Custom furniture design process

Custom furniture design process

If you’ve ever wondered what goes into a custom furniture project at The Wattle Road, read on.

Based on the making of a beautiful custom side cabinet, this post deconstructs the entire process from taking the brief, the plans, collaborating, making the cabinet and everything in between.

 Side cabinet_tasmanian oak_by The Wattle Road


Let's begin...

I have been working on a rather technical side cabinet, something that needed to look simple, elegant and feminine. 

The client knew what they wanted, the look they’re going for, the desired colour / shade of the timber, the shape, height, width and depth of the cabinet.

They knew exactly where this item would go in their home and what would be stored in and on top of it. They could show me pictures of other beautiful furniture items that made them smile and intricate details that surprised and delighted them.

But putting all of this information together to make that single dream project isn’t easy unless there’s a detailed brief, a structured process and consistent communication throughout the project.


The Brief

My custom projects start by first asking a series of questions about the project, in this case a side cabinet. To understand what the ‘dream’ might look like, I first need to understand the users context: 

  • What’s the intended purpose of the cabinet
  • What does the user experience of using this cabinet on a day-to-day basis look like
  • What would go in it
  • How would it be used
  • Where would it be located in their home (direct sunlight or not)
  • What dimensions are required
  • Would it be a feature item 
  • Does it need to compliment other existing furniture styles
  • What furniture style are they going for
  • Is there a budget range
  • Are there any examples of items that inspired them
  • How would they be measuring the success of this project
  • What's their preferred colour, shade, timber species 
  • Could they provide any pictures of other furniture that influenced this one
  • Can they sketch what they have in mind

    Custom furniture side cabinet_sketch


Scope, plans and designs

Once The Wattle Road are on the same page as the client (i.e: in agreement on dimensions, scope, budgets, and timeframes), the design process can begin. I won’t cut a single piece of timber until I have thoroughly thought through the design and have been given the green light to progress.

It’s critical that our clients collaborate with me and have the time they need to think through what the end product will be, after all I want them to love this piece for many years to come. 

As shown above, the initial sketch of this project was a simple styled box with 3 doors, standing on stilts. It was a great start to inform the mid-century style but it would change considerably before we commenced any making. 

Using the information gathered, I prepare visual designs and detailed plans of the side cabinet. (see below sample). Combine these with a detailed description of deliverables, timeframes and payment cycles and you have a project scope. 

Once the designs are finalised with the client, they become the blueprint that I use for all major decisions throughout the project from beginning to end.

Computer generated furniture designs

Ordering Materials 

I specialise in reclaimed timber to build my furniture. However for custom projects, if I can’t find a match, I will sparingly use new timber. This project required light coloured timber - the palette and design was to be soft, elegant and feminine. We landed on Tasmanian Oak. 

After a lot of searching I sourced some beautiful old Tasmanian Oak floorboards that came out of an old house in Drummoyne NSW that were said to be 70+ years old. At the time of picking these up, the owner decided he wanted to keep them, so I unfortunately only received a small sample supply of these which I used in the frames on this project.

Not able to source more rescued timber (at the dimensions I needed), I had to purchase new material for this project. Don’t get me wrong, the timber I have used is gorgeous, absolutely stunning and full of features and character. When making custom furniture I remain flexible to deliver outstanding furniture for my clients. However, whenever I can, I will always choose reclaimed timber first.

I sourced the timber first, then throughout the project I purchased hinges, shelf stays and other necessary cabinetry hardware.

Custom furniture side cabinet with tasmanian oak


Milling and Joining 

Once I have the timber, I leave it in the workshop for a few days for it to acclimatise, and then it is GO time! Over the next few weeks I would be planing, joining and glueing up all the pieces to the right dimensions needed to make the cabinet.


I had purchased almost 60 lineal metres of 100mm x 25mm lengths of Tasmanian Oak which all needed to be milled up. This is the process of planing all lengths of timber to ensure they’re perfectly level, square and of consistent width so that they can be joined together. My new Woodfast planer / thicknesser was the perfect tool for this task leaving an exceptionally high quality finish.


Next, using the cut list I cut pieces to size and put them in piles for joining. I colour graded the timbers so that once joined each section of cabinet would show the timber from light to dark.

As a natural product, raw timber is varying shades (some lighter, others darker). As part of the design I wanted to feature these shades throughout the design - light to dark, dark to light. I didn’t want it to be a mix match of random colours but a well thought out and constructed design. The top, bottom, doors and even slats on the sides are colour graded. These decisions are subtle features that will be discovered and appreciated by many over time.


I cut mortises in the edges of the timber ready to join all the boards together. Once ready, each section of the cabinet is laid out in order and glued and clamped together.

Custom furniture-side cabinet_clamping


Once all sections are glued together, I will sand each to the correct thickness, removing any rises in the edges from the glue-up. This won’t be the final sand at all but a necessary one in prepping the boards for the cabinet.

Cutting to size

Cutting each of the glued up sections to size is next. This is the process of using either the table saw or the track saw to cut very precise measurements and ensuring that I stay clear of any of the hidden tenons.

The cabinet sides were curved, so I decided on the arc and found the necessary instrument to deliver the desired shape required. Then I made a prototype (template) that allowed me to accurately and consistently replicate this across all 4 edges (top of cabinet and bottom of cabinet). Once happy, I trace, cut and sand each edge, making the top and bottom of each edge a mirror of each other.

Custom furniture-side cabinet_tasmanian oak_edges design

 As I am cutting and shaping separate parts of the project, I'm constantly referring to the plans and doing dry assemblies to ensure the designs reflect accurately in what I'm making. Seeing it come together and stand up in front of you (albeit held by clamps) is a very exciting milestone.

Custom furniture-side cabinet_tasmanian oak_framing


Design Thinking 

Custom projects usually require a lot of extra thinking to perfect the design. It’s part of the reason why these projects can take a little longer and cost a little more.

As makers, we need to think through the current task as well as consider the several tasks to follow to ensure that a decision now won’t negatively affect a decision later. For the majority of these projects, this is the first time I've made this item, hence the word “custom”.

With all sections of the cabinet cut to size (top, bottom, doors, internal walls, etc), the next stage was to think about joining the cabinet frame together and making the feature slats on the sides. But first I needed to resolve how the slats sides would integrate because that could change my door designs considerably depending on the approach.

My original thinking was for these sides to be a part of a steam bending process - where the slats would form a seperate part of the cabinet. However after assessing all options (steam bending, laminated bending, integrated straight into cabinet), I opted to integrate the slats directly into the cabinet. I knew this approach would look the best as it would be more minimalist, clean and simple in appearance….but it would be very challenging to do with zero room for error. As a result of this decision, I needed to modify the doors - they would no longer butt up against the cabinet carcass but close inside it.


Making the side slats feature

Keeping the colour grade design was important for me throughout the project. The slats were going to be a feature, so I made sure that when I cut the individual slats (21 per side), they would gradually change shade from light to dark.

I needed to make a small mortise in the top and bottom of the inside of the cabinet where each slat would go. To get this absolutely perfect, I needed to create a few jigs and several prototypes and practice, practice, practice until I was confident in implementing it on the actual cabinet.

A jig is essentially a made up device that helps you repeat a consistent process. In this case, I used a “trimmer” (a small router) to cut out the holes, but because these holes needed to be absolutely precise, the jigs allowed me to set up for each of the 84 holes and cut them precisely without error every single time.


Custom furniture side cabinet jigs   Custom furniture side cabinet jigs


Once the holes were cut, I hand shaped each of the slats, ensuring they stayed in order and would fit snug inside each of the holes I’d created. I sanded and then oiled each slat twice ready for assembly.

Custom furniture side cabinet making slats

Joining the Cabinet

With the main pieces of the frame and side slats ready, I just needed to make some minor changes to the doors and frame to accommodate the integrated slat design. This wasn’t a big deal, but the original plans included the steam bending techniques that would sit on the outside of the frame, not the integrated approach I took, so I needed to resolve immediately before assembly. 

Once resolved, I used my trusty Festool Domino to cut the mortises ready for the assembly to begin. I did several dry runs (ie: without glue) to ensure that my assembly prep was correct and I wouldn’t find any nasty surprises during the glue-up stage.

Custom furniture-side cabinet design process
Custom furniture-side cabinet design process

I then glued up in stages - inside framing; centre to base; framing to base. The top and slat sides would be done last together (after all, there were 42 slats that needed my undivided attention to glue in place at the same time).

I gave everything a thorough sand and those items that needed it received their first oil (with Fiddes Hard Wax Oil). Another "ahha" moment arrives when you put the first coat of oil on. The real character and features in the timber pops out and the finished product really starts to feel closer.

Custom furniture side cabinet tasmanian oak fiddes oil

Fitting the Doors

With the doors cut to size, I needed to prep them for hanging inside the cabinet. This was the process of cutting out the section for each Blum hinge and locating the catch on the frame. 

There is a bit of play with each hinge to ensure you can line everything up perfectly, which is important. When your doors come from a single sheet of joined timber, if a door is misaligned the grain doesn't line up and it's very easy to pick.

Then I added push open latches inside a custom timber housing so that the user just pushes the front of each door and it springs ajar ready to be opened up. To close the door, the soft close hinge ensures the door can't be slammed and the push open latch collects the door and reloads the spring ready for the next time it opens.

Custom furniture side cabinet tasmanian oak door assembly

Making the Legs

I had already commenced some prototype designs for the legs to ensure they would both fit the style of the cabinet and retain the proportions and height set out in the plans. Once happy with that process, next was to make them with the Tassie Oak set aside for this task.

I added an 8 degree lean to each leg and joined using titebond glue with two dominoes (tenons) between each joint. This would ensure the base had strength and durability for carrying the cabinet full of items. Once the legs were glued, I hand shaped and carved them to the desired look, giving them a curved shape in line with the curves applied in the rest of the cabinet design.

Custom furniture-side cabinet_tasmanian oak_ legs    Custom furniture side cabinet tasmanian oak legs

Custom furniture side cabinet tasmanian oak legs

To join the base to the cabinet, I needed to allow for future timber expansion and contraction of the cabinet with weather changes. I used a timber button technique that allows the timber to move back and forth without affecting the joins. Then once the legs and cabinet had been glued, sanded and oiled, I joined the legs frame to the cabinet.

Custom furniture side cabinet tasmanian oak legs construction


Frame and Sides

With the legs made, framing, centre wall and base of cabinet now glued together and perfectly aligned, it was time to put the remainder of the cabinet together. The process was to apply glue to all the holes and dominoes in the carcass frame and then put it in place, slightly ajar so that I could individually place each slat without the glue going off.  

I had to work fast and accurately. Not too much glue for each slat and the cabinet top ajar just enough so that the slat could get into its hole with just the right amount of bending. Then once each was done, I needed to tap the top down to lock all slats in place. Then repeat on the other side. The slats went in well but the top needed careful adjustment to fall into place to remain square and aligned to the front where the doors needed to go.

Custom furniture side cabinet in tasmanian oak glueup
Custom furniture side cabinet in tasmanian oak glueup
Custom furniture side cabinet tasmanian oak base

Sand and Oil

A final sand with 120 and then 180 grit over the entire cabinet (that hadn’t been sanded and oiled yet) was completed. Once ready, I applied two coats of Fiddes wax over everything. Needless to say the character and features in the grain really stood out once this process was complete. The cabinet looks absolutely amazing!


Final Comments

I incorporated some brass shelf catch plugs and holders into the frame to make the shelf look like it's floating when viewing through the slats. I added a Tasmanian Oak ply to the rear of the cabinet along with two holes for cords to come in and out as required.

For a few photos I have sat a light behind the cabinet and it looks amazing coming through the slats and beneath the cabinet. A future enhancement to this side cabinet could be to add an optional LED bar inside the cabinet and behind the leg frames for those evenings where you want to control the mood. There'll always be next time but it's also perfect just the way it is!

Delivering this first side cabinet to its new owners was very exciting. Their response equally amazing. Read Google review.

Below images to show just how amazing this cabinet looks in its new home.

Side cabinet_tasmanian oak_The Wattle Road
Side cabinet_tasmanian oak_legs_The Wattle Road
Side cabinet_tasmanian oak_side slats_The Wattle Road
Side cabinet_tasmanian oak_open door_The Wattle Road
Side cabinet_tasmanian oak_styled_The Wattle Road


To get in touch to discuss your next custom project, please head to the Contact page. 

To receive notification of future blog posts, please join our community by scrolling to the bottom of each page on this website.

Back to blog

Leave a comment

Please note, comments need to be approved before they are published.