/ Home & Energy

Flat-pack furniture: fail or frugal?

Flat pack furniture

The recently released House of Commons Lego set comes with a terrifying 100 pages of instructions and 4,163 pieces. The hilarious yet horrified responses to this on Twitter made me think of my own flat-pack furniture struggles…

Back in the 1980s when it still existed, my dad would joke that MFI stood for ‘Made to Fall apart Instantly’. It didn’t stop our family investing in its wares (perhaps investment is too strong a word – or am I being too harsh?).

These days, the spirit of MFI lives on in Ikea and Argos furniture, as well as countless other smaller brands. And us Brits love to hate them, it seems.

Flat-pack furniture

Here’s a confession. A few years back, I was in a difficult position financially and had to move back into a house share. My boyfriend offered to cheer me up by constructing a lovely big Ikea wardrobe for me. I couldn’t wait to get back home and hang up all my clothes.

When I walked through the door I was greeted by a scene of chaos and destruction. The wardrobe had collapsed sideways into a rhombus shape, the screws had torn away from their fittings and my boyfriend was sitting sheepishly in the middle of all the Allen keys, chunks of broken MDF, little wooden dowel rods and packing boxes.

I didn’t even need to guess that he hadn’t bothered with the instructions.

I decided to take charge and we went to the DIY store to get some bits and pieces that would hopefully repair the damage.

Despite this, the story ended happily. Boyfriend is now husband, but I married him for his character qualities, not his construction skills.

Cost of convenience

Nowadays, our lives have become so rushed – and instructions so confusing – that there’s a tempting trend towards hiring people to build our furniture for us. To me, this seems to defeat the object of saving money. Why not just buy furniture ready-made? Admittedly, it does provide employment.

Sometimes I dream of a return to a time when it would be the norm for a carpenter to make furniture to our specifications. But in an age of 3D printers, that’s probably never going to happen.

What do you do? Are you a flat-pack fan, or do you prefer to buy ready-made? Would you cheat and hire somebody to build those Billy bookcases?

When it comes to flat-pack furniture I ...

am happy to construct it myself (64%, 833 Votes)

avoid it - I only buy pre-built furniture​ (19%, 243 Votes)

lose my temper, grumble and eventually get it built (11%, 139 Votes)

get someone else to construct it (7%, 86 Votes)

Total Voters: 1,301

Loading ... Loading ...

I’ve loved constructing things for myself every since I was allowed (maybe aged 7 or so) to play with my dad’s Meccano set, Swiss chalet and electric train. My husband looks to me to organise things and follow the instructions when we make something together, and my step-dad leaves my mum and me to the constructing tasks as we are the ones who enjoy them and they are bewildering to him. :0)

I can’t say, however, that I’m a particular fan of flat-pack. For example I have bought ready-made (and pre-loved) furniture from charity shops and it was nice to be able to just plonk them in place right away.

I also love to get second hand furniture, especially from charity shops.

Most of the stuff I get from that source is (a) far better quality than I’d want to pay new prices for and (b) far more robust than the average flat packed item.

Being handy and with a workshop I make my own furniture – out of veneered mdf and solid wood. What has changed in decent bought flat pack stuff since MFI days are the clever fixings that lock bits together without using glue and dowels. Cam and snail type joints you turn with an allen key or screwdriver for example, concealed shelf supports. Things you can take apart again without damage. A pity that it’s often a case of “when all else fails, read the instructions” for some. Part of the fun is in working out what the person who wrote the instructions thinks is clear and obvious, and what you interpret it as saying. Can be an entertaining challenge.

When my sons were bought mechanical toys, radio controlled cars for example, they got far more fun out of taking them apart to see how they worked than in playing with them. Stood them in good stead in their working life.

Over the years I have assembled quite a lot of ‘self-assembly’ furniture and generally been satisfied with the results. Quality and precision have improved enormously over the years such that nowadays it is often impossible to tell by looking at it that a piece of furniture arrived in multiple pieces. There was a time when the instructions were completely unintelligible, the exploded diagrams were probably for a different product, and the finishes were crude and unattractive. Generally, as Rachel says, there was no structural rigidity and it formed a rhomboid shape until the back sheet was fitted with a hundred pins to hold the whole thing together. My earliest attempt was when I was eighteen, still living at home, and I put together a handy piece of furniture with a central bookcase and a cupboard at either side. Although it was quite basic with low-density chipboard covered in a woodgrain-effect vinyl material it survived several house moves before eventually being relegated to a shed where it continued to be useful for many years. A lot of similar furniture is sold today because it is economical and meets a need. The finishes are superior, the fixing mechanisms more advanced, and the carcase material is denser. In the early days, cupboard doors rarely fitted within the opening but were hung on simple peg hinges to close over the opening in order to cope with any deformation from the perpendicular. Room dividers [straight out of Abigail’s Party] were another early form of flat-pack furniture where the rectangular lower-level boxes, with their drop-down doors held up on flimsy stay-hinges. were the secret of the entire structure’s vertical posture and stability. Regular furniture shops and retailers distanced themselves from such products so they were generally sold by mail order based on dubious projection drawings in black-&-white advertised in the popular magazines. Habitat shook the market up and offered sturdy self-assembly bookcases and dresser units with a visible frame and a clear progression from a box of bits to a finished article. They also managed to crack the baffling instructions problem and ensured that at the end of the exercise you had no shortage or surplus of parts.

Today flat-pack furniture goes to the highest level with some pieces commanding four-figure prices and frequently more expensive than similar fully-assembled furniture made in a factory. I recently made up a sideboard from John Lewis with three drawers and three cupboards under and I was very impressed with the ease of assembly, the clarity of the instructions, the quality of the fittings, and the final appearance. The machining of the panels and fixing holes was extremely precise, and the wood veneers on the drawerfronts and doors lined up and matched across the front of the unit. It was delivered within a few days of ordering in-store and it only took about an hour and a half to put together and start using. At under ÂŁ400 I thought it was extremely good value; not having Malcolm’s facilities or cabinet making skill I could not have made one myself in a month of Sundays and to buy a fully-assembled equivalent would have cost about twice as much with a three-four week delivery schedule.

My most recent flat-pack project was a large swivelling TV stand that, again, was very well-made and went together perfectly including glass shelves and a heavy veneered outer carcase that immediately became rigid and sturdy before the back panel was fixed. Personally I would recommend people to try their hand at self-assembly and forget the legends of MFI [whose later stuff was not that bad actually]. Obviously, to a certain extent, the quality of material and ease of assembly are in the price but good furniture doesn’t need to cost a fortune and can give years of satisfactory service. The reality is that furniture now comes in containers from far away places like Indonesia and Vietnam and shipping it in flat-pack form saves space and keeps the cost down.

The back panel, John, is key to the rigidity and squareness of much furniture, to prevent “racking”. I use 6mm ply screwed and glued, fitting fairly tightly into either grooves or rebates. As engineers will know a diagonal brace provides enormous rigidity to a framw and a thin back panel will do the same if properly sized and fixed.

My grandfather was a carpenter who could also do joinery and cabinet-making. I inherited some of his hand-made tools but not his skills unfortunately. I spent hours in his workshop watching him make things. His only power tool was a circular saw for cutting baulks of timber down to size. Absolutely nothing was wasted. He also kept chickens and his sawdust and shavings went on the floor of their coop.

My grandfather was a railwayman on the GWR. During the “great depression” in the 1920s, he lived next door to an unemployed cabinet maker. I still have the bedroom suite that his neighbour made for him. As it is made from “proper wood” it is nice and sturdy.

Spot on. I’ve saved many a failing bookcase by simply fitting a thin plywood panel on the back.

When I think of the hilarious and the horrifying, the world of flat-pack pine-furniture and kitchen counter-top experiments gone wrong will always be foremost in my mind ;).

I’ve detailed my DIY prowess on here before, but as someone who believes flatpack anything is a creation of Satan who simply enjoys giving Hell a trial run on Earth I’m probably a little biased. But it’s safe to say I’d rather have my teeth extracted by an inebriated bricklayer in an unlit coal cellar at midnight than have to face the Cuneiform instructions, clearly translated from Sanskrit , for assembling a bookcase.

Speaking as someone who has repeatedly watched people having their teeth extracted by inebriated bricklayers as part of a series of particularly sadistic black magic rituals, I can tell you that’s a thing that definitely does not seem pleasant. At least from an outside perspective.

My first encounter with self-assembly furniture was a tall, narrow Ikea ‘Billy’ bookcase that I inherited when I moved home earlier this year. To say that it was wobbly is an understatement. I dismantled it sufficiently to glue in the back panel, which made if much more rigid.

Recently I have been helping a friend assemble some furniture for the spare bedrooms. One item was from Ikea. The others were more expensive German products, but the cam screws and other fixings intended to hold it all together were remarkably similar. She did the challenging job of deciding which of the fixings was needed for different purposes. In some cases, counting the number provided was more use than the pictorial instructions. I found that a small electric screwdriver saved time.

I’ve put a number of IKEA wardrobes together, single-handed, and had no problems at all. I did follow the instructions though, step-by-step – may have made all the difference!

PS Your boyfriend wasn’t SAT in the middle (no one sat him there), he was SITTING in the middle!

Most of my rather tortured attempts at assembling the simplest items do look as though I’d done them single handed, when – ideally – I should have used two. Recently, I bought (on a rather good offer) some outside storage units, which (I thought) should be simple to assemble since they’re all plastic.

The sheer quantity of invective they evoke is quite surprising. In the case of one, largish outdoor ‘Midi’ unit the hasp, staple and all screws were missing. The instructions contained a link to a website where you could ask for the missing bits, so that must be a common issue. Nine weeks ago I did, and yesterday one single, solitary staple arrived. All I now need is the screws, the second staple and the Hasp. If they continue despatching at the current rate I should have the assembly finished by next summer…

I hate flat pack furniture full stop! Cheap, yes, but after you install it its also cheap – if you want something good and dont want to install, get a fitted wardrobe.

Find yourself a local company which specialises in this sort of work and get a proper wardrobe which will look great last decades, increase storage room + value of home and not give you this assembly headache.

[Sorry, your comment has been edited to align with our Community Guidelines. Thanks, mods]

We have a sideboard and a media unit that required assembly and the finished results are excellent. The veneer grains match across the cupboards, the doors and drawers all open and close perfectly, and assembly was quite straightforward with clear instructions and no missing or excess parts. The two pieces of furniture are attractively designed and I would defy anybody to know they were flat-pack items. They weren’t exactly cheap but cost considerably less than equivalent fully-assembled furniture and I cannot see any disadvantages. The precision of the machining and finishing today, together with quality control, are far superior to the work of just a few years ago.

Colin Overton says:
5 August 2017

There’s another issue with pre-built furniture, will it go up stairs and into the bedroom? I don’t really like built-in wardrobes, unless super expensive. I think they look like MFI “melamine”, certainly on the inside, particularly after redecorating.

Simon Cornwell says:
11 August 2019

I’m a city and guilds qualified mechanical engineer. I removed a gearbox and
replace a clutch on a car when I was 17 using a workshop manual. I hate self assembly furniture. It’s not hard it’s just annoying, boring and time consuming. The worst thing is the packaging. A colleague once summed it up by saying. Ah mate it’s for people who work in offices to assemble to give them an illusion of being able to do skilled work.

Never mind, Simon. You can relieve the boredom by studying the differences in design of different cam-locks and other fixtures used in flat-pack furniture. Try not to broadcast the fact that you have practical skills in case friends and family think you will enjoy assembling their confounded furniture.

There are some very clever devices used in furniture construction that our forefather joiners would have given their eye teeth for. I’m not so sure about the diagrams to show the assembly method of flat packs – or some other things for that matter. I may be a little thick but some of them take some interpreting.

My grandfather was a carpenter who could also do joinery and cabinet-making. I inherited some of his hand-made tools but not his skills unfortunately. I spent hours in his workshop watching him make things. His only power tool was a circular saw for cutting baulks of timber down to size. Absolutely nothing was wasted. He also kept chickens and his sawdust and shavings went on the floor of their coop.

Such a nice post. the right place for furniture pieces of equipment.