the education of a Furniture Designer Maker

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the education of a designer maker

When choosing training, our tutors have overarching experience having themselves been furniture, design and architecture students, apprentices, and higher education lecturers. Opportunities include;

  • private courses (such as ours) run by practicing furniture makers and designers
  • technical colleges offering vocational qualifications 
  • degree courses in furniture design and making (or related subjects like architecture, engineering, product design, interior design, or the arts)  
  • or an apprenticeship

private courses

The Williams and Cleal Furniture School sits amongst the top ranking and most respected private furniture making schools in the UK. Private courses like ours are taught by practicing designers and furniture makers, with many years experience of working in the bespoke and commercial furniture industry and with the freedom to set the content of their course syllabus.

At Williams and Cleal, we have refined and developed our syllabus over 15 years to closely reflect the needs of a creative designer maker and the subjects covered on a 3 year vocational course or degree programme. We offer this content in the compressed timescale of just one year so are students are able to complete well in advance of their counterparts on the longer institutional courses.

Most, but not all, private courses are uncertificated. As such, courses such as ours are not bound to the syllabus in the same way as certificated courses are. Our content can be flexible and reactive to the ambitions of each student. For example, if you come already proficient with computer aided design knowledge but lacking practical experience, we can weight your learning more towards the practical - or vice versa. 

what about qualifications?

Many careers websites focus on the importance of securing a qualification at vocational or degree level as the first step on the career ladder. While this advice isn't wrong and qualifications certainly have their place, it should be known that the furniture industry is one where your practical experience and the quality of your portfolio hold greater weight and importance with employers, and qualifications may not always be necessary.

vocational qualifications and courses

As well as private vocational courses like ours,  further or higher educational establishments also offer vocational qualifications in furniture making. Typically, they run either City and Guilds Furniture Making or Furniture Design and Manufacturing Qualifications ranging from Level 1 through to  Level 3 (or higher). OAL (Occupational Awards Limited) are another awarding body that have developed a number of new qualifications in furniture making and these are being offered from levels 1 to 3. NVQ's and BTECS in Furniture may differ between educational establishments and training providers.

Vocational qualifications are usually two thirds practical work with the remainder being theory studies. Unlike private courses, the qualification requires the production of a portfolio of evidence and theory assignments, as well as examinations.

The length of higher education courses can vary between 1 and 3 years, with attendance being typically 1 or 2 days per week. As such, some people  prefer the continuity of a private course where attendance is usually 5 days a week. In this respect, private courses can cover as much content in one year as covered by Level  1 to 3 qualifications in three years. If you are between 16 and 18, you may be eligible for free education at a higher education establishment, but fees are likely to be applicable if you are over 19 years of age.

degree courses

Universities and Higher Education establishments provide foundation degrees and BA's in Furniture Design and Making. However, students can also come to furniture making from related subjects like Product Design, Interior Design, Engineering, Architecture, or from the Arts.

Universities typically offer furniture design degrees on a full time basis over three years - or six years part time. It is possible to take a foundation degree in furniture design and making on a  full time basis over two years, and then top up the qualification to a BA (hons) by completing an additional year. Some institutions also offer an MA in furniture design.

Tuition fees for degree courses are upwards of £9000 per year of study, so the total fees on finishing your course are likely to be upwards of £27,000. University websites often give an estimated breakdown of living costs, which differs depending on the location, but most universities estimate an approximate additional cost of living figure of between £9500 and £11,500 per year of study.

Course content is variable across institutions, but in all, the fundamental principles balancing practical craft, design and theory are embodied in core teaching. Much of the content covered over the course of a degree is mirrored in a condensed timescale by privately run courses.

University course comparison sites generally report employment rates between 75% and 100% for furniture design and making degrees. With starting wages in the industry typically between £16,000 and £20,000, the decision over taking the degree route can sometimes be led by finances, with some individuals deciding to take an alternative path that offers a comparatively economical option in terms of course fees and associated living costs. 


There are some really good apprenticeship opportunities out there and it is a great way to learn whilst drawing a small wage; but finding the right apprenticeship can be challenging. By their own admission (in an article published by small independent makers say there is a shortage of apprenticeships because within a commercial workshop it can "take years of practical experience to become a good maker and whilst getting this experience, a trainee is a cost to an employer who has to stop his own work to teach the apprentice".

There seems to be more government schemes in recent years to support apprenticeships, but it is still the case that  smaller makers cannot always afford to pay the wages, which are not often covered by the work of an apprentice. When working to deadline on commissions, it can also be difficult for independent makers to set aside the time to teach and develop apprentice's skills as fully as they would wish. As such, we have been contacted by makers looking to arrange courses for their apprentices, to compliment and advance the teaching that they are not always able to deliver. 

This is not true of all apprenticeships, as there are very talented furniture designer makers, who invest a great deal of time in training their apprentices to the finest standards across a broad range of cabinetmaking skills and knowledge. The difficulty is finding the right apprenticeship opportunity, one that provides good scope for progression and learning, with the opportunity to work on a range of different projects.

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To find an apprenticeship, you might research makers whose work you particularly admire and speculatively approach them about possibility of apprenticeship opportunities. The Edward Barnsley Workshop runs a good furniture making apprenticeship focusing on developing good making skills, although they do not teach design. Benchmark also run an award wining apprentice scheme, but like the Barnsley workshop, they offer two placements each year - and competition for places is understandably high.

To find an apprenticeship, you might research makers whose work you particularly admire and speculatively approach them about possibility of apprenticeship opportunities. The Edward Barnsley Workshop runs a good furniture making apprenticeship focusing on developing good making skills, although they do not teach design. Benchmark also run an award wining apprentice scheme, but like the Barnsley workshop, they offer two placements each year - and competition for places is understandably high.

Competition is stiff, and although places like the workshops mentioned above look for potential and enthusiasm above qualifications and experience, often (but not always) applicants will have completed a furniture course prior to applying for the apprenticeship. Apprentice schemes might also ask to see examples of your work; often looking for evidence that you enjoy making things, well over and above the size and complexity of your project.

Apprentices often receive the current National Minimum Wage apprentice rate, which at the time of writing is £3.70 an hour for apprentices under 19 and those aged 19 or over who are in their first year. You will also be entitled to 20 days paid holiday per year, plus bank holidays. Workshop days are typically from 08:00 to 17:00.

What should you look for when choosing a private course in furniture making?

If you are looking to be employed as a maker, it's important to choose a course that facilitates a good proportion of hands on practical learning to develop the quality of your skills and the range of work produced in your portfolio. Courses should include a series of set projects that introduce new skills, techniques and processes - while challenging the accuracy and quality of your developing skills. These projects lead into and run alongside your own design make projects, and on average your course should enable you to make between one and four pieces of your own design prior to completing the course.

Since the skills to draw and conceptualize 3D objects is very important in furniture making, courses should give you a solid grounding in drawing skills and techniques, and nurture knowledge and proficiency in a range of computer aided design software. Alongside the ability to transfer your design ideas into technical drawings, courses should also  teach you fundamental design principles and encourage you to build your own design identity.

As well as courses teaching a broad range of woodworking practice in the use of hand tools and machinery, digital, materials, and construction technology. You should also expect an insight into next steps as a designer maker, from portfolio development, CV and interview techniques, business practice and researching potential employers.

Like Williams and Cleal, tutors on private courses will frequently be running their own successful furniture businesses alongside their teaching, which is of further benefit to students who can observe first hand the knowledge and processes involved in running a bespoke furniture business. Additionally, practicing designer makers are likely to have a full range of current contacts and suppliers within the bespoke furniture industry, which students can benefit from.