designer frustration

hello all,

i am currently designing furniture in canada and am having difficulty prototyping and manufacturing affordable and reliable furniture through local contractors. i am currently deciding if i should get my own studio/shop to reduce my prototyping costs and price points.

i am frustrated with paying the exorbitant contractor fees especially when only prototyping. is anyone in the process of starting their own shop? is it cost feasible for a 1 year old design firm to drop that much money into a studio just to prototype?

any advice or suggestions you can provide would be greatly appreciated.

I suppose it depends on what materials you want to build your prototypes from. A small woodworking shop could be set up relatively cheaply i think, as would composites. Metals will more than likely require more equipment - equipment that costs much more than wood/composite equipment - and a larger space to house it all. CNC machines and stereolith are the ultimate tools to have on hand for prototyping, but generally out of question for small firms because of the costs.

Personally, I like to have a hand in building prototypes as I can see any problems and make changes as the peice is being built. Its much more difficult - and much more costly - to find the problems and make corrections after paying someone else to build your prototype as you well know.

I would do a lot of research on exactly what it would cost to get a workshop up and running, including any skilled laborers that may need to be hired, and compare it to what you are spending on outside prototyping to see if it will be cost effective over a long period of time… I do think it is feasable, but it all depends on how many prototypes are being built and what kind of investment your firm can make on the shop.


I’m in Canada too, TO specifically and have recently started a freelance career with a view to producing some of my own products (small scale, relatively cheap to manufacture items) so it’s interesting to hear you talk about this.

I guess for prototyping it would be easier and part of the design process to do as much for yourself as you can…but when you’re finalising the design it would be good to get a professional manufacturer to do it for you. Obviously getting one-offs done is not in many peoples interests at the start but could you entice them by offering a percentage of any future work you sell ?
Maybe they will give you a better deal on the prototype if you were to reward them further down the line.
Where abouts are you ?..maybe we could share manufacturers names if you’re in the TO area.

I guess it really depends on what types of things you are wanting to produce. For prototypes you can just be creative and try different materials that are easy to get and cheap.

I know that one of my co-workers in the studio where I work is really into making things from concrete and has found really creative ways to make it lighter and easier to use. The really cool thing is that because he is doing things in really small quantities he can often get suppliers to give him freebies because what he needs for a prototype is like 99.9% less than a typical industrial order. You can get really cool things like composites, ceramics, etc that can be mixed and blended with other materials with great results.

The big thing is to just experiment and see what you can come up with. I know several people who have gone that route without investing in equipment and they have received all kinds of awards as a result. You might also want to look into things like natural plastics and things that can be made from paper products, starches, and natural fibers. You can find some really good green design resources out there that offer recipes for those kinds of things.

On the otherhand if you are looking for machinery you can always try to buy a few smaller pieces. I know a woodworker who uses Grizzly Industrial tools and loves them. I remember him telling me that they were fairly cheap and they have a good selection, maybe even a catalog. If you really want to be crazy build your own. I knew a guy who built a drill press using a car transmission, remember…the best tool you have is in your head.

Are you in Vancouver? Maybe I can help with alternative sources or actual work.

I’ve also been thinking of breaking out on my own, and your start-up issues are very interesting for that reason. But, the fear of bankruptcy and poverty has me firmly planted in my 9-5.


thanks for all your replies. where to begin?

i’m in edmonton, alberta. although the market isn’t as lucrative for the type of furniture i design, i’ve made many contacts with contractors here and they often comp me for some small scale work (i’m assuming out of pity).

i’ve tried the different materials route and the prices are ridiculous: $8000+ for fibreglass plugs are a little steep. i think, given my environment, woodworking is the most cost feasible solution.

i’ve also tried the future work rewards idea and most shops scoff at it because they already have steady contractural work. they want it on paper that there is a demand for my designs before committing shop time. i can’t show and sell my designs until i lower my price-points through batch production. but i’m sure thats the brutal catch-22 you’ve all encountered.

i am currently in negotiations with an asian businessman who runs his own furniture manufacturing company in china and from what i’ve gathered, plagiarism there is rampant. part of his job requires him to travel to european trade shows to collect catalogues so he can produce slightly different pieces back home. quite a discouraging fact about the future of design. you’re probably wondering why i haven’t bolted yet, but i’m designing furniture for a line of furniture that is not similar to mine, so i’m not that concerned. am i a sellout because of that? quite possibly.

that said, i think i’ve tried most of my choices and am more inclined to the studio/shop idea than ever before. i’ve been talking to some of my smaller contractors and they’ve said $10,000 is enough for a nicely equipped woodworking shop. i would still require to outsource metal fabrication and CNCing, but finishing and small scale work can be done inhouse. i think it would be worth hiring a person for $10-12/hr rather than getting jacked at $50-60/hr. like you said, ensen, its the fear that is my ultimate concern.

with great risks come great achievements.

With all due respect, it sounds like your views of what is reasonable to pay for professional services is very naive. $50 - $60 per hour is not a lot to pay for good quality services. $10 - $12 per hour is an entry level pay scale and you will get entry level quality work (not to mention a lot of turnover if you believe that is proper pay for expert work).

Producing a product requires an investment. If your product isn’t capable of recouping the NRE through volume and/or margins, you need to rethink your business plan. You do have a business plan, right?

On the other hand getting someone from ACAD (alberta college of art and design) that’s in their last year/second to last and with good shop skills to help out. and Providing them with a reference AND 12$/hr seems somehow reasonable. (as an afterschool job goes, they’re probably fliping burgers for 8$/hr anyway, so 12$ would be better)

I’ve seen some small scale band saws , drill presses and beld sanders at a local pawn-shop. (yeah i know, i wasn’t expecting to see them either… but i was pleasently surprised) 100$ a machine seemed too good to pass up, but I just don’t have space for them. Needless to say they were gone within a week. Moral of the story… SHOP AROUND. perhaps someone’s upgrading their shop.

Make sure to consult with your accountant before making purchases, since you can return taxes, write them off as amortisation and such.
Good luck.
also SHOP AROUND machine shops, there’s bound to be someone just starting up who needs some of your business as much as you need some of their services.


yeah it’s naive to think that you can make a shop and design rightaway. payments and business plan aside you need to develop some sort of a method to work your way through each design. even professionals have a hard time doing it because it’s not just running the wood through some equipment but you need to be able to fabricate identical parts with good precision. you have to set up for each process and that requires expertise.

it’s not advisable to create a shop unless you know what you’re doing. i suggest you first create a piece by going to those manufacturers who make the wood working machines and ask them through a simple demonstation to create a part for you with what they got. if you see that it’s exactly what you want then buy the equipment, this way you see the process for yourself and save time and money. don’t be surprised if most of them decline to accomodate and send you over to someone else.

not all equipment are the same. it might be a good idea to hire some specialist who knows how to work with wood to accompany you on your field trip.

i am currently reworking my business plan to be structured towards obtaining shop space. i disagree with your statement because the contractors i use pays his guys minimum wage and charges me the shop rate for prototyping and fabrication. knowing this, how is it naive that i would like to eliminate the middleman? more often than not, the expert working at higher rates is doing his bread and butter work while assigning one-off commissions like mine to his entry level employees. i do not doubt their quality otherwise i would have gone elsewhere.

my previous post indicates that i would be using this entry level person to do small scale work and finishing. surely, recent trades grads are capable of doing that with some efficiency. i have no problem paying people what they are qualified for, but what i was saying was those rates for prototyping alone are enough to discourage anyone wanting to introduce a new product. outsourcing, like i mentioned, is still something i would have to do and have no problem paying the appropriate prices for.

so, by helping reduce my costs, am i not giving myself a better chance to recoup my net return?

hey- take it easy!

i know you’re trying to reduce the cost but i don’t believe minimum wage people can do quality furniture work. i have seen low wage immigrant workers doing woodwork but they were making these cheap paintover furniture and kitchen cabs that’s sold to low income people or fitted into cheaply furnished low rent apartments.

maybe they can cut sheets on a table saw or the preliminary stage wood cutting but that’s about it. i disagree entry level can do professional work. they must’ve given you the wrong info.

i don’t know about canada but in US to hire a pro carpenter for doing furniture you have to pay him a salary otherwise they charge you like doctors and lawyers. amatuers are useless. they have no clue where to start.

your best bet is to hire a pro and find him an assistant which will run you bet. 60-80k for both if you get lucky. of course that’s in US in a place like los angeles. in canada it should most likely be cheaper.

I think you should learn how to do a lot of it yourself. It will teach you more about the materials than you know and maybe even result in some tweaks and improvements. For instance, wood has a grain structure that can affect dimensional stability over time. Besides, if you engineer the basic structure well, it will not need a master carpenter to make. This is why so many manufactured things only require unskilled labour to produce.


maybe he should go to the woods and cut his own tree as well. that’s easy too. get a minimum wage guy and a chain saw.

no need to be crude.

ufo, not once did i mention minimum wage. i have been using $10-12 all along. the minimum wage for alberta, canada is $5.90/hr. you are arguing the wrong issue here.

must you equate minimum wage with low quality? please explain how chinese manufacturers are able to bring in below-minimum-wage-created furniture and be sold in large name furniture retailers? these stores do not target low income people or low rent apartments. quite the contrary, actually. i do not advocate this, but its more pervasive in the industry than we’d like to believe.

i worked as an upholsterer last year to gain more knowledge of the industry for $9/hr with a total of 1 month experience. my employer billed me out for five times that amount and his customers never complained.

you suggest hiring a professional at salary. in the long run, how is this going to benefit the designer from learning everything he/she needs to know to succeed in the game? sure, you’ll get a quality product the first time around, but your experience and therefore knowledge is limited to the ones you pay.

first off, in bay area where i live the min wage is something like 8-10.

in and out burger hires for 8.99 an hour starting.

china is a different story. they have all types of factories, personnel, working quality, etc. a good factory in china has well trained staff. even if they don’t they hire quality control management depending on the work they do. if you want to do the same in canada it’s virtually impossible because US and Canada have a totally different concept and approach to manufacturing. chines labor is cheap, that’s why it’s an illusion to think they’re not well trained.

i didn’t say anything different from you. 9/hr is 72/day is almost 20k not including insurance, maintenance, vacation, etc per year.
and if you hire at least two of these guys it’s gonna be 40k. in US minimum for woodwork is 12/hr that’s a %25 difference which will make it 50k and adding other bills will come to 60k!