A few weeks back I got a call from one of my longtime clients. He had recently picked up some IKEA furniture and wanted me, a Denver-area carpenter, to do the assembly for him. With 30-plus years of custom furniture building experience, both in design and build-from-scratch, I said yes. Building from a box is pretty simple, and I have always admired the detailed engineering of some IKEA products.

Engineering and design

When it comes to engineering and design, IKEA is indeed a leader. They offer a wide selection of modern designs, and the ease of assembly makes the time pass quickly. Unlike the furniture I build, most IKEA products come completely unassembled and require the owner to spend a bit of time reviewing the instruction manual and familiarizing themselves with a multitude of parts. These parts are a mix of panels, braces and knock-down specific hardware. The geek in me sees the complex intricacies of this collection of parts magically transform into a useable and workable piece of furniture. I am also surprised by the efficiency of the packaging. I look at a small, dense and heavy box and wonder how a full sized bookcase “fits” in there.

Once all of the parts are laid out and the build sequence is established, the project goes together quite smoothly. The precision of the machining is top notch and everything fits perfectly. This is a lot different from some of my native edge furniture, where Mother Nature exerts her own style and I work with the curves and bends of real wood.

But then there is all that particle board ...

That furniture I built for this client consisted of two “Billy” bookcases in white and a “Besta” TV stand. The materials in these pieces ranged from wimpy cardstock to slightly better particle board with thermofoil “wood grain.” The only real wood in the entire set was a few dowel rods used in the assembly. To me, particle board and cardboard are not acceptable building materials. The furniture I build is nearly all solid wood. IKEA does offer some products made from real wood, and when these more premium materials are used with their fine engineering, the end product is nice. Obviously finer materials mean increased cost. The Billy bookcases I built sell for a whopping $60 and this price reflects the raw materials, the machining and packaging of these materials and then the transport of these kits from the Far East. 

Locally sourced vs. imported wood

There is some economy of scale here. IKEA is the third largest consumer of wood globally, and since the bulk of their furniture is particle-board based, a lot of this is waste wood. One of their marketing strategies is to be perceived as a green company with lots of practices that show responsible harvesting and labor practices for manufacturing workers. etc. Their own “Iway” code of conduct document is an 18-page document that details what practices are allowed. When I reviewed this document I noticed many references to “local” regulations, since the bulk of their manufacturing is located in overseas facilities.

There is also a lot of controversy over their logging operations. This is one area where I have a distinct advantage with most of my furniture. Not only do I source locally, which greatly reduces my products carbon footprint. I’m on a first name basis with my sawyer and know exactly where my lumber was harvested.

What is your read on IKEA? Let's dicuss.

Kevin Stevens originally wrote this story for Networx.com. It is reprinted with permission here.

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The pros and cons of IKEA furniture
A carpenter can appreciate the Swedish cult favorite's designs and ingenious flat packaging of its products. But all that particle board? Not so much.