MINNEAPOLIS — A lot of people like buying furniture from Ikea because it’s stylish, functional and affordable. The only problem is the purchase usually comes ready to assemble.
The task of transforming a tightly-packed, cardboard-sheathed slab of parts and hardware into a six-drawer dresser or a daybed with storage space often involves spending hours sitting on the floor trying to decipher diagrams in a wordless instruction manual while your spouse is saying, “Not that round thingy, the other round thingy.”
That’s when — for the sake of your marriage and your sanity — you might want to call someone like Molly McGee, a master freelance furniture assembler.
The Minneapolis resident’s motto might be “Have Allen wrench, will travel.” In the past year, McGee has been making a living in the gig economy by going to people’s homes to put together Ikea furniture.
After hundreds of jobs assembling desks, beds, dressers, shelves and closet organizers sold by the Swedish home goods retailer, McGee may not even need to look at the instructions.
“I can do that one in my sleep,” she said of the Swedish retailer’s Malm two-drawer chest. “I get into this flow state.”
McGee, 32, has built furniture for college kids in new apartments and seniors downsizing into condos, for immigrants and refugee families as well as suburbanites in multimillion-dollar homes. Apparently, love for Swedish design is as universal as dread-of-assembly angst.
“My biggest commodity is saving strife and anger and frustration,” McGee said.
Her business got its start during the pandemic, when many people started to set up home offices or dreamed up home improvement projects.
“I’ve stayed consistently busy,” McGee said. “The opportunity to outsource your time is something people are taking advantage of.”
It was also COVID-19 that led McGee into her handywoman gig.
In spring 2020, she got laid off from her job as a design associate at Room & Board. She was looking for work when she helped her parents move into a retirement condo in Florida. Her father, who noticed how good she was at assembling their new Ikea furniture, said she could do it for a living.
He was joking, but McGee decided to take his advice by going on TaskRabbit, an online company that matches freelance workers with consumers wanting to hire out for everyday chores from lawn care and grocery shopping to painting and handyman services.
It turns out that furniture assembly is one of the most requested jobs on TaskRabbit, especially after Ikea acquired the company in 2017 and started promoting the service to its customers.
McGee estimates she’s gone out on more than 200 jobs and built about 500 pieces of Ikea furnishings.
“I’ve done entire studio apartments,” she said.
After more than a year, she’s thankful for customers who hire her to build products she hasn’t tried before. And although she’s found other part-time work, building furniture still represents a good portion of her income.
TaskRabbit “taskers” set their hourly rates when bidding on a job. McGee has been charging $33 to $35 an hour to assemble furniture. (TaskRabbit adds another 15% to the cost to clients, but McGee also takes jobs independently. She can be contacted at [email protected].)
Because of her experience and high customer ratings, TaskRabbit has given McGee an “Elite Tasker” badge.
“Efficient is one of my most reviewed qualities,” McGee said. “Anyone can download an app, but not anyone can build a piece in 20 minutes.”
She shows up to jobs with a tool kit that includes gloves, a cordless drill, hammer, utility knife, clamps, spare parts and hardware if a piece of furniture needs to be secured to a wall.
When Karen Stankevitz of Hudson, Wisconsin, bought a $2,000 closet organizing system, she realized she needed help.
“I’ve had a spouse put [Ikea furniture] together and it never went very well,” Stankevitz said. “I’m not very good at it and neither is my husband.”
She hired McGee after challenging her own assumptions that she should hire a man for the job.
“It’s an internal bias: It’s a big box, it must take a big guy,” Stankevitz said. McGee did such “a fantastic job” that she’s become Stankevitz’s “go-to handyman.”
Deborah Silver of Berkeley, California, hired McGee to assemble Ikea furniture for her daughter, who moved into an apartment in Minneapolis this August as a University of Minnesota student.
Silver had enough to do getting her daughter ready for school without spending hours trying to put together furniture.
“I can’t deal with the stress, the frustration, doing it wrong and having to take it apart,” Silver said. “It’s not a quality way to spend time with my daughter.”
She also said she felt safer hiring a woman for the job.
McGee will take jobs assembling furniture made by other companies, but she likes Ikea products. She owns Ikea furniture herself. She carries spare parts when she goes on a job, but rarely encounters an Ikea kit that’s missing hardware.
“They’ve really got it down to a science,” she said. “I think they do have some really beautiful stuff.”
That said, she could make some improvements on the Ikea instruction manuals to include better warnings for critical but easy-to-make missteps.
“You make a mistake once, and you have to backtrack 15 steps,” she said.
McGee, a college dropout who’s bounced around in other jobs, believes she may have found a long-term career as a furniture builder for hire.
“It suits me because it’s creative,” she said. “I felt really in charge of my success.”
She eventually would like to start a company to help older people downsize their furnishings so they can move into a retirement home or assisted living.
“I’m conscious of the social intimacy of going into someone’s home and building something,” she said. “Ultimately, it’s about helping people.”
It’s not that I don’t have any experience putting together Ikea furniture.
I probably have about a dozen pieces around my house that I’ve bought from the Swedish home furnishing company over the years and successfully assembled.
But when it came to challenging Minneapolis freelance furniture builder Molly McGee to a race to test her speed, I didn’t stand a chance.
As we each assembled Ikea’s two-drawer chest from its popular Malm line, McGee leapt ahead at the start, neatly slicing a lid in her cardboard flat pack with a utility knife while I was prying open my carton with my bare hands.
She found the bag of hardware and emptied it into a tray she carries in her tool kit to keep the little pieces organized and accessible. Clever.
McGee has built this particular piece a dozen or more times, so she didn’t need to look at the instructions before she started building. But I knew from experience that you can’t just wing it. If you don’t follow the instructions, you risk having a pile of boards that don’t fit together.
So while McGee was busy building, I was trying to decipher the wordless diagrams Ikea includes in its furniture kits.
McGee actually departed from the instructions, building the drawers of the chest first (a pro move that she says helps get a lot of parts out of the way at the start).
She also used a 12-volt cordless drill, which left me and my hand-powered screwdriver in the dust. She was also ready with a hammer, gloves and spare parts.
The result: McGee was packing away her tools in 19 minutes. I was still on step seven out of 21.
“You did excellent,” she said, evaluating my incomplete cabinet.
She estimated that working at my pace, it probably would take me another 45 minutes to complete the chest.
I let her finish the job instead. It took her about 10 minutes.
This story was originally published November 15, 2021 5:30 AM.