Versatility Governs Profitability

A San Francisco furniture maker comes out on top using his ingenuity to roll with the economic punches. 

By Lisa Whitcomb

Custom Furniture Design

San Francisco, CA


Year Founded: 1979

Employees: 10 full-time

Shop Size: 7,500 square feet, includes shop, office and showroom spaces.

FYI: Owner Thomas Fetherston will be a guest panelist at the 2003 AWFS seminar “Marketing for Fine Furniture Makers” on Sunday August 3 from 9 a.m. to 11 a.m.


After spending five years as an apprentice learning the craft of antique furniture restoration, furniture designer Thomas Fetherston moved from the New York area to San Francisco in 1978. His dream was to become a custom furniture maker, and in 1979 Fetherston opened Custom Furniture Design.

He established his shop in the design district and gained recognition quickly amongst top interior designers and architects. During its 25 years in business the shop has grown exponentially. However, in recent years growth has been noticeably slower because of the soft market. Fetherston was quick to realize that in this economy having the ability to handle economic adversity may matter more than having an innovative product or key opportunity. So, without much ado, he decided to take his business to the next level, Internet marketing.

Fetherston set a Web site up about three years ago with the intention of building it as an artisans’ guild to feature not only his furniture, but that of other designers and wood craftsmen across the United States who may not have the time, budget or know-how to peddle their wares online. “We are now selling all over the country,” Fetherston says. “It has been a great promotional tool for our work. When I decided to establish the shop on the internet and market its work, I didn’t just want to be another woodworking Web site. So I started a modern day guild.”

Custom Furniture Designs’ Web site can be accessed by two different addresses and found on every search engine. “Positioning yourself on search engines so that your site comes up as a first choice is really a science,” he says. Fetherston delves deeper into the science of marketing and Web presence in an article he wrote for the Furniture Society, which can be accessed at He will also discuss this topic in detail at this year’s Anaheim Fair where he will be a guest panelist (see FYI). “I like to give back to my community, and speaking and writing articles is a good way to do this. I want to share my “trade secrets” and provide American custom woodworkers with the tools they need to compete against the foreign furniture imports,” Fetherston says.

The $50,000 king size bed unit pictured is made of figured bubinga veneers. Its design consists of a bed platform with lower drawer storage, a sunburst patterned bubinga headboard with lighting, two rounded front bubinga end tables with drawers and pullout trays, and two rounded, lacquered upper cabinets with curved doors above the end tables and flanking each side of the illuminated headboard.  

“As a marketing tool, the Internet has been very successful. We can sell a desk to someone in Florida, or an armoire to someone in Arizona,” Fetherston says. If there is a piece sold from the Web site that is not from his shop, then Fetherston works as a communicative agent between the buyer and the artisan. He will ask the buyer questions on the artisan’s behalf and facilitate the sale. In this instance, an agreed-upon commission is collected for the sale. Fetherston says that furniture is shipped via blanket-wrap on cross-continent carriers.

More than 50 furniture makers from all corners of the United States subscribe to the guild, making available unique custom furniture pieces. “We wanted to give other studios like us, around the country, a venue to be able to show their work. I also saw it as a way to diversify my shop,” he adds. “There is a section on the Web site instructing artisans how to join the guild. We spend a lot of time tweaking and updating the site because, sometimes, people don’t sell anything or go out of business or move on. We take them off and put new people up.”

When a woodworker is interested in becoming a showcasing member of the site, Fetherston and a design review board look into his shop’s history and critique the craftsman’s furniture pieces. “We don’t really want to show imitation pieces or variations on popular designs. We are looking for furniture that has design innovation, quality and is from established studios that can fill an order. We look for legitimate shops and do not want to put ourselves into a position between a buyer and a seller that cannot deliver.”

This avenue has proven to be profitable for Fetherston. Last year, internet sales accounted for 25 percent of Custom Furniture Designs’ growth. “We get an average of 1,500 people looking at our site every day, and that number continues to grow,” he says. However, the internet should not be a shop’s only source of marketing. A comprehensive campaign can incorporate e-mail newsletters, postcards, mass faxes, and magazine and newspaper advertising as well, he adds.

In-Sourcing Keeps the Shop Working

A good marketing plan is just one avenue for making money. To keep the shop running in the black, in addition to his own commissions, Fetherston also does some finishing work for other shops and builds private label furniture for other designers, including Ruth Livingston Studios and John Wheatman. He refers to the process as “no-name manufacturing.”

“We don’t have an ego here where we have to put our name on a piece of furniture we built for a designer. It’s work and it keeps the shop moving,” says Fetherston. Presently, Custom Furniture Design builds furniture for interior designers, as well as retail clients.

Fetherston himself builds a gamut of custom-made pieces, like dining tables, credenzas, bureaus, dressing tables, end tables, desks, entertainment units, armoires and the like for high-end clientele. Clients include actors, actresses, musicians, sports stars and business gurus like Steve Martin, Prince, Danny Glover, Jerry Rice, Fritz Maytag, Roy Jacuzzi, Winona Ryder and others.

This custom side table stands 24 in. by 24 in. and 24 in. tall and is made of zebrawood solids and veneers, finished in a natural finish. The top has a veneer box match pattern and the curvy legs accentuate the grain of the wood.  

All furniture pieces are constructed from solid wood and veneers, such as eucalyptus, anigre, bubinga, sapele, lacewood and other exotic species. “We like to design pieces utilizing fancy face veneer patterns, like basket weave, Harlequin and sunburst,” he says. The shop uses MDF and TruPan for substrates. It purchases veneers from Woodcraft Studios and outsources the layup. However, it lays up radiused veneers on Wigglewood or Italian bending poplar panels on a Vak-Matic vacuum bag system with yellow Titebond glue.

Veneered panels and solid woods are sanded on the shop’s Pacco table sander, surfaced on a Powermatic planer and sized on a Holz-Her 1265 Supercut vertical panel saw. Other equipment the shop utilizes includes two Rockwell Unisaw table saws, a Biesemeyer fence and large feed table, a Makita table saw, an Orbit 16-speed industrial drill press, a Rockwell Delta radial arm and bandsaw, and two Binks spray booths, one opened and one closed. The shop makes its own 1/2-inch Apple ply drawer boxes and uses Accuride ball-bearing slides.

Custom Furniture Design is known for its variety of fine finishes, like full-fill, crackle, glaze, distress, antique rub, faux, textured, paint and stain, as well as silver, gold, aluminum and copper gilding. It uses nitrocellulose lacquers from U.S. Cellulose and Simpson Paint, automotive full-fill finishes from DuPont, conversion varnishes from Sherwin-Williams and stains from Mohawk.

Fetherston says the shop also uses a lot of Ultimate tinting colors and mixes these with an oil base stain to produce the dark ebonized and espresso finishes that are popular now. Carved decorations are either commissioned from a local artisan or purchased from Raymond Enkeboll.

Items like glass, stone, upholstery, metal, wood turnings and lighting that are needed to complete a piece are outsourced to local shops. When necessary, the shop will also outsource construction work to other shops when they are too busy to fulfill all the orders themselves.

Woodworking Is a Tactile Experience

One of the things that helps Fetherston sell his own work is providing a lot of finish samples to customers. ”It is largely a tactile experience when commissioning a custom piece of furniture,” he says. “We use shop drawings and finished samples to promote our work. We give samples away like jelly beans here,” he adds.

The Black Tie table’s large drawers pull out on Accuride’s full-extension slides. The unit is finished in two contrasting color combinations.  

In addition to the finish samples, Fetherston displays veneer samples on the walls of his showroom, so buyers can familiarize themselves with all of the options that are available. ”If you can present a client with a collection of wood samples to look at, then he knows what he likes and what he doesn’t like. We find samples to be very critical. A lot of people don’t know what is out there, and providing samples leaves the door open to creativity.”

He also has numerous photo albums showing all his furniture. “Pictures say a thousand words,” he says. “Many times clients will see the pictures and like the top from one table and the legs from another. We will marry these elements together for them and create a whole new piece of furniture with its own style.” A custom piece can be built in 12 to 16 weeks, and prices range from $1,000 for an end table to $50,000 or more for a bed with “bells and whistles,” like hidden compartments, curved doors, lighting, data ports, etc.

Custom woodworking, even in a sluggish economy, tends to be more financially forgiving than standard line manufacturing, Fetherston says. “High-end clientele generally are not overly affected by recessions in the market. Custom woodworkers are at an advantage over a standard line manufacturer because we can be versatile in what we build and are not restricted to making just one type of product.”

Fetherston believes that Internet sales will increase significantly in the next 10 years as people become more accustomed to doing their shopping online. “If you can educate the general public about affordable domestic custom furniture and make them aware of their options, then the industry will grow,” he says.

“The future of custom woodworking in the United States will focus on quality and design innovation, not price point,” he adds. “We cannot compete with$0.13 per-hour wages paid to woodworkers overseas. People will come to realize and take solace in the fact that their furniture is a one-of-a-kind piece made locally by a craftsman.”

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