'Ready to assemble' builds frustration one piece at time


Last weekend I was in cam lock lockdown. This is a state of frustration familiar to folks who buy self-assembled furniture.

Self-assembled furniture is, I am told, a trend. In the furniture trade, it even has an abbreviation, RTA, for ready to assemble. I found it to be a pain, mainly in my knees and lower back. With self-assembled furniture, when you buy a bookcase it does not arrive in your home looking like a bookcase. Instead it looks like a big flat box stuffed with parts. Apparently we can thank Ingvar Kamprad for this. He is the Swede who founded IKEA, a business he named by using his initials and tacking on the first letters in Elmtaryd and Agunnaryd, the farm and village where he grew up. He figured out that if he shipped furniture unassembled and had customers put it together, both production and shipping costs could be lower.

This concept has spread beyond IKEA and Sweden. The pieces of furniture I assembled last weekend, some successfully, some not, hailed from all around the globe and were bought in big-box stores like Lowe's and Kmart. All of them were inexpensive. Some of them were cheap, a distinction I made based on the type of material used - real wood or chipboard - and whether I was able to make the pieces fit together. The lower the price tags the harder the fit.

Cost was a key factor because this furniture was furnishing the apartment of our 25-year-old son who has recently taken a job in Anniston, Ala. Instead of hauling his battered, handed-down furniture 800 miles, he chose to give it away and buy new stuff. It is a decision I supported mainly because, the way things looked, I would be the one who would have ended up doing much of the hauling.

On Memorial Day weekend, my wife and I flew down to Alabama, rented a large, box-friendly vehicle and dedicated ourselves to the mission of making our son's apartment habitable. Mainly this involved getting stuff off the floor - his clothes, his computer, and eventually those big, flat boxes.

This was a family endeavor, which meant there were highs and lows and a certain amount of conflict over who was in charge. As my mother used to say, we are a tribe of too many chiefs and not enough Indians. We fell into roles. My wife and son roamed the second-hand stores looking for bargains while I stayed in the apartment down on the floor with the cat, assembling items - a television stand, a dining room table and four chairs, a lamp and bookcase - pulled from boxes.

The cam-lock assembly was a key component of most of these pieces. Without getting technical, let me explain that the assembly is a two-part operation. One part is the striker, usually a metal bolt. It fits into a catcher, or lock, which when turned with a screwdriver holds everything in place. That is the theory.

Cam locks can work. I once assembled two large bookcases, laden with cam locks, without incident. But those bookcases were made of honest--to-goodness wood and had uniform holes. The bookcase I battled with last weekend was chipboard, made of sawdust and a prayer. Moreover, some of the holes that the cam lock assemblies were supposed to fit in, were mis-drilled.

These factors combined to put me in cam-lock lockdown, a state in which the bookcase was partially assembled and I was totally flummoxed.

I took a deep breath and followed the recommended therapy for such a situation. Namely, I once again read the assembly instructions. I use the word "read" loosely here because the instructions that come with self-assembled furniture have, like much of the world, pretty much abandoned the written word. Instead they favor illustrations, line drawings that sometimes are easy to follow, sometimes not.

This case was a "not." I stared and stared at the illustration showing how the F panels were supposed to cam-lock into C panel. I could not make sense of it. I called the toll-free help number listed on the instructions. A recorded voice informed me the help desk was closed during the weekends, which I felt was probably when most people were trying to assemble bookcases.

I soldiered on, and forced the F panels into the C panel. A forced union is never a happy one, and when I finally got the bookcase upright, there were signs of trauma. It leaned to the left. Fortunately this bookcase came equipped with a strap designed to hold it to the wall and keep it from falling over. I made sure that the strap was firmed attached. My son's apartment ended up looking pretty good, especially if you did not look at the bookcase.

I read a report on The Home & Garden Channel Web site that, according to a British researcher, 36 percent of adults are happy to assemble furniture themselves. After last weekend's battle with the bookcase, I am not one of them.


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