Housefish, a Denver, CO-based furniture firm hit the track in 1997 as more of a side project for owner Scott Bennett who, at that time, was a racecar designer. It wasn’t until 2007 that Housefish got a boost after it participated in the Design by Colorado exhibit.
At that event, Bennett showcased Key — a modular storage system that is one of the company’s foundational pieces.
“Our first and still most important product,” Bennett says of Key. “That started to generate real orders.”
The Key modular furniture line consists of Key AV for media storage and Key Modular Storage, which has three components — short, medium and tall modules — that can be stacked. The units are available with or without doors.
Housefish’s product line also extends beyond storage to include chairs, stools, tables and small tabletop items.
For material, he prefers to work with a narrow palette, with 99 percent of his products made from maple or walnut ApplePly hardwood plywood, solid 1.75-inch stock maple or walnut and powder-coated steel or aluminum.
Bennett is also a believer in environmental finishes. “We are committed to using 100 percent VOC-free finishes,” he notes. “The Ply is UV prefinished on the faces and we use a couple different natural oil finishes elsewhere.”
Bennett’s view of his environmental approach is that it is more of what the standard should be, rather than a marketing plug.
“I believe environmental concern is a baseline requirement that everyone should be doing, not necessarily a selling point,” he says.
It extends beyond finishing into other areas as well, including the use of FSC-certified materials. “We domestically source everything we can, and our packaging is completely paper based,” he explains. “We mention all that of course, but I don’t do it because I necessarily think it helps sales. I do it because I believe it’s right. I don’t want to be a “green” furniture company, I want every company to be one. It doesn’t cost that much, there’s really no excuse.”
CNC Impacts Production
Housefish creates its semi-custom line in short to medium production runs. The manufacturing process is a mix of old school hand crafting and modern technology, including CNC machining and 3D printing.
“Virtually everything we build starts life on a 3-axis CNC router,” Bennett says. “It’s a pretty standard vacuum table machine with an automatic tool changer, but I push it hard in terms of how we use it. I’ve developed some interesting digital joinery techniques, and different ways of holding solid stock. My background definitely helps in this respect.” (Editor's note: Housefish also does local CNC work for the London-based RTA furniture startup OpenDesk.)
Initially components were machined by an outside vendor, but Bennett says he purchased the FlexiCAM Stealth CNC router and brought the work in-house because inventory management was becoming a headache.
“Developing new products was always a struggle before because I was trying to do things in ways they weren’t normally done. [So buying the CNC] was the best purchase I’ve ever made,” he says of the lack of flexibility from having outside vendors machine all his components.
Once the CNC work was in-house, the available technology and the capacity of the machine was a catalyst for developing other products.
It was like an explosion of ideas, Bennett says. “Every time I make something I see a way to improve it, and because I can just walk over to the computer and make a change, those improvements actually happen. I can have an idea for a product on a Monday, prototype it in the afternoon, and have it ready to sell by Friday. It has been life changing.”
Products are designed with Solidworks, allowing CNC toolpaths to be generated directly off the 3D model. If a customer needs a little customization, he says, it’s just a matter of editing a dimension and regenerating the paths.
While laser cutting is still outsourced that too may change in the future. “We use quite a bit of laser cutting from local suppliers,” Bennett adds.
3D Printing Technology Boom
Increasingly woodworking firms are taking advantage of the developments in 3D printing and Housefish is no exception. It uses a 3D printer to produce some of its furniture parts, most notably in a chair called Carbon, the prototype of which is now part of the permanent collection of the Denver Art Museum.
Designed for a Design After Dark event in 2014, Bennett says this chair was created with a “new proprietary concrete formulation using carbon fibers as reinforcement.” The material is lightweight and can be cast in a thin mold for CNC machining.
“We combined this with wood legs locked in place by a connecting node produced using 3D printing,” he adds. “I’m working on a few things to expand our use of that technology.” However, the company does not have one in-house yet.
As much as CNC and 3D printing has impacted production, Bennett still prides himself on his hand-crafted techniques.
“We (most often me personally) touch every part that goes into our furniture,” he says. “A lot of stuff is hand finished. I think that shows in the final product.”
When asked about the role of manual work and its relevance to his manufacturing process, Bennett says that he initially wanted an entirely automated process.
“I’ve gone back and forth on this since I started. My dream starting out was to produce products that were untouched by human hands,” he says. “I used to downplay the hand-craftsmanship that went into our products. But over the last few years, hand crafting has really seen a resurgence, and I think people want that as part of the story, provided it’s authentic. The furniture that comes out of Asia is touched by many hands along the production line, but they are hands that care very little about the finished product, they are just pushing stuff along.”
As the company has grown over the years, so has the shop, starting out in Bennett’s garage then to a 750-square-foot facility. Since 2012 the shop has been located in a 5,000-square-foot building in the River North Arts District (RiNo) in downtown Denver.
Shop workflow is a simple setup: starting with material storage, components move to the CNC router, then to sanding, finishing and assembly, and then on to packing. Products are built on demand and orders are batched. Most orders are filled within a week, leaving very few finished goods in inventory.
Racecar Design to Woodworking
Bennett’s background is in racecar design. He has a degree in automotive engineering, and has designed Indy 500 cars, as well as Baja and Formula 1.
“That was what I always wanted to do, but I was probably born a few decades too late,” he says. “Right when I got out of college, most of the world’s racing series starting restricting their technical rules, or even going to spec rules where everyone has an identical car,” making automotive design and engineering less interesting and challenging.
But the racecar world’s loss has been woodworking’s gain. Already familiar with the industry — his parents owned furniture retail stores and his father later did development and sourcing for a manufacturer — Bennett’s interest turned to woodworking.
“Around 2002 I was working for a racecar manufacturer that suddenly went under, and I needed something to do fast,” he says. “I ended up doing contract furniture design and engineering work, which eventually turned into co-founding a baby furniture company, which eventually turned into starting Housefish because I wanted to see if things could be produced here instead of imported.
“As a woodworker, I am entirely self-taught, although my engineering experience is a huge help. I’m far more comfortable with a CNC router than I am with a chisel.”
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