A Craftsman’s Perspective on Sustainability
We are wood craftsmen before we are designers or even furniture makers. Our relationship with the material is fundamental to what we do. If we have a mission, its to develop an “Australian” way of approaching the use of our native timbers for fine furniture. Australian timbers, especially the eucalypts, are typically hard and “difficult” timbers. They are not necessarily “nice” to work with traditional hand tools such as hand planes and spoke shaves.
To this end, we are unashamedly wedded to using solid timber. If we require the use of veneer (usually to control natural timber movement) we make our own re-sawn veneer from the same stock as the rest of the project. This process is time consuming and requires specialist equipment, but it delivers the best results.
Although we specialise in the use of Australian native timbers, we are not closed to using non-native species. In particular, we use quite a bit of rock maple (also know as hard maple) for the internals of drawers and for our workbenches. There is simply no better timber for a high-quality workbench.
We believe that the considered use of sustainably logged native (and international) timbers is wholly responsible. Our furniture is designed and constructed to last literally hundreds of years; that is how we can offer a lifetime guarantee on our work.
Our attitude to timber is similar to the approach a chef might take when selecting the best produce. We have developed close relationships with our suppliers and educated them to understand what we are looking for.
Composing with Grain and Colour Matching
Australian timbers are notable for the wide range of colours that occur within a single species. The colour in some species, such as blackwood (Acacia melanoxylon) are reasonably consistent within a particular tree, but the colour varies from tree to tree and from region to region. Growing conditions and soil composition, as well as the gene pool of the trees all have an impact. Tasmanian blackwood is generally darker and more brown than Victorian blackwood. Other timbers, such as jarrah, can have a wide colour variation within a single tree. A 3-meter jarrah board can go from light rose pink at one end to deep red wine at the other.
Many furniture manufacturers get around this by simply applying a colour-averaging wash (stain) across their furniture. Most spray lacquers dull the colours anyway and reduce the contrast. Our oil finish brings out the best colour in timber, but it will also underscore any colour variation.
Some timbers, such as blackwood, have a very visually distinct gain. When making curved components, such as chair components, it’s possible for the grain to “fight” the shapes.
Below left, we see a raw chair seat (it has not been sanded or oiled) in blackwood that is neither composed for grain nor colour matched.
Below Middle, we see a raw chair seat that has been colour matched but not composed for grain. Once sanded and oiled this seat will look adequate, the discordant gain will jar the eye.
Below right, we see a raw chair seat that has been composed for grain and colour matched. When sanded and oiled, this will be a beautiful seat.
Composing for grain and colour matching is a time consuming and skillful process.
When we make a dining suite, we are composing for grain and colour matching the whole setting. It is actually harder to make a set of 8 matching chairs and a table than 6 matching chairs and a table.
Even if we are making two sets of chairs of the same design in the same timber at the same time, there will be an obvious difference between the two sets. This is because we will be composing for grain and colour matching both sets to match the different table tops they are going with.
When we make a set of chairs for a client, we always make one chair extra. Thus a set of 8 matching chairs starts production as 9 chairs. This is because we often “lose” one chair during the process. Either a timber fault comes to light, or the colour match isn’t perfect, of we make a mistake. Quite often, there is nothing wrong with the chair other than it is not a great match. We end up with a lot of single chairs, but that’s ok because we also sell a lot of single chairs (as a desk chair, or a feature chair etc).
Below are our most commonly used timbers
Timber is expensive, but you will be living with this furniture for the rest of your life. Make sure you chose the timber you really want. You will value the piece long after you have forgotten the price.
You might note that we used to use wenge (Millettia laurentii) as a detail timber in much of our work. The colour and texture of wenge compliments many of the colours and textures of Australian timbers, especially red gum and black wood. Wenge comes from West Africa and the forests have been badly mismanaged in recent years. Wenge is now under too much pressure from logging, so we have decided not to use it any more. Evan bought a substantial quantity of wenge back in 2008 and that has lasted us for many years, but it is time to move on.
Figured Otway Blackwood
Figured Otway blackwood is simply the best furniture timber available in Australia. It is the same species as Tasmanian blackwood, but is generally lighter in colour. It is sometimes referred to as Golden blackwood or Victorian blackwood.
Figure (also known as fiddleback) is a genetic and/or environmental feature in the wood that gives the timber a three dimensional quality. Figure is only found in a small percentage of logs, and the tighter the figure, the rarer it is. The ultimate figure is “raindrop” which looks like rain falling on a pool of water. Put crudely, the more figure a piece of wood has, the more expensive it will be.
Our Otway blackwood is sourced, milled and seasoned by Denis Brown of Corsair Sustainable Timbers, Yackandandah. All the logs come off private land. We believe Denis Brown is the best miller and dryer of Australian hardwoods in the country. His blackwood is not only the most beautiful timber, it is also the most stable and best handled
Blackwood is our most popular native species. We use either Tasmanian or Otways backwood, depending on the colour and tone desired. We get our Tasmanian blackwood from Briton Timbers and our Otways blackwood from Corsair Sustainable Timbers.
Blackwood is rightly considered one of Australia’s finest cabinet timbers and is closely related to Hawaiian Koa. Blackwood is especially suited to chairs because it has an excellent strength-to-weight ratio and glues exceptionally well.
Blackwood loves our signature oil/varnish finish. Blackwood has a great “feel” and brings warmth into just about any space. We have successfully put blackwood furniture into simple cottages as well as the most modern architectural spaces; it is at home anywhere.
River red gum is one of our favourite timbers. It is rock hard, difficult to work, full of gum veins, borer holes and worm lines, but we love it. Red gum has loads of character and almost every stick has some figure. We have developed strategies for dealing with red gum that have allowed us to make the best use of this extraordinary material.
River red gum is almost impossible to successfully slice into commercial veneer. It is occasionally available, but the veneer is pale, crumbly and poor quality. We use our custom built band re-saw to cut red gum veneers with astonishing results.
Properly handled, red gum furniture feels almost like stone rather than timber; it is cool, sleek and very tactile.
Tasmanian myrtle has a soft pink/orange colour and a beautiful warm glow. It is a delight to work and particularly suits delicate pieces such as cabinets and boxes. Although it is moderately hard, it tends to show up small dents and scratches, so we do not generally recommend it for dining tables (although it makes beautiful chairs).
Myrtle is extremely widely distributed in Tasmania and can be found from the coastline to the tree line. Extensive myrtle forests dominate the south-west National Parks of Tasmania. We source our myrtle from small independent millers such as Robert Mac Millan of Tasmanian Salvaged Timbers.
Jarrah, a native of Western Australia, is one of Australia’s best known furniture timbers. These days Jarrah is only available from re-growth or private land. Jarrah is one of the “nicest” eucalypts from a craftsman’s perspective; it is a pleasure to work with either hand tools or machines.
Jarrah exhibits an extraordinary range of natural colours within the species; it can range from light cherry pink through to deep cooking chocolate brown. The timber is sometimes figured and occasionally “spotted”.
Jarrah’s only real vice is its sensitivity to UV light; its colour fades and yellows over time in direct sunlight.
Rock maple is a North American species and is the tree from which maple syrup is extracted. Its wide spread throughout the North East of the USA and Canada. Rock maple forests are among the best managed working forests in the world.
Rock maple is particularly resistant to wear and abrasion. It has a closed grain and a waxy feel. It ranges from bone white through to light grey and is often figured. Rock maple is the best workbench timber available. It also makes excellent drawer internals.
American White Oak
American white oak is a straight grained, well behaved timber with little colour variation and very uniform strength. In many ways, it is everything that many Australian species aren’t. White oak is not as common as it once was, but new forest management practices have stabilized the supply in to the future.
White oak is very fashionable in Australia at present. It seems like every architect and specifier is asking for white oak. We do very little commercial work (by choice) and so we don’t use much white oak. We have never been moved by fashion or fad.
American Black Walnut
American Walnut is a classic fine furniture timber. It is native to North America, from the Southern parts of Canada all the way down to Florida in the USA. The sapwood is a creamy-white while the heartwood is a deep brown. Walnut can be highly figured and the colour of the heartwood can also develop deep purple tones.
Walnut is one of the nicest timbers in the world to work with. It responds crisply to hand tools and machines well. It can be steam bent and glues well. It is particularly suited to fine cabinetry.
These days, walnut is sustainably grown and managed in private forests throughout North America.