We recently launched a limited run of custom dining tables, designed by I+A and customised by Luxuries, a local and well established timber fabricators who heavily use digital fabrication tools. As a follow-up we met with Adrian Caruana, Managing Director of Luxuries, to discuss the furniture made in this day and age, and how it compares to old school furniture making.
Given that furniture is predominantly made from wood, what timber is commonly used in furniture today?
One needs to first understand that different timbers are used for different intents and purposes. Timber can be grouped under two main types: pre-finished timbers and raw timbers.
Prefinished timbers are materials made from timber whose final finish is determined and complete by the manufacturer, and which require the design of the furniture to be based on the material not the other way around. Examples of prefinished timbers include laminate-faced chipboards, HPL (High Pressure Laminates). These kinds of timber are also only available in sheets of predetermined dimensions, and with no customisation possible.
Raw timbers are materials which still require the final finishing and come in the form of either solid timber planks and trunks from the natural tree or veneers. To clarify, veneers are thin sheets of shavings taken from tree trunks, which are then applied to boards or sheets. While in the case of veneers, shaping is limited to the dimensions of the veneer sheet and board, solid timber planks and trunks are only limited by the tree trunk dimensions, and can be shaped to any shape possible within the limitations of the available machinery. These timbers can then be finished using stains, clear finishes and solid colours, and the result is highly dependent on the designers’ and carpenters’ specifications and skill.
While both prefinished and raw timbers are commonly used, prefinished laminates tend to be used for cost-sensitive applications whilst raw timbers tend to be the option for projects with more flexible budgets.
What are the main differences in timber quality?
Previously we mentioned that prefinished timbers have the tendency to be used for more budget friendly applications. This is true in consideration of the mentality in Malta, however the use of prefinished timbers are also used for very high quality and high performance applications in other countries. We must not forget that prefinished timbers are engineered timbers, designed according to their intended application, and are also in their majority environmentally friendly as the wood chips come from recycled timbers. In this regard, comparing between prefinished and raw timbers as one being inferior to the other is only a popular misconception.
Prefinished timbers are dependent on how well a manufacturer specifies the various components and how rigorous their processes are. Taking chipboards as an example, the final quality depends on the density and consistency of the board/sheet composition. Inferior sheets usually suffer from breakages at weak points due to varying densities and consistencies; their laminate layers may also vary in quality: while some may be thick and resistant, some may simply be a very thin layer which easily breaks under light wear. In cases where the recycling process is inferior, some sheets would include bits of glass, metal or concrete. For us this is detrimental as while working with such sheets, our machines can be easily damaged when encountering materials other than timber, simply because our machinery is not designed for any material other than timber. The best way to source high quality prefinished timbers is to only procure material from reputable manufacturers.
When it comes to raw timber a choice needs to be made. The choice is between three cost tiers, low cost, mid-cost and high-cost timbers. Low-cost timbers include woods such as Tulip and Beech. Such timbers are commonly stocked, even in Malta and which are usually sourced from sustainable forests. In mid-range timbers, it is mostly a regional issue which determines cost and availability; whilst Oak is commonly available in the UK, in Malta, although it is a popular timber, it is still not the cheapest to source.
On the top end of the spectrum we have speciality and rare species of timber, such as Rosewood, Purple Heart, Iroko, Teak and Walnut to name a few. These timbers are highly sought after for luxury applications such as for yachts, luxury hotels and luxury cars because of their beauty and exclusivity; high-end timbers, such as Iroko and teak are also sought after because of their durability. The final quality is entirely dependent on choosing the right timber for the intended purposes and on the skills and ability of the carpenter to understand and craft the raw wood into the specified final furniture piece.
What other factors affect quality of furniture?
We must not forget the ironmongery and fittings which hold the furniture’s timber together. Like the choice of timber, it is very important that sourcing of the ironmongery and fittings is done through reputable brands who commit to research and quality control. The reality is that avantgarde brands tend to offer more than just basic functionality.
One very particular example is the cabinet door panel hinges. There are many intricacies which affect their quality, such as the thickness of material used, the hinge’s design load; specifically even the way the soft-closing mechanism is designed can indicate quality. Soft-closing mechanisms use hydraulic pistons; hinges which have metal pistons tend to corrode in environments in Malta, so the choice would be to have plastic pistons which are self lubricating and which would also offer the option to set the speed at which the mechanism works.
However, I cannot stress enough the importance of good design and craftsmanship to achieve high-quality furniture. Although as carpenters we are frequently asked to assist the client to design their custom furniture or to replicate furniture from photo-references, we find that when we work with designers who are conscious about the fabrication process, material characteristics as well as are able to understand the client’s needs and visual preferences, the final product is more satisfactory for both us as carpenters and the client, as there is guidance.
How do you compare today’s manufacturing methods with the ones of 20 years ago? And do you think that it had an effect on the quality of furniture designs?
The basic skill and craftsmanship of understanding the timber and how it wants to be worked has not changed. What has changed however is that digital fabrication machinery (such as flat-bed CNC machines) is now mainstream. The use of digital fabrication machinery allows for computer aided manufacturing and design, and as a result we have processes which are 10 times quicker and which are very precise and accurate!
I do not believe new fabrication methods are at fault for any loss of design quality because digital fabrication can do whatever a carpenter can manually do and more. If 20 years ago CNC machines and certain ironmongery fittings were so easily available as today, they would have been used then; since technology and client demands have evolved, the carpenter’s craft had to also follow suit.
I cannot imagine making and selling a sculptural ornament nowadays, because there is no demand for it. However if one had to, multi-axis CNC machines are available to carve whatever digital 3D model, with precision and faster than ever before. Not only has machinery not stopped us from doing what was done in the past, it has made the life of carpenters easier with increased efficiency and precision.
I strongly believe that contemporary designs are a result of the evolution of the client’s demands and ideologies, as well as the changes in technologies. In these last 20 years we observed a change in the functionality and requirement of furniture; where before it was not unheard of to make a wall unit to fit in your large sound speakers and your large CRT TV, nowadays, we have wall mountable digital TV screens and sleek sound bars which require no particular furniture requirements.