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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

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People-Watching Can Lead To Better Construction   Finishing

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It's no secret that I like to visit furniture stores. It is educational to see what customers like, what the buyers employed by the stores like, and what the manufacturers are making as the fashion du jour. But furniture stores and kitchen showrooms are also great places to people-watch and learn from those observations.

As a general rule, people interact with furniture in a consistent, similar, and predictable fashion. People touch wood furniture – there is a tactile aspect to furniture shopping that plays a key role in how we build, and how we choose and apply finishes. For example:

  • A "wilder" grain or an interesting pattern in a table, desk, or cabinet top provokes people to run their hand across the surface. Almost 90% do it.
  • With a close/tight grain evenly finished top, people are as likely to run their hand along the top's edge instead of across the surface, about 50%.
  • On furniture that combines metal and wood, as was in vogue a couple of years ago, no one touches the metal, but instead touches the wood.
  • Drawers on furniture are always opened... even the most casual interest in a piece of furniture will prompt a potential customer to open a drawer and peer inside. They first notice how smoothly the drawer opens (you can watch them slide it back and forth), then they often (about 1/4th of the time) caress the inside bottom of the drawer.
  • If there are drawer pulls, potential customers use them to open a drawer. If their hand moves away from the drawer and then they reach to close it, they almost never use the pull... they push on the wood itself.
  • A door will be opened on any furniture piece with a door. If there are two doors, the right hand side door will be opened about 65% of the time. About 15% open the left door first. The rest use both hands and open both doors at the same time.
  • Not much time is spent looking inside a cabinet once the doors are open, and rarely does anyone look at or purposely feel the inside surface of a door – but they do feel it.
  • Only about 1 in 10 people look at the joinery on the side of a drawer (ostensibly those that have heard that dovetails are good) and only about 1 in 20 check out the joinery on a door's frame. No one (in my observations) has ever looked at the back of a face frame to try to determine the joinery used.
  • Out of hundreds of customers, I have never seen but one remove a drawer and look at the construction inside a cabinet.
  • At the risk of sounding risqué, hands are drawn to shapely legs. The more detail, the more the leg is touched. A plain round or square leg never feels a human caress.

This is just a sampling of observations... there are many more. And each natural inclination shown by people guides us in finishing, construction design, and ultimately in marketing (if we are in the business of selling our products). Of course there are other factors, too, that can guide us, particularly in the application of finishes.

Visual/Tactile Mismatches

Our eyes set expectations for our sense of touch, and vice versa. A deeply grained, figured, or spalted wood sets a tactile expectation that a quarter-inch of polyurethane can shatter. Likewise, a perfectly executed mahogany top that has the slightest surface ripple, roughness, or imperfection shatters our expectation of baby-bottom smoothness. An interior of a drawer or cabinet that is starkly different in look or feel from the exterior of the piece sets off subconscious "lack of uniformity" alarm bells. Of course the interior of a piece is sometimes finished differently to achieve a certain aesthetic, but if it is not (at a minimum) complimentary to the exterior finish, it can be off-putting. No finish at all inside a drawer or on the back of a door screams "incomplete!"

Watch what a person does when looking inside an open cabinet. Often they will hold the door by its edge, with four fingers on the outside of the door and their thumb holding the inside face. If the inside face of the door is not finished to the same level of smoothness as the show face, a subconscious bell tolls.

High-Touch Areas Need Extra Attention

We all know that the fronts of drawers and the tops of tables are subjected to a lot of wear, so we pay special attention to the finishes we apply, perhaps putting on an extra coat or two in those areas. But knowing that customers are drawn to shaped and carved legs, we also need to pay special attention to the final feel of the finish applied in those areas.

Door frames, particularly the section from about mid-way across the top down to about halfway along the non-hinge side are touched often. Cabinets mounted up high, like upper kitchen cabinets are handled a lot by the bottom half of the door stile and the outboard half of the bottom rail. The top edges and fronts of drawers are handled a lot, and the top edge gets the additional abuse of often being hit by whatever it is being crammed into the drawer. Extra care in applying finish to these areas will make a product more attractive to folks and it will hold up better in the long run.

I recently built some drawers with a finger-lip pull formed in the bottom edge of the drawer face... where do you think most of the wear and tear will occur?

All of this people watching and thinking about how a piece will be touched, handled, and viewed should be a part of your consideration when constructing a piece, but even more importantly, when prepping for and applying a finish. I am not suggesting "skimping" in low-touch, low-wear areas, but unless you are building a museum masterpiece, there are some practical considerations, not the least of which is time. I routinely finish the insides of furniture carcases, the "down" side of table tops, and the bottoms of drawers. But I do not finish those surfaces with the same level of detail and fastidious attention to perfect smoothness. I just don't have time. It makes sense to put a couple of extra coats of finish and pay special attention to those areas I know will be viewed often, lovingly touched, and that will receive the highest level of wear. It may not make sense to finish the bottom side of a table top with the same level of perfectionism.

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