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Creating Custom Furniture: An Interview with Owain Harris of O.H. Harris Cabinetmaker

By Owain Harris

Tell us a little bit about your company and its foundation.

My career in wood started 15 years ago on a framing crew pounding nails and carrying lumber. From there I spent time on a finish carpentry crew, and working for a remodeling contractor before co-founding Co-Operative Construction. It was while running that business that I set up my first shop in an unheated barn in Barrington, NH and began building cabinets and furniture. I was immediately hooked and knew it was what I wanted to do.

Although I have never received formal training, I have been lucky enough to work alongside some very accomplished craftsmen and have striven to gain as much as I can from their mentoring. I also continue to pursue my own education through workshops, seminars, reading, and many hours in the shop.

I currently share shop space in a 12,000 square foot facility in Deerfield NH, overlooking Pawtuckaway state park. It is quite a step-up from the unheated barn in Barrington and is fully equipped and ready for any size project.

What are some important questions the client should ask you before the process?

I'm not so sure that there are specific questions that need to be asked by the client but it does make sense for them to get an idea of how well we can work together. Depending on the size of the project, we may be collaborating for months on a special piece so it only makes sense to ensure that it is the right relationship fit. That's why I feel that a face to face meeting at the beginning of the process is so important.

It also makes sense to me for the client to spend some time familiarizing themselves with the work that the maker they are considering hiring has already completed, to make sure that their aesthetic styles are simpatico.

If you could, please list the steps of the general furniture design and making process:

Commissioning your piece of custom furniture starts with an initial series of conversations by phone or email to get a sense of the scope of the project, followed by an in-person consultation. My preference is always to meet with the client in their home to get a real feeling for the space the piece will occupy and to see what other design influences are in play.

Next I will create a few rough sketches to establish dimensions and the overall look and feel of the piece. Once we have agreed on the basics of the project and determined what the budget will be, I will ask for a financial commitment before continuing on with the final design work.

Now the real fun can begin! After careful selection of all the necessary materials, I will commence with the fabrication of the piece. I usually invite clients to visit the workshop during this phase so that they can see the progress and to work out any final details.

The last part of the process is to apply a quality finish to enhance the natural beauty of the wood and to ensure it's protection and long life.

How do you suggest clients prepare for this process?

I recommend that people begin looking at furniture and other architectural elements in books, magazines and online. Websites like Houzz and Pinterest are fantastic resources for design research. The better understanding a client has going into the process of what inspires them, the less time it will take to find the right design for them.

I also recommend that they have thought about what their budget will be, as it is often one of the earliest questions that I will ask. Because the range of design options for any given project is so vast, the biggest factor in many of the choices that need to be made will be cost.

What are some common issues you face when it comes to designing furniture?

I often find that part of my job is to educate prospective clients as to the differences between a piece of hand-made custom furniture and something that is mass produced. Although I take advantage of many modern machines and materials, a visitor from an eighteenth century wood-shop would still recognize many of the tools and techniques that I use. And just as many furniture masterpieces of his century are still in use today, I strive to build heirlooms that will last for another 300 years. Of course, this takes time, and time is money as the old saying goes.

What's the best way for people to get in contact with you?

Either a phone call or an email is a great way to reach out and get the ball rolling. I find that as the project progresses, I prefer to communicate via email, so that we can quickly exchange photos, sketches and other ideas. It also provides a written record of the process that can be prove invaluable as a reference later on.

Owain Harris
63 Nottingham Rd
Deerfield NH, 03037
tel: (603)781-1315

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