Why I started Making Furniture

I never thought I could be a furniture maker. I grew up with that common, outdated, and unfair mentality driven by societal norms of "women do not use saws". And these days, I endure a lot of jaw dropped men who'll say something along the lines of "You're a woodworker?!" And I'll tell you, it does get old. Yes, world. A woman woodworker. How crazy is that. We can do it.

When I was 12, I refinished a desk. Now, teaching a child to sand a desk for 8 hours may not be considered a woodworking project. But, watching the desk change from one shade of brown to another? Now that was something. This wood stuff, this stuff was interesting.

When I was 14, I installed my parents hardwood floor. I was whaling on one of those pneumatic nailers you rent from Home Depot, going row by row. And by the end, despite it being an exhausting project, I was inspired to try more.

My dad taught me about a "cut list". He taught me to pre-drill and screw pieces of particle board together. And then, I went through my "built-in" phase. Closet? Built in shelves. Headboard? Shelves with storage. You get a shelf! And you get a shelf! With my baby-sitting money, I was going to Home Depot with a list of pieces, and waiting eagerly for the panel saw operator.

As soon as I could, I was taking tech classes in highschool. Here I learned my first CAD software, Vector Works. I learned all of the woodworking machinery, and how to weld. I made a wooden box, a 3 wheeled bicycle called a "spin-cycle", a pvc tube submarine, and did many other wacky and amazing projects.

I went to OCAD University for Environmental Design. What I really wanted was to flip houses, like I saw them doing on HGTV. But alas, 18 year olds are supposed to go to school. It wasn't until after I completed my degree, when I started to think, "hey, I could really make a go at this". I had planned to do my undergrad, then complete a masters in Architecture. But the more I learned of the industry, the more I realized how computer-based it was. In my interior design courses, I began to feel like the job, while very interesting, is sort of like being someone else's personal shopper. And the more I researched products that could be purchased, the more I felt like there was a short coming in the furniture industry. There were items which were mass produced, very competitively priced, and the quality was terrible. Then, there were designer furniture pieces, which were still mass-produced overseas, but cost thousands of dollars more, with similar quality. It was difficult to understand where that mark-up came from

The reality of furniture today:

It's primarily manufactured overseas in countries that disregard ethical labour and environmental standards.

Minimum wage in Ontario, Canada: $14.35/hr [*1]

Minimum wage in China: $2.16/hr [*2]

Minimum wage in Vietnam: $1.51/hr [*3]

Minimum wage in India: 0.38/hr [*4] 

There is a big disconnect internationally regarding labour, environmental, and ethical standards. How can we, as a country, expect such standards for ourselves, yet disregard these standards when it comes to items we want to purchase? Not to mention the amount of forced (slave) and child labour. The US Department of Labor released a very long list of countries suspected of child and forced labour. Specifically, it lists Turkey, Vietnam and Bangladesh as countries with evidence of slave and child labour in furniture manufacturing [5].

What's the carbon footprint of furniture?

Most furniture travels around the world at least once. Companies ship the wood from North or South America, to China (or India, or wherever it is manufactured), throw the raw material into a production line, and ship it back to North America to be sold. Synthetic laminates, medium-density-fibreboard (MDF), printed (fake) wood veneer, clear, and coloured surfaces are made using toxic adhesives and lacquers. These substances which make furniture substrates and surfaces "durable" contain Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), like formaldehyde (adhesive), ethanol and acetone (thinners). In factories, there is no planning for or implementation of safety measures for the workers or the environment.

Next, let's consider the life cycle of the big-box product. The quality of furniture manufactured these days is particularly poor. After 2 years, a modern-manufactured piece of furniture usually has chipped or peeling veneer, the MDF is swelling from water damage, and the construction is rickety and unstable. You'd be embarrassed to pass this on to the second hand store let alone gift it to a relative. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2018 America alone generated 24,000 000 lbs of furniture waste, of which 80% couldn't be recycled, and went to a landfill. [*6]

So, why is it that furniture that's manufactured these days only a year or two away from the garbage dump?! Stores are literally selling cardboard wrapped in printed woodgrain. What on earth is going on?

Alas, I do not have the answer to these questions. In 2015, the furniture industry in Canada was valued at 11.6 billion dollars. And how much of that accounts for the wage of the child labourer overseas who's working overtime? [*7]. What are the consequences for the companies dumping their toxic chemicals into the sewer that drains from the factory? [*8] Who's providing clean filters in the respirator worn by the worker in the spray booth 6 days a week?

Researching the realities behind the furniture industry is shocking and unacceptable. We can try to change the industry or we can choose not to support it.

Buy Local, Second Hand Furniture

Second-hand, local furniture is the best way to reduce your furniture's carbon footprint. That's right- thrifting! You're effectively up-cycling, and purchasing a product which doesn't need to undergo a manufacturing process or further shipping.

Buy Local, Custom Made Furniture

With real estate prices in Ontario skyrocketing, every square-foot counts. And sometimes, you can't quite find what you need second-hand. Your furniture should be functional, timelessly designed, and offer solutions for what you need.

As a one-woman operation, I strive to offer products made of locally sourced materials, sealed with low VOC finishes. I'm not claiming to be "re-inventing the wheel" here, but, I do put considerable effort into making sure that what I create is customized to fill a particular need in a design that is both efficient and timeless.

Each product is thoughtfully engineered to withstand what life demands and constructed in a manner which offers stability and strength that will last a lifetime (well- maybe even longer). Any problems that happen down the line I'll be here with advice and the know-how to help you fix it. Let's call it a "30 year warranty".

By buying things from Sarah Rose Woods, your supporting a Toronto artisan with a dream. A dream to contest the unethical manufacturing of furniture. If you are a total avant-garde rebel, fighting the capitalist hierarchy driven by slave-labour. Or, you're just a cool person who wants to live surrounded by functional objects which look pretty, too, give my products a try.

At the end of the day, I just want to make things for like-minded humans, who understand why I am doing what I do.

Thank you for your time reading, and stay tuned for what's next,

[*1]:Minimum Wage of Ontario. www.ontario.ca/document/your-guide-employment-standards-act-0/minimum-wage
[*2]: China Minimum Wage Updates 2020.  www.sgs.com/en/news/2021/01/safeguards-00221-china-minimum-wage-updates-in-2020
[*3]: Minimum monthly wages in Vietnam in 2018, and 2020 by region. www.statista.com/statistics/1088302/vietnam-minimum-monthly-wages-by-region/#:~:text=In%202020%2C%20the%20National%20Wage,at%205.88%20million%20Vietnamese%20dong.
[*4]: India National Floor Level Minimum Wage. https://tradingeconomics.com/india/minimum-wages#:~:text=Minimum%20Wages%20in%20India%20is,according%20to%20our%20econometric%20models.
[*5]: List of Goods Produced by Child Labour or Forced Labour. www.dol.gov/agencies/ilab/reports/child-labor/list-of-goods-print
[*6]: Facts and Figures about Materials, Waste, and Recycling. www.epa.gov/facts-and-figures-about-materials-waste-and-recycling/durable-goods-product-specific-data
[*7]: A Case Study of Young Workers in the Furniture Industry of Cebu.  www.ilo.org/manila/publications/WCMS_761269/lang--en/index.htm
[*8]: How the Flint River got so Toxic. www.theverge.com/2016/2/26/11117022/flint-michigan-water-crisis-lead-pollution-history