Sunday, February 28, 2021

Do it yourself.


     "You're going to have to put it together," my wife said. Which, in married couple code meant, "Can you put it together? Are you capable?" An IKEA console she was considering ordering online.
     Last summer we had hired someone to replace the water damaged drywall in what we still call nostalgically "The Toy Room" even though there are no toys there nor boys to play with them. In the fall, we had a maple wooden floor put down (by Chicago Hardwood Floors; the best) and painted the walls a marvelous blue—first slapping swatches of no fewer than seven sample colors (we had originally thought "Yellow!" and it took us a while to get to ("Not yellow!") I had installed a grand's worth of lovely white baseboard covers to replace the hideous beige rusted metal covers in place since the late 1950s. And after risking our lives in six or 10 furniture stores, bought a pair of leather recliners (Electric, which has a drawback. "They seem like medical devices," I noted). And a concrete-colored sofa. Consoles that you don't put together, but purchase at a real furniture store, cost a thousand bucks, or two. This one, the "Hemnes" from IKEA, costs $229. And looked pretty nice, at least online. Real wood. The web site links you directly to Task Rabbit, the chore site, which informed me that someone would come to a house in our Zip code and put it together for $38. But that would involve letting a person in the house, and be a personal failure of handiness on my part. She didn't say that. She didn't have to. I knew.
     "Sure,"I said. "I can put it together."
     Every bit of cultural static about assembling IKEA products is about how maddeningly complex they are and how confusing the instructions can be. The Internet is alive with web sites like "25 IKEA Assembly Fails" and "Six of the best IKEA furniture assembly fails." That didn't deter me. I figured, by doing it myself, I would be participating in the larger society that I've been cut off from for the past year, not that I ever was much a party of it. Assembling an IKEA console would be time consuming and vexing, but in a culturally-appropriate way, like going to a Bears game. And. wouldn't get cold. Bottom line, I welcomed the distraction.
     "It'll be a break from writing stuff," I said.
     The console arrived Saturday morning in two flat pack boxes. I threw on a mask, went outside and asked the delivery guys to take them around to the back of the house, where the Toy Room is. I figured I'd give each guy $10 if they did, but didn't say that. The driver looked at me as if I had asked him to dance.
     "We're not supposed to take it up the steps," he said, depositing his box at the base of our steps. The second guy put the second box there. They were heavy. With my back in mind, I kinda rolled them up the stairs, using a corner as a fulcrum to pivot each one up. That worked. Inside, I began to tear the boxes apart in our front parlor trying to open them. My wife suggested we keep the boxes intact, the implication being that I'd somehow fail to assemble them and we'd have to return the whole thing in shame. That wasn't happening. I ripped apart the boxes, and my wife and I carried the several dozen oddly shaped wooden pieces down to the Toy Room, plus enough hardware, screws and metal tabs and stuff, to assemble an automobile, in my estimation. In the Toy Room there was a carpet pad waiting for a carpet that was supposed to be delivered yesterday. That made the perfect staging area.

This one, not that one

     It looked like the photo above.
     I poured a cup of Peet's, twisted in my Air Pods, and set to work about 11 a.m.
     First I read the instructions. Well, not read, since there were no words. Looked them over, carefully, studying the pieces, the steps. Which is maturity. In the past, I'd just jump in, then later consult the instructions to see what had gone wrong. Not this time. I could see that they make a point of not only showing the builder what pieces to use, but which similar pieces NOT to use. That's smart. And useful.
     I assembled the drawers, and was thrown for a momentary loop because the bottoms, with their pre-printed lined liners, were only supported by a groove on two sides, front and back. This seemed a design flaw. Shoddy. They'd bow. I quickly realized that the metal pull assemblies also held the other two sides of the bottoms up. Not a flaw, but clever design. If I had to give one piece of assembly advice I learned Saturday morning, it's this: trust IKEA. They've figured this out. If you think they're wrong, they're not. It's just you haven't figured out their logic yet. It's there, waiting.
     I worked steadily away, finished the three drawers. It wasn't unpleasant, but almost athletic, a kind of IKEA yoga, standing over the parts, stretching, reaching, holding, pounding dowels with a rubber mallet, lining parts up. 
     At 12:37 p.m. I broke for lunch, checked the sterile and pointless online work, then returned about 1:20 p.m. I was glad to get back at it. It was like a hobby that requires focus, like building a ship in a bottle. 
     Maybe the chore gods were with me Saturday. Typically, my wife shows up at the precise instant when I've messed something up, as if my brain sends out a silent alarm and she hears it and comes running to witness the disaster aborning. Which usually makes it worse, looking up as the sickening oh-I've-botched-this realization hits to see my wife vectoring into the room smiling brightly with misplaced confidence in me, here to certify my shame. But now the several times she checked in were all at the exact right moment when I could use a second person—the instructions say you need two—to hold something, or consult over a puzzling glyph, or look for my screwdriver, which I had a tendency to put down and lose.
     We can cut to the chase. Just because I found it pleasant to go through the many steps to put together an IKEA console doesn't mean it's something interesting to read about. I lack the skill to do that, or at least the inclination to try. So I get it done, and flip the console over, and the thing looks wonderful. The wood stained, not painted. Real wood, not particleboard. The black knobs are less than ideal, but I only had that thought because my wife, in her due diligence before buying it, saw the hint online to class up the piece by buying higher grade festive porcelain knobs and replacing them. We plan to do that.
     After admiring it for five seconds, I did notice something amiss. The right side was projecting a millimeter or two from under the top, showing the slightest strip of beige unstained wood. I looked at its counterpart on the left side, and saw that it is tucked under the top, as you'd expect. I must not have pushed the right side all the way in during the initial stages of construction,. My wife saw it too.
     "Is that going to bother you?" she said, knowing my OCD way of being tormented by that kind of thing, and anticipating I might immediately tear the thing apart and begin again. Which I did consider. But then I looked at the physiognomy of the piece, which remember I had just constructed, and thus had not only a certain investment in, but knowledge of. Acting intuitively, I took the heel of my right hand, drew it back, and drove it as hard as I could against the part that was jutting out from under the top. It shifted perfectly into place.
     "There," I said.
     We moved it into its position against the wall. When I dragged the boxes to the recycling, I made a point to see where the Hemnes came from. Any guesses? Not the United States—my wife's guess. Not Sweden—where IKEA is based. Not Canada, source of a lot of furniture.


  1. Having put together a number of IKEA pieces, I've realized the following:
    The better you can read, the harder it is to follow those idiotic pictograms. The totally illiterate do fine with them.
    Occasionally, parts are misdrilled. I've had to redrill them to put it together.
    Russia is unusual, as most of it is from China or Viet Nam, unless that's changed in the last few years.

    And Ivar Kamprad [his initials form the first part of IKEA], was an actual Norwegian Nazi. Why he wasn't hanged with Quisling is beyond me?

  2. I enjoyed it. I now have information filed away about assembling IKEA furniture - and some of its origins.

  3. Very nice. The room looks great.
    And it was no doubt really satisfying to fist-bump the errant part into submission: very manly-man!

  4. Following family tradition, I would help my brother assemble Christmas presents for his children. Our completion stats ran 3 to 1, always in my favor because I read the directions. Doesn't matter if its a $500 IKEA dresser or a $30 Sullivan bookcase, you paid for an instruction sheet, use it. Having it delivered was smart, not offering to buy off their reluctance to finish its' journey was probably a mistake. The weight of a double dresser constructed mostly of particle board is excuse enough to pay for a fully constructed piece to be delivered next Tuesday between Noon and Four PM. I was able to assemble my dresser in short order thanks to the instructions. Thank you Ivar. Had I known he was a Nazi, I'd have made a different choice. The toughest part was moving it to the intended location, where if functioned perfectly, looked good and wasn't hard to part with in the end.

  5. As a furniture builder/ cabinetmaker by training I both understand the satisfaction of assembling a piece and resent the passing of a well paying unionized trade that employs so many fewer americans than it once did.

    The very sound of the name, IKEA makes me throw up a little.

    I remember the first time I put one together for a client thinking: "junk"

    The higher end pieces are much better and might survive dissassembly and a move . But most of it won't.

    Approaching retirement I guess I don't care except my middle boy is taking over the business and competing with robots and near slave labor ain't fun.

    My dad was a carpenter.

    I've made a fine living and put 2 boys through college. I hope my son can continue to do work he truly loves and make a decent living.

    I doubt it.

    Task rabbit? A whole nother abomination in class warfare .

    1. On this one, I'm with you FME. In my ideal world, we wouldn't buy a piece of furniture that wasn't hand-assembled by a cabinetmaker. Our dining room table was custom made of bird's eye maple by a furniture-builder in Maine, with spoon feet and a honey finish that after 30 years is a joy to touch. However, I no longer live in that world, alas.

    2. Few of us do Neil. Fortunately I still have the opportunity to build a walnut bookcase or 5 every now and then. Occasionally a potential client will contact me and mention they were looking at X on the IKEA web site and ask if I could build something like it cheaper. My standard reply is: cheaper is impossible. For less money? Very unlikely. I costed out building a platform bed like they sell. Couldn't buy the materials for what they charge for the finished item. To quote KV: so it goes

  6. Years ago, I bought a breakfront from Scandinavian Design in Chicago and had it shipped to my home in Springfield where it arrived in a carton...unassembled. Like IKEA, the assembly directions were pictures but without words. My feeble brain failed. To assemble, I got someone at SD to talk me through the assembly on the phone...for nearly four hours. Next time I’ll pay for assembly.

  7. Before one marries, a couple should attempt to put together some IKEA furniture. It is the supreme test of future compatibility. If more than twenty swear words are spoken, or citing of the partner’s IQ or educational level, bleeding, or consideration of getting a FOID card, one should reconsider eternal bliss with this person. At the very last, salvation of the relationship by vowing never to buy DYI furniture. That is why Walter E. Smythe stays in business.

  8. I bought a sectional sofa from IKEA and was horrified when it came unassembled, in 7 or 8 enormous boxes. They can’t expect me to assemble a damn sofa, I thought. In the end it was doable but a second person to help is absolutely necessary.

  9. Cleveland still has no IKEA, but we've been to the outlets in Columbus and Pittsburgh. Best thing about the visits were the cafeterias and the lingonberries.

    Otherwise, the stuff they sell is mostly crap...the kind of furniture a kid would have in his dorm room. It is not meant for grwon-ups. Some of it appeared to be made of heavy cardboard. But hey, we went to a Cubs-Priates night game at PNC Park afterward, so the trip was worth it.

    Some years back, we bought the same kind of piece as the one in Mr. S's image, only in dark brown. WE bought it to use as a TV stand. Saw it at a lower-end furniture outlet and it was on the sales floor. I made a deal with one of the managers...I would buy it on the spot and pay extra for it, if they would carry it out to the loading dock and put it into our vehicle. Which they did, in the middle of a blinding snowstorm.

    We drove it home and dragged into the house and put it in the living room and hooked up all the wires and cables and connections. No muss, no fuss.

    I'm too old to screw around with unassembled cardboard dreck. Neither do I have the patience. So it either comes into the house already assembled, or it never gets through the door. To hell with DIY.

  10. As one who has assembled countless pieces of what a mover once described to me derisively as "instant furniture," I have always liked the fact that I am the one who actually turns a pile of precisely cut rectangles and a bagful of fasteners into an actual piece of domestic livingware.

    The factory can mess about with machining the materials and packaging all the bits and pieces and sticking it all into great big phenomenally heavy boxes, but the bottom line is that it does not actually become a bookcase or a desk or a table until I myself go at it and get the job done. I like that.

    I'm sitting here at a Springfield desk by Sauder that I put together in 1987, along with an assortment of bookcases and such from their same design line. It's not a family heirloom, but a worn workhorse that paid for itself long ago, sometime in the last century. I look at much older pieces in my father's house, many from the 1800s with crudely hand-formed panels and joints, and I wonder how much of what we value in those antiques now was viewed as everyday junk back then.


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