In a lot of ways the United States is not the country it used to be. In some ways that’s good. In many other ways, it is not.
Years ago, a lot of what we bought in America was made in America. For some that was a mark of pride. When I was young, “Made in Japan” meant inferior quality; cheap; junk. Now General Motors, Ford and Chrysler are begging the government for billions of our dollars to stay afloat while Toyota, Honda and others keep churning out cars that Americans are interested in purchasing.
We don’t make much here any more. Most consumer products are made in China. I looked up “Ikea” in a Swedish dictionary the other day and discovered that it translates to “Made in Malaysia, Viet Nam, China, and Bolivia. Paper napkins made in America.” At least there’s still a market in this country for recycled paper.
Furniture? Nearly all overseas. Why is that? It’s because of cost, primarily, but I think there is more to it than that. Generally, I think we’ve become a “throw-away” society. We buy water in plastic bottles instead of going to the faucet. We throw away everything. And we don’t think about what we’re doing. We think we’re saving money. We’re not.
Computers (just one example of dozens) have a market life of way less than a year, and American consumers think nothing of paying a thousand dollars for a computer on which they play games, perhaps watch a movie or two, check their email, and write a blog. Three or four years later the computer is either being recycled or sitting in a landfill. But it’s no longer doing what the purchaser paid for. That’s about $250 for each year of use.
Furniture is no different. There isn’t much demand for well-made furniture that is designed and then built to last for generations. Most likely, that’s because a lot of consumers don’t know the difference between well-made items and what they buy at Target or their local furniture stores. But there is a difference.
There are still people in America who know how to choose wood carefully, use tools wisely, and create useful items. But there are not as many as there used to be, and it is very difficult for these people to make a decent living doing what they do. Is it unreasonable for such a person to charge $30, or $40, or $50 per hour for their time? Sure, to the “average person” that’s a lot of dough. But go back to the computer example for a minute. Remember the $250 per year? Do the math. Use the same calculations on a table, or a chest of drawers that is carefully crafted. Built well enough to last thirty years, or sixty. By the standards of computer longevity that table should cost $7,500 or $15,000. When it only costs half that, or a quarter, you would think that hand-crafted furniture should be flying out the doors of our shops. But it’s not, of course.
So we find our satisfaction in the craft, in the doing. We find it in our time in the shop, where we clean, we putter, we sharpen, and we work. We try to do it better each time at the bench.
The good news is this. In this day of Ikea and Wal-Mart and Sam’s Club and Costco there are still good things to be found in America. And craftsmen who know how to make them.
Jeff Zens owns and operates Custom Built Furniture in Salem, Oregon. He is a frequent woodworking instructor and writer.