Finding the beauty of bespoke wooden furniture

Aug 26, 2019


From dining tables to wooden lighting fixtures and household slippery dips (yes, they're a thing), bespoke wooden furniture is very on trend. Companies such as Wild About Wood, and Sydney-based carpenter Nathaniel Grey, pride themselves on carving beautiful designs from sustainable, renewable Australian timber.

A seat at the sustainability table

Using timber in interior design is not only easy on the eye, it's environmentally friendly. In fact, choosing timber in design and construction can even help tackle climate change as trees absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and store it in their wood (around 50% of the dry weight of wood is carbon, absorbed from the atmosphere by the tree when it was growing).

In 2005, Australia's native forests, timber plantations and wood products sequestered 56.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, reducing Australia's overall greenhouse gas emissions by almost 10 per cent. Cool, huh? So when you incorporate wood into the home or workplace, your use of this renewable resource is helping the environment.

There's a chair in there

But back to furniture design. For master woodworker Geoff Tonkin, there's nothing better in life than handcrafting a dining chair. He can't help but laugh at people who complain about how long it takes to screw together a piece of Ikea furniture, or who find themselves staring at the instruction manual as though it's written in hieroglyphs.

Trust us, no matter how long you've struggled with that curved Poäng chair, Tonkin's got you beat. You'll find no power tools at his shed outside Molong in NSW. Instead, he's equipped with old-world shave horses and pole lathes. It's here he runs woodwork courses for anyone looking to get back to nature, including a 10-day course on how to handcraft a single chair.

The 73-year-old master woodworker is one of a growing number of Australian furniture makers breathing new life into some of the craft's oldest techniques. His course focuses specifically on the Windsor method, which transforms young, green timber (rather than wood that has been air- or kiln-dried) into handcrafted dining chairs.

Keeping old traditions alive

Windsor chairmaking, a technique that made it possible for the common man to own a chair for the first time, would see a bodger (someone who turns legs) go into the forest to find saplings and sit there only making chair legs. They would take the legs into the local village, where the chair-bottomers would put the legs into a seat, and then they might go to another village where framers would put the frames on.

The chairs would then go to London on carts. "It's a very old English craft of chair making," Tonkin says. "And we're trying to keep it alive."

Second life products

Tonkin works mostly with the Robinia pseudoacacia: a deciduous tree introduced by Australia's earliest farmers to provide winter sun and summer shade outside shearing sheds. He collects wood in the weeks leading up to each course, with most farmers happy to be rid of a tree largely unloved in the bush.

It's that very transformation, from under-appreciated to work of art that really tickles Tonkin. It's an opportunity to allow the wood to be viewed in a completely different way.

"It's a tree that grows locally, but people just don't appreciate them much – and some even regard them as a pest. But in actual fact they're a beautiful timber tree," he says.

Breathing new life into discarded trees

Working this way also draws attention to wood as the ultimate renewable. Rather than being wasted, the tree is used and reconfigured, or ultimately, recycled. The environmental benefits are obvious: not only is the shelf life of the timber extended, the carbon contained within the recycled timber is stored for the life of the new chair.

If you're thinking that there must be a faster, easier way to furnish your home, you're obviously right. But to think that is to also miss the point of handcrafting something from wood.

The chair is the end destination, obviously, but the real magic of Tonkin's courses lie in the experience.

"It's a personal journey for the person and for their skills, but it's also a journey for the wood, which they turn into something truly beautiful."