I have lived in rented houses long enough at different points in my life to know what it’s like when you have to move and do so unexpectedly. Whereas mostly there are rental agreements in place, here in the UK at least it doesn’t take too much to move someone renting on and contracts rarely go for longer than for a 12 month period after which rents get reviewed alongside your impact on the property you’ve rented. Based on this, it may or may not be renewable to you. Hopefully changes are on the way towards greater levels of protective fairness for both parties.

With people moving more and more and putting down less permanent roots we may well need to look at both what we make and how we make. I am sure it might well irk the puritan traditionalists to consider third party components to hold things we make together flat pack IKEA-style, but in today’s work it is a great and progressive step to create as a feature for any piece when possible. We have done that with a few pieces now, the leaning wall shelf and the baby cot are two good examples. When large items don’t dismantle they can be difficult to transport without the right transport and you will often end up renting a van. Of course dismantlable furniture goes back to many traveling armies through history. Pompous leaders and not so pompous leaders took with them everything that might diminish their personal comfort and wellbeing. Owning the minions that transported everything for them, a distinction of class, meant wood and metal furniture could readily be dismantled in minutes and dispatched to a new territory. Today, the army is of a different ilk, today’s army are the younger people and then too the not so very young fighting against the odds and using many means when they have need to move on.

Leaving that seamier reality aside, let’s move on ourselves. Flat-packs are here to stay and mostly it is because they are created as self assembly units which brings down the costs to the manufacturers, distributors and sales outlets and increases their profit margins exponentially. Make no mistake, they rarely if ever have the consumer in mind. Reducing assembly, warehouse storage and distribution costs raises their margins. Flat packs are a sort of DIY answer that makes the dismantlable a most popular option for the manufacturers and it was indeed a clever move. In my world of making and selling I had to go to great lengths to protect my pieces from damage on the way to delivery. I could easily spend a whole day boxing up, and blanket wrapping even small pieces like a chair or coffee table to ship from Texas to say Arizona.

Unfortunately it’s usually not the fastenings that make the units sold environmentally unfriendly and cheap looking but the materials the units are often, not always, mostly, made from. MDF and particle board are both the very lowest quality material option yet for the poorer it is often their only option. Fastenings are ideal for dismantling larger framed projects and that is what I wanted for this one. Two triangular side frames are mortise and tenoned together in part and they provide the stanchions for the cross members to fit into that give permanent rigidity. All of the cross members combine joints with added bolt fastenings to allow for the next needed break-down.

The three shelves have a frieze around the ends and back with dovetailed corners but then I use a system that allows for expansion and contraction to the shelf they are attached to which would be too wide not to allow for.

I have considered draw-bore pins for some frame joints because it might be difficult to use clamps and this is an excellent way of drawing up long shoulders tight and permanently together. I will look at it more closely when I get there. The grain direction might disallow this. Using quarter-sawn wood for the shelves will minimise the possibility of cupping and twisting but well-seasoned and dry wood should be just fine if you laminate the boards instead of going for single piece wide stock.Of course this depends on the wood typer and other things too.

The prototype can still be used when finished should I decide to use it in say the office, which I may well do. It can be simply finished with a clear finish of some kind or then too painted which I also like.

I started with my drawings first and then created my cutting list from this. I’ll try to use scraps for any prototype elements where possible and will then laminate parts too to make up sizes I don’t have. Sometimes this means using thinner stock for components because of standard sizing from my supplier. Whereas I might like 7/8″ material in the final piece, I may well only have 3/4″ pine or even plywood to work with in the prototype’s first iteration. When I am part way through I may well change this or that to change something I don’t care for or take care of a weakness I didn’t foresee.

19 Comments

  1. Stephen McGonigle on 21 January 2020 at 4:22 pm

    I’ll look forward to this, a contemporary take on a traditional item in a 1930s house such as yours. They’re very useful and stylish, I had one with a small mirror and a little drawer which was useful for car keys, torch etc.

    Referencing an earlier blog, would it be possible to include an item of furniture with a tambour top or door?

    • Paul Sellers on 21 January 2020 at 5:39 pm

      Yes, I am working on two designs with tambours in them.This next project is not for the houseful of furniture though, not just yet but very soon I will be processing the new designs and filming the making of them.

      • Stephen McGonigle on 23 January 2020 at 6:14 pm

        That’s great news, I’ll look forward to seeing it as I do all your projects. Without doubt you are the most influential craftsman, and we all thank you for sharing your talents and encouraging us in our efforts.

  2. Steve P on 21 January 2020 at 7:37 pm

    I have to correct you here Paul when you say “MDF and particle board are both the very lowest quality material option ”. I purchased some shelves at Ikea before, and later needed them shorter. I was surprised when i cut them down and it was basically a sort of torsion box box made from corrugated cardboard and hardboard(the brown stuff they make pegboard from). This whole structure was painted with a thick enamel paint so hard to tell. This left the cut edge hollow and unusable. Whereas if at least it was MDF or particle board i could have painted it. I think the cheapness knows no limits where profit is concerned.

    • Paul Sellers on 21 January 2020 at 8:24 pm

      You got me there!I know exactly the stuff you speak of. I have seen table legs made of a combination of the stuff with pressed fibre board to receive the thread bolts for fixing said legs tabletop.

      • Gordon on 22 January 2020 at 12:17 pm

        Re Steve P’s comment about the IKEA torsion box construction; having “hacked” a few bits of IKEA furniture I’m actually quite impressed with the engineering that goes into their products. Don’t get me wrong; I know they’re not heirloom pieces, but that torsion box system means they can create products that serve their intended purpose, whilst using a smaller volume of materials, and shipping less weight (both reducing environmental impact).

        Note that you can plane and glue in a piece of wood to “fill” the hollow in the sandwich and give yourself a usable edge.

        Torsion boxes are a great solution for making strong, light, panels; and don’t have to just be in the realm of IKEA (you can make them yourself).

        • nemo on 22 January 2020 at 3:56 pm

          Torsion boxes and honeycomb-structures are very common in the aircraft industry. Strong, rigid and light-weight. I’ve held stair-treads that were made that way in my hand that weighed as little as styrofoam, i.e. practically nothing, yet could easily hold the weight of several people standing on them. This wasn’t for an aircraft, btw, but a sailing vessel. But furniture made that way for in the living room?… Think I’ll pass….

          My father used to restore old Flemish furniture, from around 1860-1890. All of these pieces were constructed as described by Sylvain. Made with craftsmanship, solid oak filled to the brim with (blind) dovetails and intricate carvings (beds, ‘bruidskasten’ en ‘jachtkasten’), ‘pielemannetjes’ (strips of wood with triangular cutouts, to hold the shelves and still leave them adjustable in height), and a simple bolt & nut mechanism to hold all the side-panels together. Only the very bottom piece, say 1.5m by .45m by 30 cm height, which holds the drawers, can’t be disassembled. Doors, sidewalls and top can be quickly removed leaving a very small package that’s easy to move. So the flat-pack system is far from new, just that IKEA e.a. have pushed that idea to the very limit. But those old pieces of furniture are not comparable to anything IKEA; the only thing they have in common is ability to disassemble and re-assemble. And that last part doesn’t really apply to IKEA, as anyone who has tried to move IKEA furniture can tell. The quality of materials is so low that moving them, either moving house or just to another part of the room, often results in completely broken, unusable furniture. Not so with those old dark-brown heirloom pieces from solid oak, intricately carved and made by old craftsmen using traditional joinery techniques.

          • Larry R. on 29 January 2020 at 4:10 pm

            Not only aircraft use this as Nemo states, but also submarines have corrugated aluminum walls which are light, thick, and strong, holding very heavy objects. The designers must have viewed sailing ships because many items in their quarters fold into the walls giving much more room in a limited space. But it does not compare with the feel of solid wood. A fold down chair/bed/table would make a nice project for a small space.



    • sla on 22 January 2020 at 1:31 pm

      It’s lighter with cardboard …, easier to transport and move, we transported 6 tables in a small car, no problem, easy …, it will weight much more with particle board.

      I was impressed how strong the office tables are, my colleague tried to crush it (he has 120kg), the table resisted very well!

  3. Sylvain on 22 January 2020 at 8:02 am

    My grand parents (born at the end of the XIX th c.) would have some knock-down furniture.
    – beds of course;
    – a pair of wardrobe/seamstress (with a big mirror). Those were done with a base consisting of a low chest with one big drawer; a top with cornice; two side “frame and panel” secured to the base and the top with bed-bolts (wedges on some) ; panels for the back in grooves and of course the doors.
    While not really “flat” pack, one could move those much more easily than a solid piece. Otherwise, they would have been difficult/impossible to pass through staircase and in any case much too heavy.
    Sylvain

    • Paul Sellers on 22 January 2020 at 8:12 am

      I think most Victorian wardrobes were disassemblable and quite cleverly constructed with all manner of simply connections including sliding dovetails and such.

  4. L.Arthur on 22 January 2020 at 2:32 pm

    Interestingly enough, the ‘flat pack’ is not really a new idea. I think it really took hold, at least in the U.S. when a lot of goods began to be shipped all over the country by railroad. You wouldn’t want to pay for empty space in a rail car, so designs starting to at least bend towards efficient packaging. Some designs (my opinion) were compromised in order to maximize shipping space. I’ve seen some ‘workbench’ designs from the late 1800’s, early 1900’s (old catalogs) that we’re awful in terms of usability but made sense in terms of packaging. The industrial revolution really helped to push the concept as well. I doubt they called them ‘flat packs’ but i’m sure the idea was pretty much the same. As many here I’m sure know, you could even order a house ‘kit’ from Sears, delivered by rail. All the parts you needed to build a house.. perhaps the ultimate ‘flat pack’ iof the era.

  5. Anthony on 22 January 2020 at 6:08 pm

    Oh boy, I imagine the trolls will be along shortly with their “purist” rhetoric. Bless you, Paul, for being able to weather those storms.

    I’m looking forward to projects like this. My daughter is always asking for me to build things for her, but she is a renter and probably will be for several more years. Hauling fully assembled furniture with classic joinery up stairs and through narrow doorways is just not possible.

  6. Jay on 22 January 2020 at 8:01 pm

    If heirloom is being passed from generation to generation, then flat-pack does not disqualify a piece. About 45 years ago my uncle, a “finish carpenter” here in the U.S., made a bassinet-sized crib for a niece’s new son. Tall enough to avoid bending over too far when picking up baby, but short enough to be plenty stable, the little crib had casters for easy movement and broke down into five, flat pieces. It was utilitarian–slatted sides with framed plywood panels at the head and foot–but it did the job and did it well. Uncle Frank’s crib was passed among all the cousins for every birth, then to great nieces and nephews as they had children of their own. Over twenty newborns, and more to come, have spent their first six or so weeks in that crib, with each new name and birth date recorded on the underside of the mattress board. That’s a project worth making.

    • Paul Sellers on 22 January 2020 at 8:38 pm

      It is indeed.Did you see the baby cots we built a year ago. Five dismantlable panels as per tradition but so robust I am expecting my great grandchildren, and my great, great, grandchildren and my great, great great grandchildren to use them with each generation saying your great grandad and your great, great grandad and your great, great, great grandad Paul made this.

  7. Wills Kitchen on 23 January 2020 at 6:31 pm

    Mr. Sellers,

    Would you say that the tusk tenon “knock down” furniture method and style are still viable for the more transient population of today? I imagine night stands and such would be good for such a thing. Four or five flat panels travel really well and wedges are dead simple and strong!

    • Paul Sellers on 23 January 2020 at 6:45 pm

      They are but they tended to be unattractive, clunky and heavy too. I doubt many younger ones would want the style.

      • Sanford on 31 January 2020 at 5:47 pm

        I really like the idea of knock down furniture and greatly appreciate Paul’s discussion of such things. I have been looking at a few designs using tusks which can be disassembled. It is true that tusk joinery can be clunky and unattractive as Paul says, but some I have seen strike me as neither clunky nor unattractive. In particular, I have been looking at a bookcase and a bed made in what suggests a Japanese style and some traditional trestle tables all using tusks. If anything, the bookcase I have been looking at seems too light and airy to house the weight of a really serious book collection. A bit of clunk might help there!

        A quick aside in defense of Ikea which got a few kicks above and elsewhere in these, and similar, forums. There are no Ikea stores within hundreds of miles of my home. I have never owned any Ikea stuff and may never have even seen any “in the flesh.” I have no personal stake in Ikea. But I have seen it on the web. And I can say that given my finances through much of my life, having an Ikea store would have improved the quality of my furniture tremendously. Indeed, during at about fifteen years of my life, the cost even of Ikea would have been prohibitive since I prefer food to furniture. (And even at my poorest, I was quite well off compared to the vast majority of folk through almost all of human history.) And when I could finally afford to upgrade my furniture to an Ikea level, I chose other things that were more important to me to spend my limited funds on. It seems to me that the success of Ikea is because their stuff is pretty much what people want given what they can afford. Ikea makes it possible for people of limited means to have decent enough looking and reasonably functional furniture rather than — whatever the stuff was I had for so many years. Their use of flat packing in particular (as well as admittedly short lived materials) is part of what makes their things affordable. No doubt a lot of exposure to Ikea stuff lowers the standards for furniture for a lot of folk so that even people who could afford better might not bother. But so what? Tastes and interests change, though I suppose rich folk will always buy rich folk stuff just because it is rich folk stuff. Sorry for a bit of a harangue here. Just saying.

  8. Larry R. on 29 January 2020 at 4:28 pm

    I’ve been thinking of a coat rack with a seat and boot storage for my entrance way for a while now. Something movable may be better than a built-in. This new project may work out or give me a starting point. Looking forward to the videos.

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