There’s a lot going on in Rob Penn’s book “The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees”. Timber technology, woodland management, the history of tools, weaponry and sporting goods. Above all, it’s a tribute to mankind’s ongoing relationship with wood. Lyrically descriptive of materials and process, it made me venture back to the workshop and the timber yard with a fresh perspective.
I managed to trap him indoors on a beautiful summer’s day to discuss his work.
How did “The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees” come about?
My adult association with trees came when I moved here, to the Black Mountains in South East Wales, about fifteen years ago and realised that I wanted an association with the landscape. I didn’t want to be a farmer but I did want to connect with the landscape – a very obvious way was to get involved with trees. So we set up a community woodland group – the house that I live in has got a small woodland attached to it and immediately I fell into producing firewood for the house. The community woodland group was operational in a local farmer’s wood which we began to bring back into management – it was a derelict wood which hadn’t been touched for forty or fifty years. As a journalist, that led to me writing about trees.
When the government tried to sell off the public forest estate in 2010, the newspapers that I wrote for suddenly looked around and couldn’t find anyone who lived outside the M25 and knew anything about trees. That led to making a TV programme about bringing a derelict, ancient woodland back under management – that was called “Tales From The Wildwood”. One of the things that we wanted to do during the course of that was to look at the value of hardwood timber. This part of the country, as you probably know, is very heavily populated with Ash – along the Welsh borders, into the early part of the 20thcentury a huge volume of very high quality Ash was grown. So we thought we’d take an Ash tree and see if we could use that – and get it made into things.
At the sawmill, I was loading some planks of Ash into the car and, apropos of nothing, Will Bullough (the sawmill owner) made the point that those planks were basically valueless. If you think about the time, energy and cost put into the woodland management – we felled the tree, we had it extracted by horse as it was a very steep-sided wood, we loaded the log onto the back of a truck that’s driven to the sawmill, the sawmill has then processed that log into planks – at that point they are still almost valueless. Then, David Colwell brought back a chair that he’s made from those Ash planks that was so exquisite that I couldn’t afford to buy it. I thought, that’s just extraordinary that you can take valueless planks and make them into something exquisite.
I started reading more about Ash – the part that it had played in the advancement of the human species in temperate parts of the world. I came to understand very quickly that it was arguably the tree upon which we had become most reliant and the tree species that we have developed the most intimate relationship with over the course of human civilisation. That’s quite a claim – but think about the role it’s played in tool handles, take that as one example. We know that Neolithic carpenters preferentially used it for tool handles, six thousand years ago. They came to understand through trial and error that it broke less often than oak or beech, say. It’s been used for tool handles ever since. It’s only in the middle of the 20thcentury with the advancement of plastics, light metal alloys and later the proliferation of the use of carbon that Ash falls from human consciousness.
I thought that it’s the most incredible story that has never really been told. Oak dominates the public consciousness in this country because it’s made into stately furniture which is locked in rooms and passed from generation to generation – and, of course, it was made into Royal Naval ships which created the British Empire. Actually, Ash is the most common tree that we as a species have handled in this part of Europe over the course of civilisation. Whether it be for firewood, as a tool handle, felloes on a wheel, sports equipment…it’s the most extraordinary story which hasn’t been told. Ash Dieback comes along and you think this story really needs telling as we need to raise the status of this tree in the public consciousness again. Not just with Ash but with all trees – the more we value them, the more inclined we are to look after them as they grow.
The book contains some excellent descriptive writing about various crafts – have you been tempted to take any up yourself since writing it?
I wish I had two lives and a lot more time! What do I do?
There was an old boy who lived round here, he very sadly passed away two years ago, who was the most amazing woodsman. He helped me set up the community woodland group. He’d gone primary school in clogs made of Alder in the late 1930’s. His knowledge and fascination with all types of trees was amazing. He was the most amazing conservationist. He’d never read a book, everything was empirical experience. He taught me how to make walking sticks, so I make walking sticks.
Through the community woodland group we run various courses – bowl making, spoon making, chair making. I’m on the periphery of those – I always seem to be involved in organising the days rather than getting my hands dirty and learning the craft. I’ve got various plans to make chairs but never got round to it! I’ve done a little bit of bowl carving on a pole lathe with disastrous results. Every time I think “that’s it, I’ll spend the afternoon making a spoon”, I realise that actually I’ve got half a tonne of firewood to process with an axe so I’d better get on and do that instead.
At one point I thought the book would be about me making all these things, then I realised that what was interesting about the research, and what would be much more interesting for the reader than me learning how to make these things, was the extraordinary knowledge and intimacy that the artisans I met had with this natural material – that’s far more interesting then me screwing a spoon up, several times. Sometimes I’m criticised, as the author of the book, for not actually making anything –actually, it’s far more interesting to learn about the relationship the people who do the making have with the wood, rather than me.
There’s a sad but necessary postscript to the book about Ash Dieback and also the Emerald Ash Borer in the US – is there anything we can do to prevent or mitigate such tree diseases?
I think there is, but I has to be done at a national, international and political level. It’s about governments finding the will to impose biosecurity regulations once again. If you look at the history of biosecurity, it hasn’t always been a disaster. Round about the middle of the 19thcentury, when steel-hulled ships driven by steam began to cross the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, the spread of pests and pathogens that affected not just trees but all plants began to rise. Towards the end of the 19thcentury intelligent governments said “OK, this is a problem, we need to do something about this” and put in place biosecurity regulations, which to some extent mitigated the problem. Over the course of the 20thcentury we tore those up, because the greed of international trade took precedent. That was a major error which we’re now fighting to come back from. The right noises are being made, I think we’re back on the right track, but it’s too late. If you look at what Ash Dieback has done here, and even more dramatically what the Emerald Ash Borer has done in the USA, it’s devastation on an incredible scale. The UK government has a list of pests and pathogens which might come to this country at any time – that list is seven or eight hundred long, and number one on that list is the Emerald Ash Borer. It’s in the USA, it’s in continental Russia and it is heading this way. If it gets to Western Europe, Ash Dieback will look like child’s play.
So what can we do? On going into woodland, clean your boots – generally speaking, that sort of stuff is pissing in the wind, it’s not really going to make a difference but it makes people conscious of pathogens and how they’re moving around the country – it’s an initiative which gets people to think about these things. But what we actually need to do is lobby our MPs and say “plant biosecurity is now a major issue and could you take it up”.
Back to a domestic level – what’s your home like?
I live in a little farmhouse in a wooded valley on the edge of the Black Mountains, in Southeast Wales. The woodlands that surround me are very, very old. The woodlands belong to a farm so there’s a lot of fruit trees, lots of ash and beech, and a lot of alder which grows well.
Finally, what projects are you currently working on?
Lots of things going on, but the main project is I’m now writing a book about the history of bread. I’m growing a field of wheat which we’ll harvest at the end of the summer. I’ll thresh it in the barn at home, mill it in the local watermill and then leaven it and bake it at home.
“The Man Who Made Things Out Of Trees” is available through the links here.
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We didn’t have much money when I was growing up, so when the yearly shopping expedition for school clothing came around a familiar pattern emerged. My brother and I would choose our jackets, then my Mum would run her fingers around the seams and give the zip a bloody good yank. Eventually an item that met her strict criteria would be found, and we could all sit down for a burger at Huckleberry’s – an ersatz McDonald’s also serving onion rings, which counted as exotic food back in 1980s Southampton.
I’ve found myself running my fingers along the seams more and more lately, both literally and metaphorically. Occasionally I’ll tut, and I’ve even emitted the odd “eeeh”. That’s right, I’m turning into my Mother. Still, since those halcyon days of greasy onion rings on the precinct, there’s been an explosion of disposable consumer goods and it’s getting harder to know how, and where, to find genuine quality.
That’s where Tara Button comes in. She founded the website Buy Me Once to address the issue, and she’s written a book that sets out a great foundation for a more responsible, happier relationship with shopping…and, perhaps, life in general. We sat down for a quick chat about advertising and what makes a good product.
I’d come up with this website where you only found things that you wanted to bring into your life for a lifetime, if you were looking for more sustainable and more durable options than the current disposable shopping situation. That was a practical tool, but the whole philosophy that sits behind why you should buy for life – you can’t really get it across in a tweet or a Facebook post, it needed a larger medium that sets it all out. Why we consume the way we do, why it’s a broken system, why it’s damaging us and how we can change that.
“A Life Less Throwaway” pulls aside the curtain on the seductive world of advertising and marketing. For those who haven’t yet read it, are there any simple ways to defend ourselves against their tactics?
The very simplest is to look at them sceptically – to be awake in your mind, to be critical. When you see a model looking down her nose at you, realise that what they’re trying to do is make you feel like she has a higher status than you, so that you buy what she has.
The best defence against advertising is being mindful and pre-planning what you want to bring into your life. If you’re bumbling through and you haven’t really thought about it you can be very easily swayed by advertising…so if you think about what’s important to you and what your values are, then you’re being much more proactive about what you consume.
You previously worked in advertising, which you describe as a “moral wasteland”; can you tell me a little more about that?
I found it difficult because some of the brands that I was working for weren’t necessarily adding to the happiness of humanity. So, I was selling chocolate and my brief was to increase chocolate consumption in children, which I found particularly difficult. There were a lot of high sugar, high fat brands that we managed to market as health foods, essentially. A lot of the messaging was based around this portrayal of perfect people with perfect lives – it was a little bit like what’s happening on Instagram, with everyone scrolling and seeing all these filtered lives and feeling that their lives aren’t as great. In real life there isn’t an Instagram filter following you around, there isn’t a hundred people with blow driers. I feel like advertising is damaging to people’s mental and social health.
There are some handy tips on how to find well made, long lasting products in “A Life Less Throwaway”. Do you have a particular product that ticks all your boxes?
There are a couple that I like for different reasons. I love my pen that has enough ink in it to last a lifetime – that’s pretty extraordinary, isn’t it? Then you’ve got Solidtekniks which have a multi-century warranty – they’ve been made in a way that people will be digging them up.
On the other side of things, there’s sustainability. Items like Elvis and Kresse, which come with a lifetime fixing guarantee but also are made out of recycled fireman’s hoses, they’re taking waste out of the system. I’d say that was a perfect example of a product that’s both sustainable and durable.
What are you working on at the moment?
We’re constantly researching, finding new brands. We just came back from the sustainable fashion summit in Copenhagen. The book is about to launch in America and I might be about to record some masterclasses as well, which will be pretty cool. We’re also looking to have “Buy Me Once” as a certification in its own right, so brands can display it on their packaging.
Nancy Hiller keeps it real. Funny, wise and fiercely intelligent, her “Making Things Work” was one of my books of the year…so I was pretty damned chuffed when she agreed to have a chat.
F – How did you start out making furniture?
N – I had no experience making furniture as a younger person, I really got into it by accident when I was 20. I didn’t have enough money to afford furniture so I started cobbling things together, with very crude tools borrowed from my boyfriend. My stepfather made fun of my efforts. (We had a rather bad relationship.) One day he insulted me, adding that I should take a carpentry course, so I rode my bike down to the local vocational school and signed up for a furniture making course through City & Guilds. That’s how I first got involved.
F – How did the writing of “Making Things Work” come about?
N – Let’s see…I’ve always been interested in writing, as a younger person I was very academic – did A Levels in Latin and Greek and went on to study more “dead” languages at university before dropping out. Much later on, long after I had been working professionally as a furniture maker, I went back to university and got a degree and then a Master’s degree in Religious Studies with a focus on ethics. I’ve always been interested in reasoning and logic.
I started furniture making in the 1980s – as you can imagine, back then sexism was more rampant than it is today – and I would often have people make disparaging remarks or have very low expectations of my skills because I was a woman. I didn’t, at that time, have any good way of arguing back. Part of my motivation for going back to university in my early 30s was to learn how to argue. By that I don’t mean how to have a row, but how to craft an articulate response. I don’t always come up with a perfect response on the spur of the moment!
N – I’ve never heard that, it’s brilliant. That’s really how “Making Things Work” started: I’m going to write a book that, in part, is responding to all the insults – which aren’t just sexist. They’re also very much misconceptions – what it costs to build things, the investment in time, the overhead costs, the materials costs and all the rest of it. So, some of the stories are responses that I wish I’d been able to make on the spur of the moment. Others are really a response to many of the romantic views that abound regarding the nature of making furniture. These days especially, in the world of Instagram and other social media, there is just a ridiculous amount of romance attached to the craft of furniture making. When I say ridiculous, is it totally ridiculous? There’s all kinds of stuff online about building anything, honing your skills – all of that is wonderful. It’s just that when you do the work for a living it becomes somewhat different from the delightful, relaxing world of building things in your workshop at the end of the day. There are real life pressures that get involved, there are real life expenses such as taxes and insurance.
The other thing that I wanted to do is – in America, there’s this sense that anything English is enormously superior to anything American. I wanted to provide some real life experience that I had, responding to that. For example, the lack of a toilet at the second workshop where I worked. Many people might think “big deal, you can just go in the woods” – but you can’t go in the woods when there are no woods! You know, you’re working with a bunch of men – it’s not a big deal to me now, but it was then. Just the sheer slog and the grinding cold.
The story about my time at Imperial War Museum – I loved my time working there, and I wrote that story out of great fondness for the people with whom I worked there – but it’s funny, some people are outraged by what went on in the tearoom! Except that it was all well-intended – I know that if some people, including myself, really want to make a feminist critique of that whole scene, I will go there with you – but, those guys were really being what they thought of as friendly to me and I wanted to take it in that way, because why wouldn’t I? I mean, you can always make yourself miserable in any situation, but why? I was miserable enough at the time through a romantic breakup and they really were a tonic.
F – There’s not much written about the day to day experience of working – why do you think writers tend to steer clear of an experience that most of us have?
N – You just answered the question yourself, in part, by saying “the day to day experience”. It’s not that it’s not interesting, it’s that it’s not exotic.
When you do furniture making for a living, and I don’t mean the first year or even the first five years necessarily, it becomes very much like any other way of making a living – there are many of the same frustrations. There is quite a bit of monotony to the work. For example, there’s a lot of sanding for many of us – hours or days of sanding. If you’re doing a kitchen full of mortise and tenon joints, you might spend a whole day cutting mortise and tenon joints. There’s the anxiety of not knowing whether you’re going to make enough money to pay your bills. There’s the occasional very difficult client, or difficult supplier or employee. In other words, it is very much like many other ways of making a living.
F – What’s your own home like? Full of your own creations?
N – It’s a smallish house, it’s very simple and in a rural area. The house itself is partly my creation as when I moved it was basically a shell. In my spare time over the following two years I did most of the finishing work myself – I put down wooden floors which are hickory, which is extremely hard so I had to predrill and hand nail every single board. I’ve built the kitchen cabinets– they’re quite simple, I don’t want anything too formal. Over the years as I’ve built speculative things that sometimes don’t sell, they’ve ended up coming into the house. So yeah, there’s quite a bit of my own work. Most of the furniture I’ve bought has been from friends who were selling things or from junk shops – nothing very expensive. It’s quite eclectic – the house is full of salvaged lighting and plumbing fixtures, I like old things and I like old houses.
F – What projects are you currently working on?
N – There’s always a variety of work going on at any given time – my primary livelihood is furniture and cabinet making but I also write for different publications. I write a weekly blog for Popular Woodworkingand four times a year I do a post on the business of furniture making for Fine Woodworking…and then I write books in the background.
I just finished up a small wall cabinet for a project article that’ll be coming up in Fine Woodworking magazine soon – I’ve got to finish some drawings for that. Last week I was doing some small cabinetry and shelving for a bathroom in a local client’s home. Today I’ll be starting to rip plywood for the second phase of a kitchen in a really nice architect designed house in a rural area – that’s the next big job.
The next book I’m writing is for Lost Art Press on kitchens. This Sunday I drove to Chicago to photograph a kitchen I did in 2014 in a 1915 house for an archaeologist and her husband, an Egyptologist – they were fun clients.
F – You’ve written a book on Art and Crafts furniture that’s being published soon. Is that a style you’ve always admired?
N – I became aware of it when I lived in England – it wasn’t a subject of my attention, I was just surrounded by so many pieces of furniture from the late 19th/early 20th century because my Mother furnished our flat from skips and junk shops. Many of those pieces are lovely – they weren’t made by the famous designers of the Arts and Crafts era but many were late-Victorian or Arts and Crafts in style. On the other hand, when I set out to write this book, having been asked to do so by Scott Francis and Megan Fitzpatrick at Popular Woodworking, the one thing I wanted to do is argue that we really have no business talking about Arts and Crafts as though it were a unified style because it’s actually insanely diverse. I think that’s something that we need to think about more often instead of casually tossing about “Arts and Crafts” as a style. Then, of course, the majority of the introductory chapter is concerned with what unifies Arts and Crafts furniture and that is the philosophical and aesthetic movement out of which it grew.
William Morris may be the best known exponent of the movement’s ideals but the movement grew out of social and economic critiques that were passionately written decades before Morris was even born. Certainly, Carlyle was one of those critiquing British society and economics and then, of course, Ruskin. I wanted to go back before Morris and talk about how Ruskin elaborated this fabulous foundation for the Arts and Crafts movement and its aesthetics in his essay “The Moral Elements of Gothic”. That became the foundation of the first chapter of my book. Fortunately, the editors at Popular Woodworking gave me carte blanche to inject a bit of humour into my treatment of this subject. I thought that for a readership that’ll be largely comprised of woodworkers that’ll help make it more readable. When you’re writing about Ruskin and some of the language he used, which is extremely florid and formal…the written material is incredibly rich. Ruskin had a brilliant mind in so many ways. One of the things that endear him to me most forcefully is the way he can tie himself up in knots, logically, and appear to be contradicting the very point that he made passionately earlier.
F – He writes at one point that he doesn’t think he’s properly dealt with a subject until he’s contradicted himself at least three times…
N – Right, the thing that’s brilliant is that is typical of deep and complex thought. There’s not enough of that today, especially in politics and government. This book is for furniture makers primarily, or people who love the Arts and Crafts movement, but so much of what these guys were saying was a social and economic critique and a proposal for a better society. Many of the same concerns that they had, many of us have today. The stuff they were writing and lecturing about is no less relevant today than it was then.
F – Is it possible to make a living as a woodworker without relying on rich clients?
N – I don’t primarily work for very wealthy people. Most of my clients are middle class people – the equivalent of civil servants in England, they work for the government or they work for universities. A lot of my clients find me because they live in old houses and I specialise in work for old houses.
There’s a wonderful discipline in having to make a living at a craft. There’s a humility – you have to learn, or at least I’ve had to learn this, unless you’re just going to work for wealthy people, you have to learn to sometimes do stuff that is beneath what people might feel comfortable posting on Instagram, let me put it that way. Working with sheet materials – every kitchen I do is made with very down to earth techniques using veneered plywood, screws and biscuit joinery. That is the core of the cabinetry that enables me to put the more labour intensive work into the parts that will get seen – those are the parts that incorporate more typical furniture joinery, maybe mortised butt hinges, things like that. A lot of people scoff at the way I build kitchens and some of the built in work that I do, but let them scoff – that’s how I can afford to make stuff and make a living at it. There’s nothing wrong with it, it’s very strong, durable and practical…and frankly, it looks a hell of lot better than some of the preciously made stuff!
Part of my challenge as a professional woodworker is figuring out how to make those things that work with my client’s budget. For example, this kitchen that I’m just starting this afternoon, for a house in a beautiful hilly spot in Southern Indiana, those people are long term clients. All I ever made for them before was a bathroom cabinet, but it was a beautiful cabinet for an old house. They wanted me to work with them on their kitchen, come up with a design that would complement the architectural style of the house and make them happy on a daily basis – doing so using methods and materials that are affordable for their budget. That’s what I do. These are special people to me, I’ve known them for a long time and I love where they’re coming from – aesthetically and in terms of their values. So I was motivated to come up with a way of building their cabinetry that’s affordable to them. That’s part of what I mean when I called the book “Making Things Work”. I make things work by working with people.
How do you organise your books? I try and keep mine vaguely shuffled into subject matter, and I occasionally sort them alphabetically by author – sheer madness, I know. There’s only one shelf of mine kept aside for a single publisher, though…and that’s Lost Art Press.
I caught up with their very own Christopher Schwarz for a chat about woodwork, books and filling your house full of furniture you’re not quite happy with.
F – How did you start out making furniture?
C – It wasn’t really free will. My parents were hippies and they bought us a farm in the middle of nowhere. We built all our own stuff – our own house and a lot of the furniture in our house. We were in the Deep South so it was very hot, we didn’t have air-conditioning, we didn’t have plumbing. Those were our weekends, making things for the farm.
I went to college to become a writer, hoping to get away from all that, but then as soon as I graduated I just went right back into it. I started taking night classes making furniture at the local university here, that was back in the early ‘90s. That’s all I’ve thought about, or done, or considered doing, for almost thirty years.
I started out as a journalist, so for a few years I was a daily newspaper writer – covering murders, train wrecks, trials – it was all very interesting but at night I was at home, building furniture. About 1996, I was trying to figure out which way I was going to go with my life, and I got a job with Popular Woodworking magazine as an editor so was able to do both for a long time – which was really amazing, I didn’t think that could be possible. So, I’ve always gotten to do a little bit of both; that’s good because it’s really the only thing I’m good at.
F – Tell me about founding Lost Art Press, what inspired that?
C – I’d been at Popular Woodworking for many years, on the corporate side for so long and thought I knew enough to do something on my own. I have a business partner, John Hoffman, who’s also a woodworker and we were drinking too much beer one night and we started talking about it. Within about six months we’d filed the papers to become a corporation – that was eleven years ago. We thought that the reason there were no good woodworking books being made was because it wasn’t good for the authors. Corporate publishers really screw over authors like you just won’t believe, I’ve been on both sides of the equation – as the screwer and the screwee. We thought we could figure out a model where we could build a company without screwing authors. That would allow us to go after people like Christian Becksvoort, Peter Follansbee, Peter Galbert – all these fascinating woodworkers who had no desire to do a book because there was nothing in it for them. That was the core idea behind Lost Art Press, and has stayed the same. All our authors get the same contract, we split our profits 50/50 with them – in corporate publishing you usually get 7-10% – so it’s a good deal. The way we manage it is we keep costs really low – we don’t have employees, we don’t have a corporate jet or even a photocopier – we’re just two guys, and we hire out our friends to do all the design work and the editing so it also supports a network of other independent people.
F – You publish historical texts as well as present day writers – bringing the knowledge of current woodworkers to the general public and unearthing these tomes that I certainly wouldn’t have come across…I’m always impressed by your ability to find these fairly obscure woodworking texts from the pre-Victorian era!
C – That was another thing that drove us – there were so many early books out there, and so much knowledge that needed to be brought forward to the present day. I think that John and I, and everyone I knew in handwork, were struggling trying to teach ourselves things when really all the answers were written down or at least there were breadcrumbs to those answers.
So it was launching into getting Charles Hayward republished, for 20thcentury guys he’s one of the best writers on handwork, and then going backwards even more with Roubo, that was a ten year project, and then Moxon – the first chronicler of woodworking. Those were the foundations – giving us a starting point just a little higher than what we started with in the ‘70s and ‘80s, when people were just making it up as they went along.
F – How can independent makers survive without relying solely on rich clients? Is that something you’ve found to be a problem?
C – I think it depends, it depends on your business. I know a lot of woodworkers and we talk about business all the time. I’ve been completely independent for six years now, but I’ve done commission work for the last sixteen or seventeen. If your business is catering to the ultra-rich you can probably do that, and do that alone. There are people who build furniture for sheiks and princes and dotcom millionaires, and that’s one way to do it. My path, and the only one I can speak to well, is that I try to have a balance of things so that I can keep my work priced at a point where I can always do what I want to do and can always say no to whatever I want to say no to. People get very excited when they can actually have something made by someone else and have a say in how it comes to life. The way I do that is by diversifying – I write, I edit, we sell whatever we need to sell and take on freelance jobs.
The one thing that’s ensured success as much as diversification is living someplace that is dirt-fricking-cheap. I live in the Midwest, which we call flyover country. It’s really nice but it’s not where a tourist would ever think to go. We can raise a family here, my wife and I are both writers so we make horrible money, but in the Midwest you can do that. I think that’s really important, keeping your debt low, keep your expectations low, and living somewhere that’s inexpensive.
F – What’s your home like?
C – I’m in my storefront today, we’re kind of between homes at the moment. The storefront is an 1895 bar, by the time we got it it was a fighting lesbian bar, it was totally purple and glittery.
F – Do you still get old clients knocking on the door at 2am asking for a drink?
C – We used to for about three years, they’ve stopped coming around. We do get a lot of weird characters here but it’s fine, it’s fun. We’re fixing up this place so my workshop is on the ground floor and then my wife and I will live upstairs, as soon as we get the upstairs looking less like a bachelor pad. What’s my home like? It’s filled with my furniture, very little in there is store bought, but my wife bemoans that like almost everything in our house it’s prototypes – so it’s the crap, the chairs that don’t look quite right or I wasn’t happy with. I’m not going to keep anything I can sell!
F – Do you ever still head to IKEA?
C – I won’t go to IKEA, not even for the meatballs. I hate the place. But…one year we got our tax return and we decided to give the kids $500 to get some furniture. I said “look, you can buy antiques, you can even hire me, I’ll build you what you want and I’ll give you a good price”. The buggers just went right to IKEA and bought everything they wanted. It was shameful, I’ve never felt such shame…
That was five years ago, all that stuff has been destroyed just from normal use. It just falls apart, it has a half-life. So now they’re coming to me for scraps. One of my daughters has just graduated college and is trying to raid our house for furniture as all her IKEA stuff is in pieces.
F – What furniture projects are you currently working on?
C – I’m finishing up this week two large tool chests for customers, one in Texas and one in California. That’s an unusual part of my business – I build a lot of tool chests and I build a lot of workbenches for woodworkers – which sounds like crazy at first, but a lot of these guys are people who don’t have the time – they’re nearing retirement and want to get set up or they just don’t think they’ll ever have the time to get these things so they hire me. Which I’m perfectly willing to do now – I kind of resisted it for a while. So I’ve got those two going out and then I’ve got 12/13 commissions lined up for the rest of this year. A lot of them are on the campaign furniture side – I have a couple of clients who are really into campaign furniture so I’ll be building a lot of campaign chests and Roorkee chairs and lots of collapsible stuff – but stuff that doesn’t collapse unintentionally.
F – Where next for Lost Art Press?
Specifically, what’s coming out very soon is Joshua Klein’s book on a very interesting guy named Jonathan Fisher who was an 18thCentury renaissance man. We have a this absolutely complete portrait of a woodworker and his life – he documented everything, and we have his furniture and his objects. So it’s a look at 18thcentury craft through the eyes of that person, with very little interpretation. That’s a really cool book.
We’re almost sending to press John Brown’s “Welsh Stick Chairs” which we finally got the rights to republish. That was one of the most influential books in my life, and I’ve been chasing the rights to that for many years, so we’re putting out a really nice edition of that. Hopefully that will inspire a whole new generation of people, because Brown was as influential as Krenov or Sam Maloof or any of the other big woodworkers.
More generally, we’re trying to decide if we should get more into video, we’ve done a couple of streaming videos. I don’t really like video, which I probably shouldn’t admit, but it’s not how I’ve learned. I’ve learned through reading and then doing. Other people are very visual learners, I’m not a very visual learner. Luckily my partner, John Hoffman, that’s how he learns so he’s more in charge of the video aspect. I don’t know if we’ll be doing more of that, that seems to be the way the world is going…but I just love books. I love the permanence of them. They can be made to a very high standard.
F – Videos seem very ephemeral. Books have a period of their own, they’re timeless.
C – I totally agree, and I hope that there are enough customers around to keep me doing this. That’s our fear, that people will say “screw books”. But we’ll just keep making books, that’s what I do. I’ll just keep doing it and if I have to make them one at a time, I’ll make them one at a time.
I’ll keep buying them – looks like I’m going to need a bigger shelf…
Many thanks to Chris and all at Lost Art Press – available from Classic Hand Tools in the UK and Europe.
To be honest, it’s a funny old thing sitting down to type a blog post when you’ve got 0 followers. Optimistic is one word. There are probably others, but let’s stick to that. Who knows, this could “go viral” like one of those things my daughter brings back from nursery.
So, in keeping with this spirit of boundless optimism and general Springtime vibes, I’ll post a couple of pictures, one of which has got flowers in. They’re both of my workshop, deep in the heart of the countryside but just close enough to Waitrose.
This is where I make furniture. In the far corner is a board of Olive Ash which will probably become a desk, there’s some sheets of veneered ply knocking about waiting to be turned into door panels for a built-in cupboard and the keen-eyed student will notice some French Oak lurking at the back.
So, stick around and I’ll be making wondrous things from wood, having opinions on things and taking photographs of it all.