May 11, 2020
There’s no substitute for quality in Mike Jefferys’ world, but he wouldn’t have it any other way.
As the owner of The Wood Works Book and Tool Co, Mike specialises in supplying fine hand tools and woodworking manuals from his home base at Church Point in Sydney’s northern beaches to “those whose understand quality and insist on it”.
The self-confessed “tool tart” is fiercely independent, which resonates in his website’s ethics statement: “The website is neither sponsored nor funded by our suppliers … we aim to represent the products we sell fairly and assess them on merit”.
Operating under the premise that a quality tool should last you for life and beyond, Mike said his discerning customers from “the length and breadth of Australia” were “overwhelmingly” enthusiasts and not from trades as many would expect.
So much so that he says he would rather stock an exquisitely made rare tool, such as the made-to-order hand-cut rasps by Noel Liogier in Lyon, than a high-selling piece of questionable quality.
“I like the idea that my customers are dealing with somebody who has a passion for what he sells, and always has an eye on quality,” Mike said. It’s one reason why he retains more than 8000 sources in his reference library that has helped equip school and TAFE students with knowledge for more than 25 years.
Another is to steer clear of power tools and encourage time-honoured methods by stocking about 15,000 items – the nuts and bolts tools of the trade, so to speak – on the website. As one of the early members of the Woodworkers Association of NSW, Mike left his career in live theatre at Sydney Opera House to take the reins in 2007 from Leon Sadubin, who pursued his dream of creating high-end wooden furniture.
The timing wasn’t great but Mike and his wife Kristina survived the pain of the Global Financial Crisis by diversifying into other areas, such as selling wood dyes to paper makers and largely ignoring the inferior east Asian products dumped into the Australian market. The strategy paid off.
More than a decade later, Mike is still upholding his principles and his highest-selling items tell the story: Tung oil, shellac for French polishing, solvents, Renaissance Wax out of London, threaded inserts for woods, scroll saw blades, quartz clock mechanisms, a burnisher and a reamer tool. Then there’s the Japanese hand saw, beech try squares, Shoji paper, escutcheon pins, old-school wood screws (almost impossible to get), draw knives, Japanese carving knives, high-quality hinges out of New York, saw files, hatchets from Austria, a carpenter’s mallet from Sheffield, and hide glue “that’s been around since probably Jesus Christ”.
The list speaks volumes about his clientele and the premium they will pay for quality, but that doesn’t ignore the commercial reality of the 500 items he places in the eBay marketplace.
Unfortunately, Mike rarely finds to the time to indulge in his love of woodturning, though he occasionally creates replacement handles for wood chisels.
“I still love what I do, but I’m finding it's a generational thing,” Mike said. “In Australia’s industrial heyday around the second world war we were pretty isolated and had to make a lot of our own stuff. But, unfortunately, the trend of something genuinely made in Australia has hugely declined.
“There’s some Australian artisan makers who make some of the most divinely beautiful tools in the world – among them a plane maker on the north coast of NSW [HNT (Terry) Gordon] – but he’s one of the rare examples”. Instead he’s faced by an increasing population who “don’t really know or care and have no passion for their tools” and for whom price is the major determining factor.
But there are glimmers of hope in the young apprentices who think beyond tools they “plug into a power point”. “When I took over books were a third of our market, but I keep the book list up for educational reasons. Nowadays, it’s a minuscule part of our business and that’s largely due to YouTube.
“The breadth of material there is revolutionary. You can get onto any subject imaginable and you're lucky to get some quite interesting and, in many cases, some very high-quality advice and help – it’s a force of nature.” It's a tough game for a whole lot of reasons, but Mike primarily laments the demise of interest in the noble art of woodwork.
But he hopes a rekindled interest could emerge from the coronavirus lockdown. Call it old fashioned, but Mike’s approach to business mirrors his relationship with the natural materials that attracted him to the industry in the first place. “We should be using a hell of a lot more wood, because it provides the oxygen we breathe, it's sustainable and it’s something with which we have a very distinct relationship,” Mike said.
“It’s alive and it makes sense that we should have to replant 10 times in terms of what we take. Everything in the process – from the planting and harvesting of the timber to the manufacturing and maintenance of tools – has to be treated with respect. That’s the bottom line.”