In Praise of Expedient Furniture

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This article is from Issue 97 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Building pretty well, without the pretty

Recently, my wife and I acquired a chest of drawers my father made about 60 years ago. He built it as a changing table for my unborn sister when money was tight. It served three children in that capacity before becoming my mother’s sewing cabinet. After my folks downsized, my sister won it in a friendly coin toss, but recently relinquished it to me. 

It’s an unpretentious, painted piece made of A/D-grade fir plywood. The case is simply screwed together, the drawers just rabbeted and nailed. All the same, it is well-made, and not scrappy looking at all. The joints are tight, and glue blocks under the drawers have kept them solid over the years. Although Dad didn’t bother with edge banding; he did sand edges, putty voids and plug the screw holes to ensure a nice paint job. The proportions are pleasing, and a few key details add just a touch of flair.

As I was repainting it, I got to thinking about other humble pieces built quickly to fill a specific need. 

I certainly have made my share of such “expedient furniture” over the years when I had neither the time nor budget to do better. There was a splayed-leg end table I cobbled together from construction lumber and particle board left in the basement of the first house I purchased. The piece lived under a table cloth for five years until I found the time to replace it with something better. But it still lives on today in shortened form as a Christmas tree stand.

Then there was my college apartment bookcase, which was screwed together from cast-off honeycombed oak boards. Not very pretty, but solid corner braces have kept it sturdy for the past three decades. It now resides in our basement, storing homemade jams and pickles. That same apartment spawned a TV stand made from a 1x12 board quickly crosscut into lengths and joined together with battens and screws. Again, not especially attractive, but highly functional and quite durable. It’s still doing its duty, even though the VCR shelf now holds an X-Box and the original 19" set has given way to a 60" flatscreen.

While I savor the days I spend building “real” furniture, I also enjoy the challenges posed by a lack of time and budget. Here, creativity and a little knowledge of how things go together can combine to solve a problem in a matter of hours. So let’s raise a glass to expedient furniture! Like many of us, it may not be much to look at, but it gets the job done. And if you build it well enough, it will far outlast a piece of cheap, department store furniture that’s not likely to survive to see a second purpose. With luck, your work will endure to see several lives. Who knows? Maybe someday your kids will be tossing a coin over it. 


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