7 Things Professionals Avoid When Assembling Flat-Pack Furniture

It’s pretty easy to improve your efficiency when putting together flat-pack furniture, whether it’s from IKEA, Wayfair, Crate and Barrel or another manufacturer. Of course you need to do things right, but this includes not doing the wrong things.

Here are some things to avoid that will save you time, frustration, energy, and most importantly money! This is not a list for amateurs, it is for professionals that assemble flat-pack furniture for money. While some of these items may seem obvious, they are collected from thousands of hours of in-the-field work assembling all kinds of knock-down furniture, from simple shelving kits, to very complicated and ornate office furniture.

We have found, through experience, that the best way to improve our efficiency when assembling kit furniture was to simply not make errors. In other words; We wasted more time correcting mistakes than we could gain by trying to work faster. So here are 7 things that we felt caused us to make the most errors.

1. Not Reading The Instructions

Of course you don’t really want to hear this, but it’s number one on our hit list. We have found that most instruction booklets are adequate. Some, such as Ikea’s are superior and it’s very, very rare that we find an error, or even an ambiguity in one of their instruction manuals. When we think that we do find an error, upon further investigation, we usually find that we just weren’t following closely enough. But there are a few lesser-known manufacturers with poor manuals. Usually it’s not so much that there are errors (although that does happen), it’s that they just aren’t clear when they need to be, or they omit simple steps.

Regardless of whether you think what you’re holding is a good or instruction book or a bad one, it’s better to assume it’s correct and follow it closely. Even if you have assembled an item many times before, it’s a good idea to follow along in the instructions as you go. It keeps you from forgetting things and reminds you to perform the steps in the right order. It’s worth the tiny amount of time it takes to flip a page and glance at it from time to time. Correcting one tiny mistake or omission can use up far more time than you would have spent turning pages.

When starting an assembly job, glance through the manual to see if there are any options, choices, accessories, or if the instructions were written to cover more than one version or part number. It’s best to ask the customer up front if they want the desk return on the left or right hand side, for instance. Use a pencil to mark through any pages or steps that do not apply so there is no possibility of confusion later.

Glancing through the manual will also give you an idea of the scope of the job. Some jobs end up taking much longer than expected just because of the number of pieces and steps in the instructions. When the customer pops his head in part-way through the project to check on your progress, it’s good to be able to say “I’m on step X of Y with no problems.”

2. Installing the Wrong Piece or the Right Piece in the Wrong Orientation

The mistake we’ve made most often, and spent the most time correcting, is attaching the wrong piece, or attaching the correct piece but the wrong way around. Flat-pack furniture, by it’s very nature, presents many opportunities to make this error. The reason that this mistake is so insidious is that it is often not discovered until much later in the build. Everyone that has put together a few kits will recognize that horrible sinking feeling that occurs when they realize that a part embedded deep in the furniture doesn’t have the hole/notch/tab where it is supposed to. And looking around the piece, sure enough, it’s on the wrong side/end, or on a nearly identical piece assembled in a different place. Then we have to figure out how much we have to disassemble to turn the piece around or swap it with the correct piece. Or if we can fudge the error by drilling a hole, sawing off a tab, or omitting a fastener (not recommended).

This may occur because the instructions are incorrect or unclear. And it may occur because we made the mistake. In either case, there are a few things we can do to catch it in the future:

  • Look closely at the illustrations in the instructions. Match up the holes with the pictures. Make sure the orientations are the same. If the orientation of the big assembly is upside-down from the illustration and you don’t feel like turning the assembly, just turn the manual around so it matches. Then make sure the part you are adding matches.
  • Look at the part you’re adding. Can it go in backwards? Turn it around and make sure it doesn’t match the drawing then turn it back.
  • Look around for other very similar unused pieces. Is it possible that you have the wrong piece? Use the instructions, and your head to verify that either there are no other possible pieces, the other piece(s) are truly identical and so it doesn’t matter, or the other piece(s) are different and are not the one that goes here.
  • Some manufacturers identify the pieces with a letter stamp or sticker. (We wished Ikea did this.) Verify the identifier, that’s usually the best indicator that you have a piece that will work. For Ikea, look in the instructions for any “this…not this” box. They are pretty good at trying to keep you from using the wrong part. And Ikea’s illustrations are dead on for depicting the orientation by showing all the holes, grooves, notches, etc.
  • Lastly, think to yourself: is there any way that this is not correct? If in doubt, look further into the manual and see what and how other pieces attach to that part. Where do the holes need to be?

This whole process doesn’t take as long as it sounds, and it becomes second nature after you’ve done it for a while. It’s akin to the carpenter’s adage: measure twice, cut once. We now almost never waste time fixing wrong part/wrong orientation mistakes and the assembly jobs go much smoother.

Note that the manufacturers can, and should, do more to keep this from happening. They can make parts that simply won’t go in the wrong way or the wrong place. They can design the pieces so that they are symmetrical and identical so it’s not an issue. And they can improve the manuals through user testing to determine where common mistakes are made and clarify the instructions with inset pictures or improved diagrams of the pieces. The cheaper the manufacturer, the more likely you are to run into this problem.

3. Using the Wrong Fastener

If there are two different lengths of bolts, for instance, in a kit you’re assembling, you must be very sure that you’re using the right ones in the right places. It’s often possible to use a longer bolt or screw in a location that should get a shorter one, but later on, you’ll be needing that longer fastener because the shorter ones you have left over won’t work! You can also ruin pieces by using too long of a screw if the screw pops out the other side of a nice work-surface, for instance.

Here manufacturers have many different ways to try to get you to use the correct fastener. The best designed kits have fewer different types of fasteners in the first place. And if they do have two that are similar, they will be sure to indicate which you should use in the instructions. Ikea does this with their “this…and not this” inset drawings as shown here. The worst kits do this by indicating some letter or number code of the fastener, then you have to look back at a table in the beginning of the manual to find the specs on that fastener. You may even need a small metric ruler to determine which of multiple fasteners they mean.

One of our measurements for the quality of a flat-pack furniture kit is how many different types of screws, nuts, bolts, camlocks, dowels, etc. there are . We can tell older design Ikea kits from newer designs just by how many different kinds of hardware are included. They have improved over the years and newer designed kits usually have fewer types of fasteners.

4. Missing an Item in the Packaging

Believe it or not; we’ve never actually had a piece missing from a furniture kit! There have been several times that we thought a piece was missing, but we kept searching and eventually found it. It was usually in the packing materiel. Be very careful as you unpack the kit to make sure you don’t miss anything. Especially when the packing uses that “expanding foam” stuff. It just loves to envelope little part and bags of hardware. Sometimes to the point of obscuring them completely.

When opening bags of hardware to dump them in a tray for sorting, double-check each bag before throwing it away. Little screws and such just love to hide in the corners of plastic bags!

We put all of our dunnage (packing material) except the larger pieces of cardboard in a new clear trash bag and don’t throw it away until the assembly is complete. Just in case.

5. Causing Damage

Flat-pack furniture tends to be fragile while it’s in the process of being assembled. The finished piece is much more robust. Treat everything gently while assembling. The partial assembly will often not even be able to support it’s own weight in certain orientations. Don’t put undo pressure on joints while working on the piece.

I learned the hard way early on when I tried to get up from the floor and carelessly used the nearby unfinished assembly to help myself up. Yep. Crack! Fortunately, the piece that broke was easy to repair with glue and clamps and was not visible in the completed unit.

The finished surfaces of wood pieces are a micro-thin veneer of paper or vinyl. They scratch incredibly easily, especially with the cheaper brand furniture. When unpacking boards, be very careful when stacking them. Consider putting one layer of the packing materiel between each board. And never stack boards that have installed hardware, such as drawer slides. Keep them in separate stacks because they will scratch each other. Even when being careful, scratches happen so we always have a scratch repair kit handy.

Another cause of damage is over-tightening fasteners. It may not be the end of the world if you strip a wood screw when attaching something. The screw may still hold ok. Especially if there are other screws holding the same piece. But stripping a wood screw weakens the overall assembly. Use the right tools, with the right settings, in the proper manner to not over-tighten fasteners. When tightening short (inch and a half or less) wood screws, I prefer to use a hand screwdriver so that I can feel when the screw is seated and “about” to strip. The better knock-down furniture kits tend to not have a lot of small wood screws.

Also be very careful tightening the horrible plastic camlocks such as the ones that Ikea has put in some kits. They break very easily. (Actually, they just bend out of shape and are ruined.) Think “just lightly snug”. The metal ones can break too, but they are much more robust.

6. Not Doing Things in the Proper Order

It may be tempting to do things out of order compared to the manual, but there can be non-obvious problems down the road. Only change the order of assembly steps it you really understand all the ramifications and have built the exact same item several times before. The one thing that we do to increase speed is to do certain things assembly line style. For instance, when there are 8 drawers to build, we think that it’s faster to do one step to each of the 8 drawers, then the next step, etc. This is faster because we are using from the same pile of hardware (such as cam-lock studs) with the same tool (such as a power screwdriver). So the switching tools and hardware is minimized. We usually do the major assemblies in the order specified.

7. Not Having the Proper Tools and Supplies

If you’re doing this professionally, be a pro about it! The right tool for the right job. Each time we’re in the field and we need a tool, supply, or spare part that we don’t have we make sure to add it to our toolkit. Having the right tool can make the difference between successful completion and a messed up kit.

Now that you know what not to do, go out there and do the right thing!

Happy Building,


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