Brownstone Boys: How to Enhance Your Space With Custom Furniture and Built-ins

Custom walnut vanity. Photo by Brownstone Boys

Editor’s note: Welcome to the 74th installment of Brownstone Boys Reno, a reader renovation diary about renovating a brownstone in Bed Stuy. See the first one here. They also blog at www.thebrownstoneboys.com.

Our renovation budget required us to get creative to stretch it to the finish line. We tried to combine inexpensive items with some higher-end touches to achieve the overall outcome. Sometimes off-the-shelf items just won’t get you to the gorgeous finished look of that inspiration photo you’re swooning over. We certainly didn’t have the budget to go custom in many places but where we did (and will!) it’s worth it! A custom built-in or piece of furniture allows for personalized design to fit your space and taste. You may be wondering: What are the possibilities, how do you make it happen, and how much does it cost?

Our first custom piece of furniture in our place was our master bathroom vanity. We searched high and low for the right piece. Many that we found were too big for our urban-sized bathroom, which isn’t tiny at 10 by 6 feet, but still requires a compact option. Hours and hours of searching led us to the same styles and look over and over again. Anything we did find that we liked was either too big or too expensive. We knew what we wanted so we turned to a carpenter. The cost was still a splurge, but we felt it was worth it because it was cheaper than off-the-shelf options we liked and we could customize the size so that it improved the feel of the entire room.

custom furniture

Our bedroom dresser was custom made by a local woodworker we found on Etsy

In the past we have had a dining table and a coffee table custom built as well. It’s such a great solution to get a one-of-a-kind piece — and likely for less than an expensive off-the-shelf item. It’s something you’ll have for years and you’ll be happy to talk about when someone admiringly asks, “where did you get that?”

Built-in cabinets and shelving can dramatically transform a space. And sometimes it is the only option. That’s the case for the largest unfinished area of our house. If you’ve seen pictures of our mostly finished space, you probably haven’t seen the large blank wall where something is obviously missing. We do our best to keep it out of our finished photos. It’s opposite our kitchen. We have stared at it more hours than we would like to mention trying to figure out what we want to do. We know we need more storage so we always planned on putting something there, but we just didn’t know what we wanted it to look like or even how we wanted it to function. It’s going to be a large feature of the room. We thought about buying a piece (or pieces) of furniture, but we now know the only solution is a custom built-in. We finally have our inspiration ready and we are going to embark on the project soon.

custom furniture

Our dining table and chairs were an affordable option that were custom made

How to Get Started

Free your mind and the rest will follow. The best thing about custom furniture is that you can build whatever you want. You don’t have to be restricted to what you’re seeing out there on the store shelves. Start by evaluating your needs and wants. Do you need lots of storage? Or do you want a place to display items? Examine how you live and how you’ll interact with the piece. That is one reason we have waited this long to fill this empty hole in our house. We decided we didn’t want to rush it. We wanted to build what would work best for us and to understand that we needed to live in the space for a while.

Look for inspiration. If you’re like us, you might need some direction on the aesthetic. The design was not going to miraculously appear to us in a vision. We stockpiled visual inspiration. We spoke to friends who have an eye for design. And we saved lots of Pinterest pins, Instagram screenshots, and scoured our favorite design inspiration blogs. From there we pulled some features from our favorites and combined them with our list of needs. We have a concept!

custom furniture

One of our favorite features is the custom built vanity in the master bathroom. It saves us a lot of space

How to Make It Happen

The next step is to find a builder. You can work with a furniture builder, a cabinetmaker, a millworker or a carpenter. One thing that we need for this project is someone to take our concept and put the last few finishing touches on it to make it a reality. So we wanted someone who had the ability to design and build it. Some millworkers and cabinetmakers might require detailed drawings with specs for them to build from. Others will take your inspiration and concept and provide the finishing touches and detailed drawings. That is what we need. Fortunately it isn’t too hard to find a maker who will help with the design. You’ll just want to make sure you have a clear enough vision and a solid inspiration to convey what you want.

You can provide detailed measurements or it could be a better idea to have the builder come in person to see the space and take measurements. For furniture, it could be a bit more straightforward. For instance, we knew we needed our vanity to be 55 inches wide and 18 inches deep. We could provide that to the builder ourselves and there was no need for him to come out before. For our built-ins, since he will be fitting them into place, it’s best for him to come out to take his own measurements. He will be aware of features that might require some special requirements to fit properly. Whatever you decide, be sure the item will fit through doors and stairways.

custom furniture

Not all custom furniture is expensive. This coffee table was made for a previous home and has been repurposed in our office

How Much Does This Cost?

There is always a less expensive option than building custom. For instance, we’re fans of taking off-the-shelf cabinets and fitting them in to look built in. You might still need the skill of a carpenter but it can save thousands in materials and special skills. Sometimes, like with our kitchen wall, custom is really the only solution to achieve the desired outcome. So for us it’s worth the extra expense. Drawers, cabinets and other working/mechanical features are what contribute to the cost the most. The type of material used is also a big factor. For a custom vanity, you could be looking at something like $3,000 to $5,000. That might be more or less than off-the-shelf items. For custom built-ins like the ones we want to do in our kitchen, the cost could range more depending on the above variables but expect $4,000 to $9,000 if you keep it relatively simple.

Custom furniture and built-ins might seem expensive but for items that will last decades we think it’s worth working them into a few areas. We can justify it by giving our strapped budget some breathing room in other areas. Mixing some off-the-shelf very inexpensive items with some upgraded custom features will contribute to your overall unique style while hopefully keeping your project affordable.

[Photos by Brownstone Boys]

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