How to Buy Custom Furniture Without Going Bankrupt

When I needed a dining table and couldn’t find one that suited my needs, I took matters into my own hands.

If you are a regular person with a regular income looking for a piece of furniture, buying something custom-made may not be your first thought. It feels expensive, right? And out of reach. I thought so, too. That is, until I found myself in need of a table with very specific dimensions, and simply couldn’t find anything anywhere else.

My boyfriend Josh and I were searching for a dining table for our new apartment. Excited to host dinners, parties and game nights in the largest space either of us had ever had in New York City, we were looking for something big.

Because buying something new was completely out of our price range, the logical first stop on our quest to find the right table was to try to buy something secondhand. We started with the classics—Facebook Marketplace, Craigslist and Kaiyo—but after weeks of looking we found that there were very few local options that met our size requirements. Price-wise, going secondhand was the more economical option—but even bumping our range from $400 to $1,000 yielded results that weren’t quite right. Buying a table, even second hand, was starting to feel impossible.

Frustrated and slightly disheartened by our search, it was clear that we needed to take matters into our own hands.

Okay, what if we build a table?

A great thing about dating a handy person is that DIY projects become actually doable. Because of Josh’s skills, our table conversations pivoted to "what could we feasibly build in the apartment?"

For inspiration, we turned to Enzo Mari, an Italian artist and furniture designer who published a book of easy-to-build furniture designs using simple materials. His designs were meant to be functional and low cost, lowering the barrier to entry for a nice piece of furniture. Mari’s utilitarian style and general ideology really resonated with us. And because his designs were meant to be built by whoever wanted them, we didn’t feel like we were ripping something off.

Referencing this Enzo Mari design with extremely sick legs, we decided to use an entire 8 by 4-foot sheet of plywood as the table top. This kept things simple. No cuts! This table could, in theory, be built inside our apartment… but should we actually do that? It would take at least two dedicated weekends to complete. I didn’t love the idea of our dining room becoming an ongoing construction zone. And honestly, I wasn’t super into putting in multiple days of "wood work" either.

What if someone built this thing for us?

I've been following an independent fabrication studio called Skilset on Instagram for quite some time. They frequently host open studio days on weekends, so we walked over to their shop at the Brooklyn Navy Yard one Saturday to take a look at their work in person. The studio is full of all kinds of furniture and mirrors, made mostly with repurposed materials.

On the phone a few weeks later, Andy Tyson, Skilset’s founder, told me they first started out building for themselves and their friends, and that network later expanded to friends of friends. Eventually they were getting requests via Instagram, but he stressed that they won’t just take any commission. "It’s more about finding the right people," Tyson said. "If someone comes to us with a good idea, if they’re local, if they understand what we do and it’s an interesting project, we definitely go for it."

Skilset’s ideal customer knows what they want, has a clear budget and is okay with (and even excited about) a piece made from mismatched plywood leftover from other projects or sourced from around New York City.

And don’t expect them to rip off the fancy designer table you can’t afford. As Tyson put it: "Someone who wants something that costs $5,000 for $500, that’s an automatic no."

Josh and I loved what we saw during our visit to Skilset’s studio. All of the pieces had some quirkiness or color. There were stools, chairs and side tables with fun laminate tops, an unexpected paint color and—my favorite—a neon yellow wash that almost looked like highlighter.

We got home and drafted an email requesting a quote for our table idea. Because we didn’t see ourselves as "commission custom furniture kind of people," this felt weirdly scary. How much would this cost? How complicated would it be? We thought it over some more, then Josh prepped the design for the table and sent it out.

We got a brief reply and a two week turnaround time from Andy Tyson within minutes. It’s funny and slightly embarrassing to compare the speed of his reply and the length of his email to the novel we sent him. (Andy, if you’re reading this…I’m sorry!)

Looking back at it now, I think (psychologically) it felt almost too quick for us. Too real, too fast, and a bit more than we were originally looking to spend. We thanked him and told him we’d think about it. We were in the process of planning a big trip to Spain and got spooked by the cost, even though he gave us a great price for a custom-built, massive table.

Days into our vacation we got our heads on straight and decided to get the table as soon as we returned. After some back and forth with Andy we opted for recycled materials, which meant that the table cost $800—a reasonable price for an enormous piece of furniture designed to our exact specifications. Not only is it the more sustainable option, but we wanted this table to get beaten up by dinner parties and game nights. I didn’t want to stress out over something that was pristine and brand new.

Getting the table without injury

Two weeks later, Andy emailed us photos of the finished product and we got so excited. I wanted to pick it up immediately but our go-to local furniture transport service, Stoober, was booked that day and there was no way we were going to be able to get this thing into my tiny Honda Fit.

Skilset’s studio is a few blocks away from our apartment. What if we just walked over with a dolly? Josh insisted that the two pieces that comprised the table would "not be that heavy." Plywood is light, he said. I was skeptical because I do not like strenuous physical activity, especially on hot summer days.

Looks easy, right? It sort of was...

Looks easy, right? It sort of was...

My desire to get the table  was overpowering, so we looked in our building’s storage room and found a dolly with a flat tire and rolled that baby over to the Navy Yard. "We’re walking over to get it," I emailed Andy, who probably thought we were insane. He told us where it was and how to get into the service elevator and we were on our way.

I had a choice of carrying the base (which was very light) or wheeling the flat-tire dolly with the 8x4 foot table top. I opted for the base. This is a safe space so I’ll be honest: I complained the entire time. We had to carry both pieces up three flights to our apartment. A kind neighbor held the stairwell door open for us as we carried in our respective table pieces. Steps from our front door I popped a button on my overalls. No tears were shed, but I was close.

Building the table

There she is.

There she is.

We opened our door and shooed away our very excited dog so we could lay this thing on the ground and assemble it. The folks at Skilset had partially drilled in some screws to the base, we just had to line everything up and drill them in all the way. It took a few tries, but we got them all in and carefully flipped it over.

After stepping back and taking it all in, we immediately launched into styling it with some vintage beaded floral stems we got upstate, a Dusen Dusen pepper grinder, an Ichendorf Milano olive oil bottle, and Susan Alexandra napkins as placemats. A month later, the table has been bumped, scuffed and suffered some minor but colorful wax drips, and we love it!

We love it!

We love it!

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Top photo via Seksan Mongkhonkhamsao/Getty Images

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