Introduction: Flat-Packed Furniture Design

About: Lone rustic furniture builder in Denver, Colorado. I use only standing-dead aspen and pine that grows right here in the Rocky Mountains!
Any furniture maker knows that shipping is a cost worthy of high consideration. Often times shipping rates have been a deciding factor for my customers and I hate to see a lost sale simply due to shipping. You might be wondering why I don’t offer free shipping… The answer is simple: Shipping isn’t free. I wish it were. I don’t charge for the time and extra material it takes to make a shipment, so in that sense, shipping is free – from me. But for some reason, FedEx or UPS or whomever insists on making somebody pay. So when someone advertises free shipping, it’s because they’ve worked it into their price.

Let’s say we’re shopping for a barstool (because that seems appropriate for this tutorial). You find two barstools that you like on a site such as – One from Log Stool Maker, LLC and one from Log Stool Builder, LLC. Both stools are of similar style and size and both stools are $120. Tie-breakers are tough some times so the first thing you check is shipping. Log Stool Maker ships free, Log Stool Builder charges an additional $40. This may seem like a no-brainer but be careful! Suddenly there’s a $40 difference in the value of each stool.

Now, this could be due to the fact that Log Stool Builder is leasing space in a strip mall while Log Stool Maker is building his stuff out of his 2-car garage. Or maybe Log Stool Maker cuts his costs by using cheap materials and cutting corners for the sake of productivity while Log Stool Builder uses premium materials and really takes the time to make sure each stool is the best he’s ever made. Or, more likely, it’s a combination of many factors such as these.

In any case, THERE IS A REASON for the price difference. So don’t ever think you’re getting something for free. “Free Shipping” could mean less of something else. The point is, no matter what end of the sale you’re on, shipping is a factor. So how do you reduce a cost that you have no control over?

All you have to do is change what you are shipping.

UPS doesn’t see a stool. They see a 14x14x30” box that weights 24lbs and is traveling via truck across four state lines and needs to be delivered with a signature. So in order to reduce your shipping rate, you have to reduce something in the aforementioned formula. Well, you can’t make your customer closer to you so the only two factors that remain are the size and weight of the box.

Weight is tricky. You could use smaller diameter material but that really isn’t going to cut your weight down too extravagantly and it may effect the structural durability of your piece. Plus, if you ask your carrier the right questions, you’ll find out that the size of the box is the first thing they look at. Carriers use a maximum weight per square inch when calculating a shipping rate. That means a 14x14x30” box is allotted (for the sake of this example) 40lbs. Our stool only weighs 24lbs. which means we could throw 16lbs of sand in there with it and the rate would not change. So I recommend not focusing on the weight.

Lets focus on the size of the box. That’s right, I said “box” not “stool”. Your customer decides on the size of the stool so again, that is out of your control. The only way to reduce the size of the box is to ship the stool “flat-packed”. That means assembly is required for your customer. Most customers are fine with that if it saves them money.

There are several challenges you must conquer to successfully adapt your design to be flat-packed.
1. The stool assembly must be simple enough for inexperienced customers to put together. That means spending extra time developing a systematic way of labeling and packing parts and writing instructions.
2. The stool design must maintain structural stability. All too often, furniture that comes “assembly required” is built so user-friendly that durability becomes a distant attribute. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers to be prepared with the proper tools. Most customers will appreciate that it takes more than an allen-wrench to put it together.
3. And finally, you can’t expect your customers to do finish work such as sanding or applying stain, oil, epoxy, lacquer, etc. Hiding screws, bolts and joints in the finishing process is a step that often times demands a unique skill-set from a builder because this step will have a major impact on the cosmetic value of the piece.

This video tutorial is about a log barstool I specifically designed to clear these hurtles. The original design of my barstools is a design that I have been tweaking for about three years now and just when I thought I had the best possible design for beauty and strength, I received an order for 15 stools bound for Europe. The original shipping rate nearly doubled the price of the stools. So once again, I had to adapt my design for this new challenge.

Here’s what my stools normally look like.

I use hand-carved tenons that fit very snug into carefully drilled holes in the legs and the bottom of the seat. I drive lag bolts through each leg into each end of each spindle and also through the seat into the tops of the legs. I also apply premium wood glue in each hole for lasting durability. I then plug each hole and sand those plugs flush to the surface of the legs and seat. Lastly, I balance the stool on a flat bench with a built-in belt sander. When the piece is complete, I apply two coats of Danish Oil, sanding between each coat.

I love this design because it’s elegant and extremely durable. It also allows me to use logs with a variety of shape and character. The only problem: It’s impossible to flat-pack it for shipping. I just can’t expect my customers to drive these bolts, install and sand the plugs, and then finish it with two coats of oil.

Let’s look step-by-step how I changed the design to accomplish the three points listed above.

1. To eliminate the need for plugs in the seat, I ditched the tenons and went with a pocket-hole joinery framing system that holds all four legs together with the seat. Aesthetically, no need for plugs, and the pocket holes are hidden on the backside of the skirt. Structurally, 24 screws and a square box frame for lateral support replaced the four lag bolts and tenons. The unexpected luxury of this construction is that the seat can now be removed and replaced very easily which would come in handy if it were to get damaged.
2. To eliminate the need for flush-sanded plugs on the legs, I started using smaller diameter bolts with smaller plugs. Aesthetically, the protruding plugs aren’t my favorite but it’s a very typical solution for most pieces of furniture (fine or log). Making them smaller makes them subtler. Structurally, the hand-carved tenons on the spindles with wood glue (that the customer must apply themselves) and smaller bolts are still plenty strong – albeit not quite as strong as the original way to do it. Another possibility is to make the plugs the same size diameter as the tenons on the spindles and round them off. This could create the effect that the spindles go all the way through the leg and stick out the other side and it would allow you to use larger bolts.
3. The reason you can’t make your customer sand the product is because sanding means refinishing. Applying a finish is risky, finishes can be hard to find or match, and many people may not have a location where they can finish their pieces and allow them to dry. Each stool I build to completion before disassembling it for shipping. While it’s fully constructed, I balance the feet and finish it with Danish Oil.
4. Once the second coat of oil has dried, I label each part and carefully disassemble it. The furniture I build is not made with “cookie-cut” pieces. Each leg, spindle, and skirt on each stool has a very specific way it fits together with the other parts. Labeling each part and writing instructions that are easy to understand is a critical last step in this process. The only part that is interchangeable is the seat.

There are a lot of different ways to build anything – that’s where the artistic portion of the craft comes into play. I encourage you to use the ideas I’ve shared with you in this tutorial or just take the basic theory of it and run in your own direction! Either way, feel free to leave comments and questions and I’ll do my best to respond.