interior design specifications

Vague Specifications

“Dado height raised and fielded high quality oak panelling to walls with semi-matt clear lacquer finish all as dwg”.

The above is a typical example of a specification that we may receive from a designer, architect, quantity surveyor and to many, would appear to be a clear and precise description of what is required. To a large extent it is all that is required for a craftsperson to provide a price, however, there is a great deal of difference between what is meant and intended and what is literally correct. In an industry where clients are still focused on the price it is legitimate for the tenderer to price the lowest specification to be appointed and then argue the finer points at design and sampling stage with subsequent increases in cost.

In theory, the description “dado height raised and fielded ……..panelling to walls ……..all as dwg” should take care of the sizes and details of profiles. If there are no full-size moulding and panel profiles provided, then it is legitimate for the tenderer to make their own assumptions. This means that potentially your intended design is not covered, and the price will cover existing tooling that the maker already owns.

The fun starts with the phrase “high quality oak” high quality is a subjective term, to some this might mean completely clean and clear with a regular even grain or high figured with character defects dependent on personal experience and taste.

Timber has standard grading rules set by the EU, and although we have left, there is no reason to assume that we will not continue with them. So, for oak we start with a Q for Quercus (latin for oak) we then add a letter to define the form, so in this case S for selected boards or B for Boule (log). The next element is the quality which starts with A for exceptional and then moves from 1 to 4 as the quality decreases.

Ignoring the grain and figuring the very best boards would be defined as QSA or QBA. The good news is that there are generally accepted terms for timber quality used in the UK:

  • Prime (QSA) – The best quality with virtually no flaws
  • Joinery (also referred to as Firsts and Seconds) – more knots and sap are acceptable
  • Character – Colour variations, sap, knots and splits
  • Pippy – Lots of small knots referred to as cat’s paw

You might have thought that oak is an uncontentious term but sadly not, there are many types of oak so to be accurate you would need the correct botanical term however, you can simplify this by using the commercial descriptions and the country. The two most common species used for furniture are American White Oak and European Oak with the additional problem that European Oak covers every country in continental Europe that has commercially sold oak. Why is this an issue?

Depending on where in Europe or the USA a tree grows it will have its own characteristics and the difference can be considerable. For the purpose of this specification I will discount American White Oak as we would never consider it to be a superior furniture wood as it is generally very dull and even in appearance, it is though generally cheaper than European Oak.

European Oak is a catch all term covering everything grown from Spain to the Ukraine, so it is vitally important that you understand the appearance that you require. Generally, the further south the more even and lighter coloured, the further north the more character and colour. As a rule the best oak is either English or French and is therefore the most expensive.

Who would have guessed it was so complex, I just wanted a nice bit of oak panelling?

Well, you still have to decide on what grain pattern you require as the way that a tree is converted into planks will create different effects and will also affect the price. So, if you want straight unfigured oak then specify Rift sawn or un-figured quarter sawn. If you like the highly figured oak with the prominent medullary rays then you need Figured quarter sawn and if you like a more flowing grain pattern you may need Crown oak. If in doubt add a picture to the specification.

So that’s that then. Not quite.

The specification does not state whether the panelling is solid oak, veneered or a combination. To a degree you should have discussed this in depth with a maker before deciding as some specifications will be more suited to veneered panels than solid ones, such as matching grains, inlays and marquetry or particularly dry or humid environments.

Just to finish off semi-matt clear lacquer is generally understood but semi-matt is not specific so a percentage sheen level can be more accurate, which for semi-matt is anything from 20% to 30%.

“Dado height raised and fielded panels to match design intent and full-size moulding detail drawings

Solid timber frames and mouldings with veneered panels in Rift sawn prime quality French Oak finished with 25% semi-matt clear synthetic lacquer”