look, pick a wood species with a lot of grain.

The mistake comes when you are trying to drastically alter the look of a wood species. Often there is simply a different wood species that already has these qualities.

The more processing and tweaking a finish has to go through the more expensive it will be and the more prone to overcorrection it will have.

4. Ignoring Comfort in Favor of Aesthetic

The great thing about custom is that you can take a design or style that really fits the aesthetic of what you are trying to achieve but then alter it for the practical use of your client.

But sometimes design decisions can lean too heavily on aesthetics and forget that people might be using this piece of furniture – maybe even for hours at a time.

A good example of this is back pitch and seat depth on a sofa. A good designer has their favorite seat depth measurement and can adjust it based on the size of their client. You may not need to know the exact measurement for a comfortable back pitch but any good shop can let you know.

3. Sending COM With No Sidemark

Factories often receive boxes in the mail with few markings to help them match the contents to an order. And this is often not the fault of the designer, but rather the shipper.

However, being mindful is certainly helpful. You can insist to your fabric or leather vendor that they respect the specific sidemark on your packages. Or, if you hit a brick wall, a good tip is to at least make sure your design company’s name is on the label (even add it to the recipient’s company name if you have to). 

On the Buildlane platform you can also go the extra step and write in the COM vendor and COM name. On the factory side they are able to search by vendor and COM name to help match any mystery COM.

2. Specifying Solid Wood When Veneer Makes More Sense

Solid wood definitely carries the reputation for being a quality and long-lasting building material. And sometimes veneer has the reputation of being an inferior building material. But when you’re working with only higher end furniture and quality builds they are simply different tools for different jobs.

Solid wood comes as planks and is great for projects that really want to highlight the beauty of the wood. Each plank will be slightly different and with a clear coat or light finish the piece will feel like it is straight from a forest.

Veneer, on the other hand, is best used for more complicated and creative designs. It is easy to find hundreds of different wood species sold as veneer while only dozens are sold as solid. You can also maintain an even finish throughout the entire piece.

Noting all those differences it is easy to see why sometimes requesting solid wood wouldn’t make sense for a project that requires all of the characteristics that only veneer can deliver.

1. Including Red Herring Details

What are red herring details? The best example I can give is when a request comes in and there are 15 inspiration photos attached that seemingly illustrate every design style under the sun.

The workshop doesn’t need the entire journey you went on to arrive at your design. This often leads to these ‘red herring’ inclusions. This could be a photo that doesn’t seem to be referenced in the design spec, but the builder will feel the need to try and incorporate it into the design somehow (it’s in the request after all).

Basically, make sure it is clear with multiple inspiration photos what part you want used. If you have a sofa arm you’d like to use, we don’t need to see the whole sofa – cut out the arm and show with an arrow and a short note how this will be incorporated into the design.


There it is – the top ten things I see that can get you into trouble when specifying custom furniture.

The good news is that here at Buildlane we are anticipating those issues and a hundred more. We love teaching designers and making them experts in furniture design. But be sure that we are always here for you and won’t let you make a bad piece of furniture!

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