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Custom woodworking is a broad term that describes any kind of woodwork created for a specific end user or use. Furniture and built-in cabinetry can be custom-built, and a wide variety of wooden boxes and accessories also qualify as custom woodworking. Many artists also sculpt in wood, and their art is also properly considered custom-made. Furniture and cabinetry, which are manufactured in bulk to generic specifications, on the other hand, are not considered custom woodworking.
Amateur woodworkers in home workshops the world over are the source of a great deal of custom woodworking, because everything they turn out is custom-made, even if made according to a generic plan. Likewise, the individual pieces turned out by professional woodworkers to specifications provided by clients are also considered custom woodwork. This extends to new construction and renovation — if a shop or an individual produces woodwork according to specification provided by a client, whether a private individual or a construction contractor, it’s considered custom woodworking. If, on the other hand, the shelving, cabinetry or furniture is purchased off the showroom floor, no matter how costly it might be, it’s not custom woodworking.
In earlier days, all woodwork was custom-made. Cabinets, bureaus, tables and beds all were made-to-order by skilled craftsmen or by amateur householders. With the advent of the industrial revolution, some manufacturers engaged in the mass production of furniture and other woodwork. Larger pieces like bureaus and wardrobes were difficult to mass-produce economically, though, because the nature of the finished product is that it’s fully assembled, which makes distribution more costly.
A significant development in the furniture industry took place in the middle of the 20th century, when some manufacturers instituted the practice of flat packing of furniture parts in cartons. Purchasers would bring the cartons home or have them delivered and assemble the furniture themselves according to written instructions provided by the manufacturers. This dramatically reduced the cost of shipping and accelerated the popularity of mass-produced woodwork.
Another reason for the increased popularity of mass-produced furniture was the invention of particleboard, a wood substitute made of wood chips and sawdust bound together by an adhesive. Particle board, also called chipboard or press-board in some parts of the world, is often covered with veneer and used to manufacture furniture, cabinetry and shelving. The use of particleboard, coupled with flat-packing, reduced costs significantly and widened the market appeal of mass-produced furniture.
The increasing manufacture of mass-produced furniture has decreased the market for custom woodworking, but not eliminated it. For example, while there’s a large market in mass-produced cabinetry and shelving for new construction, irregular dimensions or shapes in some new houses usually require custom-built shelves and cabinets. In addition, many people dislike particleboard and the furniture made from it and can afford either to buy or to make their own custom-built wooden pieces.