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