Indoor: Tailor-made in wood

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The Independent Online
Flat-packs, DIY - forget it. Commission a cabinet for a perfect fit. Rhiannon Batten finds the man for the job

Whether you are the sort of stripped-pine aficionado beloved of the stand-up comic in need of material, or simply want to replace that maddening self-assembly wardrobe whose doors have never quite meet, you could well be hitting the high-street furniture stores today. But finding something to fit that tricky alcove precisely could be a square peg/ round hole scenario that you could well do without. Fortunately, custom-made furniture need not come with a dizzyingly exclusive price tag.

Believing that a gap existed in the market for bespoke furniture, Andrew Stanley began a woodworking business in London's East End in 1989. The prices are serious - recent commissions include an oak bookcase, at pounds 2,100, double wardrobe in English oak, at pounds 2,400, and a maple sitting-room unit for pounds 3,400 - but the absence of high overheads and store rentals means that they bear comparison with off-the-peg prices. Furthermore, you get a degree of control: specific prices, of course, depend on chosen materials as well as size and fitting.

Since Mr Stanley and his colleagues are as concerned with the pleasure of working with wood as with turning a profit, they will take on almost anything. "We even made a bath and hand-basin out of teak last year. It was, in fact, a great success," he says. "Much of our work is undertaken for architects. I suppose the most eccentric architect's commission we've had recently was replacing a classical column on the exterior of a house; somehow, it had been stolen. Of course, we also work direct for retail customers, and we keep our costs down because pieces are sold direct to the customer rather than through a shop."

When a customer comes to a bespoke furniture maker, the company will discuss a design and then produce an illustration and an estimate. "On approval, I'll do a final drawing," says Mr Stanley, "mainly to check the functionality of it all; it's essential to get right details of things such as drawers." This is partly because there is precious little room for error. The cost of raw materials is about one-third of the price of the finished product. For some woods, such as teak, and for sprayed, pigmented lacquer finishes, the cost can be even higher.

From agreement of the plan to completion of the commission will take about eight weeks, depending on materials and labour. Some self-assembly wardrobes seem to take that long.

Andrew Stanley himself started working life as an accountant, but found creative carpentry more to his liking. One of his first orders in those early years was for a set of 66 leather and oak chairs to be installed in the Great Hall of Lincoln's Inn in central London. The work was produced to match the original period furniture; this has become something of a feature of the company's, and is often a requirement of clients.

The Nineties have brought their own problems to be solved. Mr Stanley says that much thought has to be given to work such as disguising computer trunking behind Gothic panels, and building secret panels into furniture. It is this variety, he adds, that is one of the main joys of his job - he relishes the prospect of a challenge.

Producing similar pieces of furniture time after time is a less attractive option for Mr Stanley than, for example, time spent puzzling over a job for the cloakrooms of the Middle Temple, in the legal hub of the capital. The difficulty to be grappled with here was the designer's vision of suspended timber shapes supported by glass and steel - "it was intriguing to implement this," says Mr Stanley.

The company's finished pieces vary enormously in both scope and style. Walking around the workshop, you are just as likely to come across solid, elegant and understated shelving units for a modern warehouse conversion as you are to find the flamboyant excesses of a ceremonial table inlaid with solid silver. Much of the work revolves around cabinet-making but orders can also consist of more mundane window frames, doors and cupboards. Mr Stanley is keen to point out his tradesmanlike approach, whereby pieces are primarily functional rather than artistic. "Without imposing on a client's taste, I try to guide the non expert towards designs I know from experience will work and will suit the building," says Mr Stanley. But if you insist upon stripped pine - that's no problem.

Andrew Stanley Woodworking is at 6A King's Yard, off Carpenter's Road, London E15 2HD (telephone and fax: 0181-533 6199).