An expertly carved arm, a bench that’s just the right height and length, a table with room enough for your whole family. All of these are the benefits of furniture handcrafted just for you.

Working with an artisan to create a piece of furniture can be intimidating, because it is probably not something you do every day. Starting from scratch on a piece might feel more complicated than just buying ready-made items on display in a furniture store. (Although it could be just that simple, depending on how much stock the handcrafter has to sell.) And, you may be concerned that handcrafted furniture will cost far more than mass-produced furnishings.

Buying handcrafted furniture doesn’t have to be difficult or budget-busting. This primer aims to walk you through the basics.

Getting Started

Obviously, if you’re considering a log or timber home, you’re looking for something a bit out of the ordinary. You want a home that’s not like everyone else’s. The same desire for distinction may draw you to a furniture maker. “The uniqueness of the piece is something that isn’t available in production furniture,” says Gabriel Romeu, furniture maker and president of the Furniture Society. “It will be something that suits your needs and purposes.”

Will it cost more than mass-produced pieces? That depends, Gabriel says. There are manufactured pieces on the market that are high-priced, too, but you usually get more for the money with handcrafted pieces, he says. “In most cases, it is better-made furniture that can be handed down.”

You Be the Judge

If the idea of furniture made just for you, high-quality construction, artistic vision and butter-soft finishes appeals to you, you may be in the market for handcrafted furniture. But how can you tell if a piece is well-made? “The three principal considerations for good handcrafted furniture are that it is aesthetically attractive and well-designed, that it is very durable (should last a lifetime), and that it is comfortable,” says Mario Costantini of La Lune Collection, a rustic furniture maker in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. “With regards to these three qualities, there are great variations from company to company.”

Taking a good look at the company is important, agrees Matt Sheridan of New West, a furniture maker in Cody, Wyoming. “Look for a manufacturer that has been in business for a significant amount of time,” Matt says. “The companies that offer the best customer service, build the highest quality of furniture, and offer the best value have stood the test of time.”

Mario suggests taking a close look at the furniture from every angle. “I often like to look at the bottoms or backs of pieces of furniture to see how they have been finished, what materials were used in their construction and the quality of the workmanship demonstrated,” he says. “Better-quality components, such as cushion filling, can also make a big difference in comfort and longevity, but again may not be visible to the customer.”

Style and Substance

Laying eyes on a beautiful piece of handmade furniture is one thing; laying your hands on it is another. “The finish should be very smooth. It should lure you into the piece,” explains Ed Clifford of the Heartwood Joinery in Callicoon, New York. Ed’s shop crafts custom furniture and historic furniture reproductions. The high-gloss finish found on some mass-produced furniture hides the craftsmanship (or lack thereof), Ed says. “The finish should complement the grain and color of the wood.”

High-quality furniture makers go through rounds of labor-intensive sanding and scraping to smooth wood surfaces. Varnishes may be applied by hand with a brush, instead of being sprayed on. And, careful craftsmen pay attention to the wood grain. “Grains should match,” Ed says. “A wild grain next to a straight grain will just grab your eye. There should be a balance.”

Of course, a good piece of furniture has to work for you, too. “You want furniture that is not only beautiful but is also functional,” Matt advises. “A chair maybe amazing to look at, but is it also comfortable to sit in?”

Part of the function of good furniture is its durability. Mario suggests a list of questions that will help you gauge a piece’s probable lifespan. “A customer can also ask the seller other relevant questions such as what type of wood is used, whether the wood is kiln-dried, how the joints are made and what type of fill is used in the cushions,” he says.

The bottom line is that the crafter should build high-quality pieces and be willing to stand behind them. “The reputation of a company and the guarantee that a company provides can be good indicators of the quality of that company’s furniture,” Mario says.

By Commission

Furniture makers will typically provide a portfolio of pieces they have created for other clients. You might choose to have something similar built for you, or you may prefer to commission something unique. Communication and the ability of the maker to understand your preferences will be very important as you design the piece. “Pick a company that lets you build your very own custom piece of furniture,” Matt Sheridan says. “The furniture costs a significant amount of money and will be something you have for a very long time, so make sure it’s exactly what you want.” He suggests looking for a furniture maker who will give you the choice of wood species, stain color, upholstery and custom sizes.

Just as important may be the furniture maker’s approach to customer service. “Is the company owner available for questions?” Matt says. “Does the company get back to you in a timely manner?”

The next step is launching your search for furniture makers. Collecting recommendations from friends, local designers, gallery owners or your builder is a good way to start. You may also look for names in your local phone book.

Plenty of furniture makers maintain web sites that show their work. Use the Furniture Society’s web site as a jumping-off point (www.furnituresociety.org).  Making a furniture purchase sight-unseen can be unsettling. “You can buy over the internet,” Gabriel Romeu says, “but the interaction with the object is very important.”

Ed Clifford agrees. “It’s better to go to a showroom,” he says. If you fall for the work of a craftsperson who is far afield, you could test his or her work by purchasing a “small” online, Ed suggests. Once you have the maker’s box, small table or other piece in hand, “you can generally judge the craftsmanship by looking at the quality of the construction,” he says. If a smaller piece looks great, you’ll be more comfortable ordering a large custom piece.

Another enjoyable way to see handcrafted furniture up close is to attend a furniture show. Each year, a handful of shows held around the country bring hundreds of furniture makers together, giving you the opportunity for a close look at what just might become your family’s next prized heirlooms.