Working with the grain: two amateur furniture makers share a passion for wood

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Two years ago, 29-year-old registered nurse Nick decided it was about time he owned a spice rack. He didn’t want a plastic one sold in a box. He wanted something authentically charming, perhaps even unique. Then an idea struck him like a piece of wood: why not make this lovely spice rack himself? From a piece of wood!

Learning from scratch

A few quick Google searches and tool purchases later, Nick was building the spice rack now proudly displayed in the kitchen of his share house in Melbourne’s Brunswick East. On one level it offers convenient storage for jars of cumin, fennel, ginger and other essential flavours; on another level it offers a daily reminder of where his DIY carpentry dream sprouted.

“I think everyone starts off making something simple,” Nick laughs. “I used a very basic saw and made some irregular shapes, but it looked okay after a slap of paint. Most importantly, I fell in love with how relaxing and soothing it was to create something from wood.”

While Nick’s first attempt might have been literally a little rough around the edges, he soon found his groove. “I enjoyed it straight away because it was easy to make something reasonably good. For a while I was relying on guesswork and making some mistakes, until I finally accepted that it can be useful to know how to do things properly, so I bought some books, taught myself the fundamental techniques and even took a few local carpentry lessons,” he says.

Surrounded by wood

These days Nick uses wood to make whatever he needs or wants, including tables and benches. “For inspiration I look through the architecture books at the National Gallery of Victoria. I take photos of any designs I like and then I try to make my own mock-up versions,” he says.

“Like this one,” he adds, pointing to the quirky timber coffee table with its distinctive tiled top—a standout among many eclectic pieces of wooden furniture in the open plan living and dining area that looks directly out to the backyard, where all the woodworking magic happens.

“I think being surrounded by wood at home subconsciously reminds us of wonderful places we’ve been and spectacular views we’ve seen in our lives. Wood helps us bring the tone and texture and warmth of nature indoors,” he says.

What if Nick ever runs out of space for new DIY masterpieces?

“There is something deeply satisfying about using or sitting at or placing something on an item you’ve made yourself, but it’s not just about the end product. I genuinely love getting absorbed in a tactile project, and working with wood always gives me a feeling of releasing positive endorphins. I can’t see that ever changing, even if my house is full,” he says.

“Some people do yoga or play golf, but my meditation is woodwork. No other hobby lets me reach a similar state of mindfulness and focus.”

More than a hobby

Five kilometres north-west of Nick’s garden variety workshop and a few rungs up the ladder of woodwork experience, 34-year-old set designer and part-time carpenter Alby has converted his Pascoe Vale South garage into his own top-shelf home workshop, featuring a large custom built wooden workbench.

Every week he can be found chipping away at timber cabinets, desks, shelves, and other items requested by housemates or friends. Not surprisingly, the requests keep rolling in.

Like Nick, Alby is in his element creating a bespoke piece of furniture almost entirely from wood.

“I love making practical, durable things that make people’s lives easier. I’ve always enjoyed woodwork, but my casual interest became more serious when I began working in theatre and had the opportunity to do some carpentry training,” Alby says.

“For me it’s been a lifelong process of self-education, on-the-job training, and learning from a couple of inspirational mentors. The spirit of collaboration allows you to pick up plenty of tips, tricks, and shortcuts along the way.”

Living among living things

Beyond the satisfaction of applying his technical skills in a meaningful way, Alby simply relishes the chance to be surrounded by nature’s most appealing and sustainable building material.

“I think people respond well to wood because it’s a natural product. We’ve been surrounded by trees throughout our evolution, so we start with a reverence for the tree itself. When you have a piece of wood in your hands, any piece, you can’t help but feel the deep, strong connection to Mother Earth and the lifecycle of a living thing,” he says.

“There are so many benefits to wood. It can be sustainably sourced. Its lifecycle can be managed perfectly. It looks, feels, smells and sounds beautiful. It’s an evocative material with so much character. People talk positively about ‘farm to table’ produce, and in a similar sense I believe we can all appreciate ‘forest to furniture’.”

Alby and Nick are not alone in their shared passion for the virtues of wood as a home decor material. DIY enthusiasts around Australia are ‘working with the grain’ towards a sustainable future built on this wonderful natural resource.

Sometimes a journey of a thousand kilometres begins with a single spice rack.