Sustainable Timber from Northland, 30 Years in the Making

Last Sunday I drove up from my furniture making workshop in Kerikeri and visited Brian and Gaye Simms at their award-winning farm near Kaitaia, Northland.

Brian has known the land since he was a boy, after inheriting it from his father who cleared the land with his own two hands, to prepare it for farming. The farm is situated on high land with steep hillside and challenging gullies. When the time came for Brian to begin working the area, he picked up on these issues inherent in the landscape and decided to do something about it, from both a farming and environmental point of view.

He fenced off the gullies, rivers and bush, to protect them from dying and potentially trapped animals and planted forest to hold and regenerate the soils. Thirty years on, the farm was awarded supreme winner at the Ballance Farm Environment Awards 2010 and holds a rich treasury of native and overseas woodlands.

Forward thinking is Brian’s forte and when planting, he considered what trees would be beneficially harvested as furniture making timbers. Much to my delight, Brian chose Blackwood. His Blackwood is straight, air dried and free from knots and voids. These features are the result of diligent yearly pruning to ensure they grow straight, true and free from knots caused by the protruding branches.

To contrast with the dark tones of Blackwood, Brian has also planted Silky Oak which gives a radiant shimmer when quarter sawn. I’m looking forward to discovering more about this timber and learning how to incorporate the new element into my making.

Brian harvests the trees himself and selects trees that have reached 600mm or more in diameter. The trick is to cut them just before they start to rot or are infiltrated by insects. An innovative fellow, Brian has built and designed a special trailer to carry the logs and a tractor winch made from an old truck differential to haul them into place. The timber is sawn by a friend and then brought back to a farm shed to dry for 2-4 years.

Brian has converted an old milking shed into a workshop and builds some beautiful furniture from his own harvested timber.

The fact that sustainability and regeneration practices are deep in the farm’s DNA is exemplified by Gaye Simms’ abundant permaculture garden. Gaye is Brian’s wife and has her garden near the house with every fruit and vegetable you could think of. Being a permaculture design, it is well thought out and inherently practical, with no resource going to waste. The lay of the land, excrement from farm animals, solar panels, greenhouses - everything works together holistically to achieve organic and sustainable food.

In terms of sustainability, it doesn’t get any better than this. Brian and Gaye are local to the Northland district, harvesting sick trees and growing abundant food from their award winning farm. I look forward to utilizing his timbers to build sustainable and beautiful fine furniture here at my workshop in Kerikeri.

Where Did It All Begin?

People ask me, how did you get started? Where did it all begin? What made you choose woodworking? I usually reply with, well, I’m not sure. And that would be the truth because the turning of events is more complex than I could claim for my own mind.

That being said, I joined a bookclub.

We would meet every month in the Northern suburbs of Melbourne to drink wine, laugh and discuss books. I was introduced to some amazing novels, ones that I wouldn’t have come across without the help of others. For instance, “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole had me laughing out loud in bed each night. However, it was “News from Nowhere” by William Morris that had a profound effect on my life course.

“News from Nowhere” is the type of book that gives you hope and a different way of interpreting your surroundings. Yes, it is a utopian novel and yes, we will never live in utopia but at the same time, our minds are drafted to accept, revere and live by ideals.

The book stayed with me, in my mind’s eye for years, whilst I continued my journey as a musician. It was only later I found out William Morris was one of the founding fathers of the Arts and Crafts furniture movement, one of humanity’s early revolts against the disappointments of industrialism.

From time to time, when questioning the validity of spending a large amount of time on little details, I often call to mind self made images from “News from Nowhere”. They live alive in my mind, willing me and protecting me from degenerative compromises often labelled as “economy” or “efficiency”.

Lets dream of quality instead.

A Leap of Faith - (Moving Overseas During COVID)

Last September, our family, in the midst of strictest COVID lockdowns, packed up house, shop and kids to return to New Zealand. We truly love Melbourne and Australia but time comes when change is needed and in this case, the change we needed was to return home.

We've settled in Kerikeri, Northland which is a beautiful little town in the Bay of Islands. The house we've moved into is a 1960's asbestos shack with a little garage at the end of its gravel drive. Over the road, a little river for the children to swim and a short walk away is a waterfall for jumping and jetty for launching boats.

I've set up a little workshop while we wait for a larger space to be built. This will be of similar size to the Melbourne workshop and hopefully be completed by May. Though this shop is small, I will be able to carry out all my previous designs, albeit with a little more fussing about.

I'm very keen to get to know the New Zealand timbers and have picked up some small offcuts of Kauri from a local demolition yard. Who know's what will become of these tangled pieces.

Before my first project kicks off I built some shelving for our home. These are built from some scraps I brought over from Melbourne and work nicely, I think, in this little kitchen pocket. There are a few fanciful curves and some hand carved brackets which I enjoyed making immensely.

Repairable Furniture

Accidents do happen, especially when viewed from the perspective of decades and not months. Truly sustainable furniture should be easily repairable. Unfortunately, the most common glue used in furniture making, PVA, cannot be manipulated easily once set.

If, for instance, a leg join breaks, that join will have to be cut away and new parts will have to be made in order to revive the piece.

Enter animal glues.

In addition to boasting more than adequate strength characteristics, these glues are completely reversible when a combination of excessive heat and moisture are applied. That same leg join, if glued with animal glue, can be taken apart and reglued without any destructive processes needing to take place.

From now on, all Lloyd Brooke Furniture pieces will incorporate animal glues in one way or another. Here's to hoping these pieces will be around long after I leave this world.

A New Coffee Table Design

There is a new design to welcome to the Lloyd Brooke Furniture family. The Finn coffee table. The client wanted a custom coffee table with prerequisites being splayed legs and baby safe edges.

I started by gluing and scraping the top, followed by attaching the breadboard ends. These help keep the tabletop flat. The trick is to glue the centre but not the edges, to allow for expansion and contraction of the timber.

Next was the frame design. I wanted to create an elegant statement. These two words guided my design decisions throughout the process. Once a rough sketch was drawn, I created a prototype out of scrap. Prototypes are invaluable because a drawing lives in a different world to a true 3d object. The prototype was hideous but earned it's keep with the information it provided.

I then pieced together the frame out of Blackwood.

Once the edges were smoothed and angles refined, I believe we came out alright in the end.

Bespoke Hand Tool Process

Without huge, industrial machines, I've found hand tools, when properly set up, to be the most effective way of preparing my timber for joinery.

I use a couple of simple machines to take the wood from a rough sawn state, to a square dimension.

From there, I will either use my hand plane or cabinet scraper to remove the marks left by the machine and create a smooth surface, ready for joinery.

cabinet scraper on bespoke desk

Not only is the process enjoyable, but it is also fast, keeps me fit and reduces my carbon emissions.

Check out this quick video I put together showing some of the tools in action:

Bespoke Baby Keepsake Box

Many of my favourite pieces are birthed directly from the customer's needs. Recently, I had the pleasure of building a keepsake box for an unborn baby, due in August this year.

The baby's name is secret. All I have are the initials WRF. This, to me, adds another degree of sentiment. Something private and something sacred.

It offered a pleasant opportunity to get the carving chisels out and set to work on some letters. Letters that stand for a new human yet to come into this world.

This box was made to store all the bits that go along with a newborn. Birth certificate, hospital bracelet, a lock of hair...

Something to keep forever.

Memories box with hand cut dovetails.

Ode to a Brilliant Australian Toolmaker

I use a lot of hand tool processes when I'm building a piece. Not only is it enjoyable, but it also offers efficiency in small, home workshops. Ones that don't have the capabilities to use large scale machine sanders and need to keep noise and electricity usage to a minimum.

The planes made by Australian toolmaker, HNT Gordon, allow me to quickly take out marks left by my machines and move onto the joinery of the piece.

Hnt Smoother on a custom American Walnut round dining table.

This means I go through a minimal amount of sandpaper and it helps keep me fit.

The HNT planes and spokeshaves are beautiful but more importantly, work brilliantly despite the challenges that Australian timbers throw at them.

Hnt Smoothing plane working on custom sideboard door cleats.

I am in no way affiliated with HNT Gordon and haven't even met Terry. I just thought, given the economic climate at present, what better time than now to support quality Australian business?

https://hntgordon.com.au/

Growing a meaningful, custom home

There are items round the home that you use everyday, often without too much thought. These are useful items that make your life easier: laundry basket, filing cabinet, plant holder, fruit bowl.

In our case, these were items bought many years ago without too much thought.

These days, with a young family we spend far more time at home than we used to. This being the case, we've started to prioritise our immediate surroundings.

Handmade Office Organiser

Q. Why not make our surrounding as meaningful and custom as possible?

A. Because it is expensive.

Q. Why rush?

Handcut dovetail office organiser

If we can make a positive change to one item in the house at a time and know that change will last our lifetime, the need to rush disappears.

Often rushed and trendy purchases are badly made and originate from overseas countries. Our home is evolving, and slowly, because you can't rush growth.

Furniture Design with Bob Dylan in Mind

The sky is the limit when it comes to woodworking techniques. There are makers out there, wizards of all sorts of joinery, marquetry, veneering... The list goes on and on. A question I often ask myself is where to stop? Where will I set deliberate and intentional limits on my craft?

Many of the best craftspeople have access to basic tools and use fundamental techniques.

A simple coffee table made by the great, George Nakashima.

Many of the best craftspeople have access to state of the art tools and elaborate techniques.

A virtuosic cabinet made in the 18th century.

So, where to head?

In days past, you would apprentice under a master of the craft, organically pick up techniques and modify them to suit your needs as your experience increases.

Now we live in the face of infinite technique options and infinite design inspirations. It's hard not to feel dizzy when facing up to a plethora of concepts and techniques that don't belong to a set cultural tradition.

I've found music can help guide my decisions.

When questioning how I will tackle a design, I like to think back about how I like to write songs. For me, a song should be simple, direct and strike at the heart. My artistic tastes do not lean towards the virtuosic but instead toward the spirit.

Acoustic Dylan.

Let's take one of the greatest songwriters as an example. Bob Dylan. His songs use simple chords, commonly accepted forms and simple words. The genius lies in his ability to weave these in such a profound way as to make direct contact with the heart.

Do I find the internet useful for establishing technique and inspiration? Yes. If my furniture could approach the simple profundity of Bob Dylan's work I'd be a very happy maker.

Though I would consider leaving out a few of those harmonica solos.