I enrolled in a class that I’d been thinking of doing for years. It was one year ago now that I did so; and I’m wondering how I ever lived without it. I began woodworking, fulfilling a long held dream of making my own handmade furniture.
Amongst my greatest memories as a child was time spent in my grandfather’s shed. It looked like something relocated from a shanty town. Random pieces of salvaged corrugated iron slapped together, made a space big enough to house bits of metal and wood he’d found “that might come in use someday”; to one side a little workshop. The homemade work bench always had a few tools scattered across it, whilst the many others hung on the walls. I would love to sit and play with the tools or just watch him work on something. When we would return to the house my grandmother looking perplexed would often ask: “what do you two do in there for so many hours?” Others saw an unsightly scrap heap in the backyard, to my grandfather and I, it was a world of possibilities…
He was a carpenter by trade and the most beautiful, loving man by nature. I marvelled at the kitchen he built himself. In particular two cupboards doors that hid a secret. Pull on the handle to open one and instead it was a chair on wheels that would roll out. What looked like a wide drawer above was a little table that would roll out too. There was a proper table and chairs in the next room, but who wants to eat at one of those? He and I would eat breakfast together on the secret table and chairs. He barely spoke a word of english, but somehow, we just understood each other. He sparked in me a sense of wonder and amazement – whatever you want or need, you can make yourself, to suit your needs exactly.
Fast forward to my late teens, the start of my uni days. I began learning about famous architects. My favourites emerged quickly: the pioneers of modernism from the 1920’s. For the first time buildings looked like clean white cubes, or all glass boxes, as they declared “less is more”. These were modern buildings for the new modern, industrialised world! The furniture that graced these buildings captivated me too. These architects were so far ahead of their time, there wasn’t furniture to match the homes they were designing; so they designed their own… My obsession with furniture had begun! Whilst furniture has an obvious functional use, as the largest items that fill and decorate our homes, furniture plays a huge role in how a space looks and feels.
It was this time last year I called the Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking. I went to meet the owner and teacher Alastair Boell. He told me to create a design, and he would teach me the techniques to make it myself. A week later I returned with two rough pieces of American oak. I was so scared the first time I pushed one of them through that huge spinning blade, bringing this wood one step closer to the shape of the TV stand I had designed. The first thing I checked was not if my cut was in the right spot, but if both my hands were still part of my body… Now that spinning blade excites me.
Alastair is the most wonderful teacher. Patient, caring, always smiling, fun and so passionate about passing on the traditional methods of building furniture from wood. He is a true craftsman, a dying breed sadly, but determined to pass the chisels onto his students. I look forward to every Wednesday night. Any worries or other thoughts disappear, I’m totally consumed in the process, it’s like a long meditation. The hours roll past faster than a table saw. There aren’t the words to describe the satisfaction of walking in with a rough piece of wood, machining, chiselling and sanding it to become something beautiful and functional that’s made with my hands. It is something lost in our disposable culture. Where we are always looking for something new, rather than cherishing something beautifully designed and built, which we enjoy and use for a lifetime. Traditional skills have been replaced by computer inputs and automated productions lines. With that the soul of objects has gone too.
Before you go to Ikea, take a look at something hand made for your home. It will cost more, but I guarantee your Ikea piece will be out on the nature strip in 5-10 years, looking second hand due to it’s lack of quality. Compare this to the Parker buffet (below) my parents bought when they got married, which now graces my lounge room and the 1950’s chair I bought by one of my favourite architects. Both hand made, both will never be leaving me, unless I have children someday, then a third generation will cherish them.
Like an architecturally designed home, a hand made piece of furniture has within its every part, its designers’ attention to detail and their love of creating. It is literally a piece of its designer that they send out into the world. This is what people connect with and appreciate. It is how an object can take a place in someone’s heart. Woodworking has taught me this on an even deeper level.