A Handcrafted Home: Tips on Working with an Artisan

There are many elements to a happy life, but I have to say I agree with author Gretchen Rubin that home is the most important.  For some, home is a sacred retreat from the outside world.  For others, it’s a social hub that welcomes family, friends and neighbors alike.  At its core though, home is both a physical space and a sense of place.  What we allow into our homes – clutter, minimalism, nurturing (or tense) interactions with loved ones, fresh flowers, and so forth – has an impact on our lives.

My favorite handmade, everyday kitchen items from Etsy shop JustWork

While reading Rubin’s latest book, “Happier at Home,” I realized one aspect of home that makes me immensely happy is our handcrafted items, many of which are sustainable and eco-friendly.  Handmade items aren’t necessarily cheap, but I find that the quality of the items far outlasts what you’d pick up at a Big Box store. They become treasures instead of mere possessions.  And in many instances you’re able to work with a local artisan, simultaneously supporting their craft and your local economy.

Of course, there are sentimental handmade items that are far more meaningful than anything you could ever purchase.  For me, it’s the beautiful light grey blanket my grandmother knitted, or the cute apron my mom sewed for me to start my life as a newlywed.  But since my husband and I recently had to furnish our apartment from scratch here in Australia, we decided to invest in items that have a human touch and history behind them.

We had a few growing pains understanding how different it is to work one-on-one with local artisans, but overall we were very happy with the results.  We’d do it all over again because the items we now have – a dining room table made from 100-year old recycled wood, or the rustic entryway table with hand-forged metal knobs – impart a sense of spirit and creativity that’s devoid from pre-fabricated, machine-made furniture.

Here are my five tips for working with an artisan to furnish your home.  Happy nesting!

1) Meet in person.  For smaller purchases, ordering items from an online marketplace like Etsy is fine.  I do it all the time.  However, for larger or more expensive purchases like furniture, I recommend finding a local artisan you can meet with face-to-face.  There is more accountability that way – plus you can show them the space where you need something to fit or even provide them with exact color swatches.  You’ll avoid high shipping costs by having your furniture delivered locally, and if there’s a problem the return is easier.

2) Be honest about costs – but budget for a little extra.  We were honest with our craftsman about what we could pay, and he found a way to work within our budget.  For example, though we initially had our hearts set on native Australian wood, our budget was more suited for recycled Oregon wood.  But that wood ended up coming from a dismantled 100-year-old warehouse in Sydney, which had a much cooler history than we’d expected! In addition, if you commit to having the artisan create more than one item you can usually get a discount.  Providing your own wood or materials can also lower costs.

As for budgeting a little extra, just do it.  Something will likely come up.  Our craftsman had to re-sand our table and apply a non-toxic lacquer to get the smoothness we were after.  He didn’t realize how much longer it would take, and we suddenly had an unforeseen charge on our hands.  Be prepared and pad your budget.

3) Know your measurements.  When a piece is custom-made for you, you can’t just return it – especially if you didn’t take the time to measure out exactly how large (or small) you need it to be.  Measure the height, width and length at least a few times.  Using painter’s tape to mark out the space is a good visual gauge of whether the measurements are satisfactory.  And if the final piece can’t be taken apart or maneuvered easily, measure the dimensions of your door. We learned this the hard way…

4) Ask for images of the raw materials.  There’s an element of letting go of perfection when you work with a craftsperson.  Artisans create beautiful pieces, but they don’t have the precision of a machine. And if the material you are using is recycled, it’s sure to have some quirks.

Asking about any flaws in the material or, better yet, requesting images, can help eliminate any surprises.  For example, one of our artisans did not mention that the recycled wood would have holes from where the old bolts were removed.  Luckily my husband and I both liked the authentic and rustic look, but I was a bit irritated when I first saw the finished table simply because I wasn’t expecting the holes.

5) Be grateful and respectful.  No matter what, your artisan has put in the time, energy and passion to create something for you.  If you are displeased, act tactfully.  You aren’t dealing with a faceless customer service department at a big company, so aggression isn’t the way to go (not that you should ever do that).  And if you’re overjoyed with the final piece?  Recommend your artisan to friends and family!  The best local Sydney craftsman we have worked with is Bjorn Brunger from Touchwood Sydney.  He has made many of the special pieces in our home and we highly recommend him!

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