Two technologies important to furniture making are storage and transport. The space taken up by furniture in relation to the actual material used in its construction is disproportionately large; when furniture is mass-produced an enormous amount of storage space is required. This applies equally to its transport, especially when it has to be shipped abroad. Consequently a great deal of furniture is made of the “knockdown” type; that is, it can be taken to pieces and stacked flat. A wardrobe made in this way may occupy only a quarter of its assembled space when disassembled. Originally, parts were joined by screw fastenings, but a whole range of fittings has been devised to achieve the same result more easily and with more precision. Most such fittings require little more than recessing or the boring of holes, operations easily machined. Most work on cam, screw, or wedge action.
The decline of the direct link between customer and maker, due to the rapid development of retail trade, was largely made possible by the invention of several woodworking machines, mostly steam powered. Much handwork remained, however, and only large manufacturers could afford major machinery installation. In the early 20th century it was still possible for a cabinetmaker in Britain or Europe to earn a living, though in most cases he installed a basic machine such as a circular saw or worked in a district in which machine shops were available. Thus in Shoreditch, London, whole streets of houses were occupied by cabinetmakers, often several in one house, who made pieces that varied from the finest individual items to the cheapest, turned out in pairs or perhaps six at a time. These men had their machining done in the trade machine shops that abounded in the district. The shops produced nothing themselves but performed any machining that was brought to them: sawing, spindle moulding, fretting, turning, planing, and so on. These practices continued up to the beginning of World War I and for a time afterward, although most of the large stores also had their workshops where they made not only individual items for customers but also furniture in quantity to pattern.
But in the U.S., the development of mass-production furniture manufacture was already well advanced, with the principal manufacturing centres at Grand Rapids, Michigan; Jamestown, New York; and High Point, North Carolina. “Grand Rapids” became a byword for inexpensive furniture of reliable quality. Furniture factories have never become large in comparison with the huge production units in such industries as automobiles and steel—few today employ more than 100 persons—because of the continuing need for some hand operations. But their machines for many purposes and the volume in which they operated gave them insuperable advantages in cost over the old-fashioned craftsman. Mass-produced furniture began to have a serious impact in Britain and Europe between the wars.
The shortage of timber during and after World War II made conditions extremely difficult for the furniture maker; but in the 1950s there was a gradual return to more decorative furniture, marked by the introduction of new materials, new machines, adhesives, and finishes.
Modern commercial furniture production may be roughly divided into groups: general furniture—bookcases, wardrobes, tables, etc.; chairs and upholstered suites; and specialized items. Each of these may be further subdivided according to quality and type. In addition to this commercial furniture there are the specialized items made by a few hand craftsmen to special commission. Such goods are necessarily expensive, partly because they are individual pieces made singly to design and also because the best selected materials are used. Furthermore, hand methods are largely used that are costly because they are time-consuming. Even in this field, however, the machine has encroached to an extent. Thus a circular saw is invariably installed because its advantages are so obvious. There is no merit in laboriously ripping boards to size when a machine will do the work as well or better.
Though furniture produced by modern hand craftsmen is beautifully made from the best materials, it often requires considerable discernment to detect the difference between it and the best commercial furniture.