When I'm fully consumed with what I’m doing, or trying to fit a lot in, days seem to fall off the calendar in waves and I find myself struggling to keep up with what month it is, much less what day. It can be an indicator that my mind is fully engrossed in something stimulating or challenging, and can also be a wake up that I need to take a step back and be present. The last four months have been like that for me, a mixture of intense interest and getting swept away in the flood. The reason for moving here to Nelson was to study; to develop the skills that I have, and to create and challenge myself. My time here at the Centre for fine woodworking has provided all these things, and more.
This is one of the premier places in the world to immerse yourself in the craft of fine woodwork and I have felt the pull to come study here for quite a few years. Idyllically set in a stunning location, hidden away and with views over nelson bay and on the surrounding mountains, its impossible not to be inspired here, and this shows in the level of work so far. There seven of us in the full time course, all from varied backgrounds, experiences and lives. From a retired Supreme Court judge, to a vagabond sailor, all here to learn and develop our skills, working with David Haig, the lead tutor and renowned furniture maker. The school itself is small, cozy and well fitted out with all we need to bring to life what we can dream up. Armed with a mixture of carefully sharpened hand tools and finely tuned machines, and with David and the other tutors mentoring and guiding us in design, we have all set about bringing into being things that only existed in our minds eye a few months ago.
There are seven major projects, and we are amazingly now on to the fourth, when it seems like yesterday that we picked our tools for the first time. First we built a tool rack, teaching the basic elements of mortise and tenon joinery and precision marking out and cleared the space at out benches for the future projects. Cutting and chiseling away till all fit precisely as planned and customized to to suit each person best. This took up our first two weeks and gave us all time to settle in to the school and working with each other.
The next design consisted of a blanket chest, and with the requirements being only for dovetail joints and a lid, we were set loose. The designs that emerged were as different as the personalities on the course and gave insights into the influences and design traits of each student. Mine took the look of a sea chest, while others gave nod to Danish and Japanese heritage and others used wildly patterned woods and custom hinges to set their pieces apart. The process of taking the raw element of timber, cutting, measuring, chiseling, paring, scraping, gluing and sanding, transforming it into a beautiful piece of functional art is fascinating. There is something deeper encapsulated in this, something that could be, and has been, described in so many ways, but I think the pride, purpose and satisfaction of creation is what fills many deeper needs of the human spirit. There were some amazing pieces brought to life and I think I have now reached the pinnacle of my sailing career, living out of a sea chest.
Following this was the hoop stool, one of David’s designs and with us all making the same thing, and giving us the chance to learn the elements of laminating as well as kerf and steam and bending, and what an amazing process that is. To witness what a solid piece of wood can be shaped in to blew me away. With the simple tools of steam, manpower and clamps solid wood is no longer “solid” and can be bent and twisted into wildly fantastic bends and curves, giving the ability to create flowing, moving designs. It truly was an eye opener and game changer for me personally, there is so much I want to explore with this. The laminating and kerf bending were no less impressive; using these techniques to enable shapes that seemingly defy what is possible and further present that sense of movement and fluidity within design. With forms, glue and a vacuum bags we transformed individual wooden elements into seamless and functional forms, going even further with router jigs and precision hand tool work to bring it all together into a stunning piece of furniture.
This forth project is another individual design and build, a hall table, the requirements this time being curves and a drawer. This has been an even steeper leaning curve than the others, and I don’t see this plateauing anytime soon. The design process is an area I find hugely interesting, and daunting. I know the way I work well enough to know I need a week or two of alternatively thinking, processing, and ignoring the job at hand, while my brain takes all the ideas and information i have absorbed and comes up with an idea that is my starting point. Even knowing this though, I came to the first week of the design phase with absolutely no idea of what I wanted to do, and did feel slightly pressured. For the first week we swapped chisels and planes for pencils and large sheets of paper and set to work drawing, designing and resolving the raw ideas at hand. True to my personal creative process, soon my deign took form and shape, the pressure eased and i was away. From the initial sketch I moved on to a quarter scale model and full size drawings, all helping me figure out exactly how I was going to actually build what I had dreamt up and what it would look like in the finished form. This process has been some of the most mentally challenging and enjoyable things we have tackled, so far.
From design it was on to sourcing wood and visualising the necessary pieces, hidden somewhere in the raw slab. From a large fletch of English walnut, slowly what I wanted emerged. As I cut, shaped, steam bent and routed different pieces, legs, rails, stretchers, and drawers all came to life and began to resemble what had begun in my mind, flowed on to paper and now into life. For the top I chose English Sycamore and split and book matched a solid plank, the white sycamore and the dark chocolate English walnut complimenting each other perfectly. Again the designs were hugely varied and inspirational and we all fed off the creativity that filled the workshop. Six weeks from design to fully built is a challenging timetable, and days were spent in a haze of sawdust, steam, plane strokes, measuring, cutting, routing, scratching heads and coffee, while at night my dreams were filled with tackling unsolved problems. Piece by piece things came together, elements resembling a hall table would suddenly pop up on different benches for an hour or maybe a day, before being deconstructed again to resolve some other aspect or issue, all giving glimpses to the final form. Then as the final week approached, almost suddenly, one then another sprouted legs and stood, and there they were, ideas taken from thoughts, to models to, to living pieces of fine furniture. The pride and enthusiasm exuded by each member of the course when we would gather around to witness the finished, or nearly finished design was amazing. We had all witnessed each other work through trials and challenges presented by these pieces, so to see them complete and know the time, care and pride put in, gave a deep level of comradery and joy in seeing the stunning work accomplsihed so far.
There have been a few comments from the tutors and technicians on how amazing the work this year has been and how excited they are for the end of course exhibit, a tribute to the long hours put in by all the students and the time, instruction and patience from the tutors. This will all be on display in December and by then there will also be more amazing pieces added to the collection. Taking the time to sit and write this, and re-living the lessons learnt and challenges faced in the time at the school so far, has really reinforced just how far we have all progressed in our time here. The decision to devote the time and finances to doing this course was a big one, and with the benefit of a bit of hindsight, it was the definitely the right one. I'm looking forward to a week off of R and R and getting stuck into next term and burying myself in the workshop again. Keep an eye out for more exciting, and beautiful things to come.