Woodwork for an Indian House – A handy guide

There are lots of home buyers who, based on their affordability and taste, invest in an apartment or a house that is to be built or being built.  But having the structure does not mean it is in a live-in condition which means there is more to it than the building structure to make a place livable.  One of the foremost of them would be to get some good woodwork done to suit your living style and comfort, or have just some basic woodwork done if you have to rent it.  If you want to learn about how to get woodwork done and want a refresher course, kindly read on.

    Be it an apartment, ranging from a single bedroom to a four bedroom penthouse or more, or an house that may have more than one floor, there are two things that the owner has to think of:  two levels of woodworkbasic which are essential, and extra which are needed for more comfort and good living, and the budget for the same. As I scribe this in early 2016, based on the cities you live in and based on whether you are using a local interior designer, a specialized furniture solution provider (like Godrej Interio, Veneta Cuicine etc.) or a carpenter directly, the rates may vary anywhere from Rs 800/sqft to Rs 3000/sqft and even higher.   Any specialized furniture solution provider would give you a limited warranty for a few years and are definitely operate on high pricing and margins (to cover their overheads and real estate costs of their showrooms). 

     My personal experience is to get hold of a carpenter who has done work for you or has been referred to you by someone who has used his services that you had liked, and work with them directly as any furniture designer would add his overhead and still hire from a set of carpenters that they have access to. Also, furniture designers are more into volume and they usually push their way of working with only a handful of options they would suggest for the entire house and will offer only a few set of combinations and never depart for your individual comforts.  If you are renting for sure, you can definitely look at buying off-the-shelf furniture and wardrobes from the local stores or e-tailers like Pepperfry, Urban Ladder or Fab Furnish and set up the apartment – it is important to have wardrobes in every bedroom and your kitchen needs to be done with some cabinets for you to rent the place.

   Various options that need to be worked out realistically:

  • Choice of material – for cabinets, for hinges, for handles, for shutters, for drawers and baskets, etc.
  • Price – is there an upper limit that you bounds your budget?
  • Renting or owning – based on this decision, compromises can be made and options evaluated
  • Brand – if you are particular on certain brands, based on some references, this would define your entire choice more or less.  Brand can be for the furniture designer itself, or brands of each materials being chosen.
  • Room plans – do you have an idea of what you want in each room?
  • Environment – do you live in a coastal or an interior dry area?  Do you live on the main road or inside in a more silent road? Are there termites around the area?

      The entire house (villa or flat) can be divided to two areas: your woodwork needs to be planned differently, but both needs to be absolutely termite proofed:

  • Kitchen (includes kitchen, pantry, utility and balcony areas) – these areas can get wet, especially under the counter and in the utility and generally be used more by many people.  Here it is better to use WATER RESISTANT or PROOF materials especially under the counter and sink, and can use a different material for over-the-counter shelfs.   For bathrooms, it is safer not to use wood but rather goes with Stainless SS, Aluminum or plastic materials.
  • Anything outside the Kitchen – let us call them Other Rooms or Non-Kitchen (includes living area, bedrooms, study room etc.) – these are the areas that can never get wet unless there is seepage through the walls.  Need not be water resistant or proof, but one needs to take care of the bottom of the woodwork as it can get damp, due to mopping. So, whatever material you use, you can put a 3 in border of Al or fiber on the woodwork in the areas where water gets in contact with.

     After you are done with this initial planning, it is recommended you walk into a few showrooms to understand what is available and the terminologies to educate yourself better, and get an idea of what would suit you better, and understand their offerings and their inherent limitations.

   In a kitchen, the builder can either give you a bare structure and you fit in everything – called totally modular, can give some provision of kitchen slab for the counter at some height and some other nooks etc. – which is usually a semi modular (there are some restrictions here) and fully built-up with provision for gas, slabs for storage, provision for electrical appliances etc. – this is the older style of doing kitchen where all you need is to fit a frame and a shutter anywhere if you want to,  and in this article, I am not going to elaborate on this third type.  Whenever someone says modular or semi-modular,  you need to understand they can fit STANDARD SIZE drawers in the provisions given – every manufacturer have adhered to certain dimension specification so that it is easier to choose what goes into your kitchen and then the woodwork around it.  It is important even before you hire someone for woodwork, you need to have a fair idea of the kitchen and its outlay and how you intend to use and where you think the appliances like microwave, mixer-grinder etc. come.  Also ensure there are enough exhaust area for the kitchen and a provision for chimney if you do not have adequate ventilation.  It is important to have the kitchen well-lit as this is the most frequented place in a household at any given time.  Also it would be nice to have lofts in the kitchen with doors to store those non-so-commonly used utensils there.

      I am going to simplify the meaning of semi-modular by suggesting that there are height and width restriction in this type compared to the totally modular one, which translates to lesser number of drawers and/or smaller drawers being able to fit into the design.  All the big players like Godrej Interio, Sleek etc. would readily jump on any modular kitchen but may not be too excited to get into a semi-modular one.  The kitchen designer still will use some carpenter and some back-end machinery place to tool the boxes to certain sizes and they would just come and fit in the boxes during installation – understand their margins would be sky high and it may be impossible to choose what you want in terms of wood and material while you go with these designers as they have tie-ups with few manufacturers directly.

    Now to re-iterate , one may have three choices, for both kitchen and outside kitchen – either fully outsource the woodwork to an established name-brand furniture designer, work with your local designer where you may have some flexibility in choice of materials although this would still be labour and material contract, or go with a traditional carpenter provided you have a good idea how your kitchen has to be structured – in order of pricing, the carpenter would be the least expensive and you have total freedom to choose your materials and just give him the labour contract.

    For the woodwork that is going outside the kitchen( I would call it non-kitchen or other areas), like the living room TV cabinets, balcony storage cabinet, book shelves in the study room and wardrobes in the bedrooms, the woodwork options remain the same and does not vary between rooms. 

     In both the woodwork process is to first measure the area, manufacture the three sides of the boxes or carcasses (can be laminated on one side or both sides), then manufacture the doors for them, install them with hinges, have the baskets and draws fit in with the slides, and based on the materials used may need polishing as well, and after that the handles on the doors.  This is pretty much how things get done. One can always choose a different material for the boxes and the doors, and different thicknesses as well.  It is important to remember that the hinges used for installing the doors also vary according to the thickness of the doors.

    Now some of the material types commonly used for the boxes or doors, all are priced per square foot:

  • MDF (Medium Density Fibers) – not suitable for coastal area where there is lots of dampness as these warp over time.   They come in pleasing glossy finishes and in lots of patterns.  It is advisable not to use MDF even in dry areas under the counter top as the water would make it warp over time and you need to replace the MDF every seven years or so. MDF and steel would be the two cheapest options you can get.  If you are doing woodwork for a rental property, it is OK for you to go with MDF or Steel.
  • Plywood – stronger than MDF and comes in different thickness and the common one used is a 16 mm ply.  Thicker the ply, more expensive it is.  If you want it to be thicker, one can use a ¾” or a 19 mm ply as well. They essentially come in many denominations, but two of them are widely used – BWP (boiling water proof) or BWR (boiling water resistant) and a better quality and stronger MR (Marine Grade) and there are different ISO specifications for the two – IS 303 vs IS 701.  A ply is usually finished either with a laminate or a veneer – veneer needs polishing to be done.  The good quality names with ISO certified manufacturing processes are Green Ply and Century Ply, and the other brand that is commonly used is Kit Ply.  All plys come in standard 8 ft. x 4 ft. dimension that you need to cut and use.
  • Real wood like Teak or Sheesham (Indian Rosewood) or Sal – usually the thickness of real wood is larger and is about 20-26 mm, and they definitely need to be polished.  You may get thicker wood but it is not advisable to use thickness above 25 mm. There are various grades of wood that you can choose from, and usually a first quality Burma teak is hard to find and is very expensive. One needs to treat them properly for termites.  This is the most expensive of the choices and usually folks go with it if they do the woodwork for their own house that they would live in and not to rent.  It has to be maintained well and durability is high as long as the polish is done regularly.
  • M S Steel – thinner profiles, termite proof, dent-prone, and rust prone and needs to be painted often.  It can come with any color of your choice as it is easier to paint over.
  • Aluminum and Glass – mostly for DOORs.  This is just glass on aluminum frames. This is mostly a choice that competes with Ply and glass for over the counter woodwork in the kitchen so that you can see what is inside.    Aluminum is expensive.

     The windows and doors of the house are usually painted as they need to be water repellant.  As for the prepared woodwork which does not really gets wet (except may be a little  in the kitchen under the countertop), the three most common choice for the transparent coating are (applicable only if you use real wood or veneer, and not applicable at all if there is a laminate or MDF):

  • French polish – least expensive, does loose shine quickly and is not long lasting.  Recommendation is NOT to use this for your woodwork.
  • Melamine – turns yellowish in over 7 years, but most widely used by all although can be laborious to get the right finish
  • Poly Urethane (PU) – most water resistant and long lasting, and excellent for protection but most expensive of the three.  It is said to darken over time, and also turns light yellow over a longer period.

      Although there are a wide variety of manufacturers for laminates, the company which seems to have the most market share in decorative laminates and support from the carpenters today is Merino.  Laminates go on one side or both sides of the boxes and on both sides of the doors.   In India, most of us call these products as Sun Mica as this was the company which came first and like Xerox is used instead to photocopy, so is Sun mica used to refer to laminates.   It is always better to not look at pictures but rather check out the real samples and see them in both sunlight and artificial light to ensure you are satisfied with the right color.  The catalog or the computer colors are not to be trusted. They usually are 1 mm or less thick, and used as overlay on ply or rarely on wood by using glue, and since they are artificial blend of paper and resins, they come in various colors and stains.

     As for veneers, which are real wood slices and hence natural, again there are lots of manufacturers and you can choose what grains you want and then go with the same.  Most of the folks usually choose a teak grain to make it looks like wood which would always give a warm feeling.   Veneers are more expensive than laminates, and they give a richer look than laminates although latter is more scratch resistant and waterproof. When one uses veneer, you need to polish the surface first and regularly for upkeep.

    Coming to the boxes or carcasses, they are either made of MDF, ply or steel. If made in ply, they need to have laminates on both sides and many a times even the side that goes against the wall.   It is enough if you use a  maximum 16 mm thick one for the ply as we need to ensure the width of the box can still carry the drawers and baskets that come in particular widths  and heights only. 

    In all cases, while measuring, the dimensions measured – are just the width and height as the depth (z) is usually 2 ft.(rarely 1.5 ft.) , be it for the wardrobes or the loft – this is more standard.  So, all the quotation would be given for Height x Width in price/sqft and you can compute the stuff yourself.  Ensure the measurements taken are correct and try to validate it properly across each line item when the quotation is given – it is better to do it twice or more to get the actual measurement up front as the payments are based on the quotation based on initial measurements and not the final woodwork measurements done. The more information and more patience you see from the vendor, the easier it would be to work with them at a later stage. Ask all the questions up front and once you are near finalization, make a document of what your expectations are and get a specific quote for each line item (if the budget prevents you, then you can easily scratch a line item or two).  When it comes to labour market, there is always a good chance of being held at ransom by the vendors who provide the service – ensure all the payments are milestone based and they need to agree to it – hold on to 5% of the payment a month after they are totally done.  They would hear only the ‘money language’ and this is the only hold you have on them.  Do not get caught in their own payment modes which as a customer you can definitely change and document – as a customer, please ensure you get to dictate your terms clearly.   If the vendor does not sign the document with all the accepted rules and conditions, walk away from that vendor as it would be NOT be worth your time to be working with them.  Also sign and get receipt for every money transaction that had taken place.

    Carpentry nowadays goes like this:

  1. The final plan is approved and both the parties are in total agreement of what goes where. Advance amount anywhere from 25% to 40% is given up front for the vendors to get the materials.
  2. The boxes or carcasses get manufactured (mostly elsewhere and rarely in-house) and they would be put in place at the right places inside the house.  Usually 2-3 weeks.  The second payment gets made which would be usually 20-30%, overall 70% of the payment gets made here.
  3. Now all the slides or runners that go inside the boxes are attached to hold the kitchen accessories.  Since the kitchen gets used the most, it is better to put the more expensive soft or silent slides(go for a good quality German make like Blum or Hettich)  and for outside the kitchen an ordinary slide (like Ebco) would be good enough.
  4. It is important to have all the kitchen accessories (baskets, rollers etc.) available and fitted inside the boxes. These can be bought, delivered and installed within a day.  From now on, the security inside the house should be increased.  Take photos after installation and give the key only to one dependable person who monitors and overseas the execution of carpentry.
  5. The door, which can be a different material than the boxes, is cut and made and then installed.  Holes for the handles are put in place.  If you want to attach a dustbin or a detergent holder on the door, it has to be conveyed to the carpenter as this may require some extra provisions. Usually the detergent holder and the dustbin go under the sink and it is better to keep the pot and pans and the spices around and under the cooking area. If the laminates or veneer are needed, now is the time it gets glued and nailed to the doors.  Once the doors are in, the carpenter and his men would be staying in your house for about a week or two.  Ensure again in the document that they need to work 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. every day if you are contracting it wholly to the carpenter and if you can provide for evening meals and provide them lights, they can stay till 8 p.m. Faster they do the job, better it would be.  Again the main carpenter’s daily wages is about Rs 700 to 800, two more carpenters who work for him would take Rs 600- Rs 700/day each and a helper who gets Rs 200/day.  The price may vary by Rs 50 to Rs 100 based on the city you live in from these norms (based on early 2016 rates).
  6. Now the hinges have to be purchased for the doors and attached.  Materials used can be stainless steel or brass or bronze or steel with nickel plating.  Again, use a soft concealed hydraulic ball bearing hinge for the kitchen and ordinary butt hinge for other rooms.  The number of hinges to be used is based on the height and weight of the door, and the size of the hinges would depend on the thickness and the width of the door. Based on how the door needs to get attached in either a framed or frameless box, there can be three overlay options (Full, Half and Inset) to do it which must be planned and understood much ahead.   Now the third payment gets paid.  Usually 80-85% of the payment gets paid by this time.
  7. After all these things, final finishes on the cabinets and doors gets done.  The dado bars in the kitchen and grip bars in the bathroom gets attached.   Some nails in other rooms can be driven in. Hold on to the carpenter for all these small things that you may need to run around once they are all gone. All polishes get done, if any. The handles to all the doors and drawers are installed now. Now you would be able to see and appreciate the final woodwork properly.  Once he is done, after inspections and any minor repairs that are found get done, 95% of the payment gets made.  The remaining 5% is to be given about a month after you regularly start using it and ensuring all is perfect.

       While doing the doors on wardrobes, it is easier to fix a mirror on one of the doors with a beading around it so that it can be used as a dressing mirror – the mirror must be a good quality one like Saint Gobain or Modi Guard. The lofts would just have a frame, doors and ordinary hinges and NO Boxes inside. While measuring for the wardrobes and cabinets, first one has to ensure you are not obstructing any light points or switch points. While doing any woodwork under a window or an opening, ensure that this does not get affected by rain that may come in.    Do not do any woodwork in the bathrooms due to the high moisture inside and instead go with the plastic cabinets that are available off the shelf.

   While making tables, beds and chairs with real wood, it is always better to look around online for what you are looking as getting this done by your carpenter would be very expensive- also the talent of carpenters who can actually go a decent job here would be limited.  Buy them directly either online or through the traditional furniture store.  If you have the time, get hold of a good woodworking factory in Rajasthan or Uttarakand through a good reference and even mail order them.  Anything with bamboo, one can always look at Assam and the North East for options.  Remember, when it comes to wood, even your experience carpenter cannot attest to the quality of it by just seeing it.

    Hope you enjoy the woodwork to your apartment and find this article useful.

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