Seeing Beyond the Sawdust
An interview with Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking
In an age of cheap plastics and mass-producing factories, woodworking, a centuries-old craft and what used to be an important and necessary skill among common folk, has now become something of a mystery.
But woodworking is no mystery at all. And if you share in the admiration of any kind of gorgeous wood furniture, it’s not too late to learn to become a fine craftsman. Not sure where to start? The Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking is one of the few there is in Australia that offers a fully-equipped studio and provides comprehensive learning courses and tuition on woodworking and furniture making.
In this interview, we take a peek at what’s beyond the sawdust and chat with founder Alastair Boell about how he started MGFW, his thoughts on the woodworking industry, and what it takes to become a fine woodworker.
How did you get into woodworking and how long have you been doing it?
I discovered woodworking at the University of Melbourne where I was doing a Bachelor of Education (Arts and Crafts). But as a professional, my career started in 2003 where I attended a specialist Fine Furniture Making school (North Bennet Street School) in Boston, USA.
Can you tell us a little bit about Melbourne Guild of Woodworking and its foundation?
After returning to Melbourne from studying in Boston, essentially I needed a job, as I had two young children at home. During the first couple of years back, I worked for two other woodworking schools in Melbourne and to be honest, I had an appalling experience at both. Consequently, I had a strong feeling that a lot more could be achieved if I started my own school, which I did in 2008. Initially I started with 2 classes with a total of 14 students.
What are the hardest aspects of working with wood?
Splinters are a constant occupational hazard! But really I find wood to be the perfect medium. I don’t find anything wrong with it. It is beautiful, warm to touch, incredibly versatile and sustainable within the handcrafted furniture industry. We are able to source it ourselves and it lasts for centuries if well looked after. If I could make one request to Mother Nature, it would be that timbers natural colours were not affected by sunlight. Unfortunately over time, the natural vivid colours tend to deteriorate and become dull.
Do you often get splinters? (Haha)
Yes, I do! But what you might be interested in is the way we get them out! Not with tweezers but a razor sharp chisel! I run the chisel down the splinter, cutting the skin above it and then force the chisel under the tip of the splinter and because the chisel is razor sharp, it has the ability to pull the splinter out, usually cleanly!
Can you tell us about your workshops? How are they unique?
Firstly, the school is unique because it is a family-run business. And although it may sound cliche, we absolutely LOVE what we do. And really our students feel more like an extended family.
Apart from this, we are providing education dedicated to traditional skills. This in itself is unique in Australia, because most schools focus on design. Our main focus is on traditional skills, mixed with modern skills, proportions and timber choices. Design really should come naturally once these areas are mastered.
Another reason we are unique is that we also do our own timber milling. For example, the Melbourne Botanical Gardens donate logs to us, and with our 2-tonne timber mill bought from the USA, we are able to process this timber, dry it, and make it available to our students. No other woodworking school in Australia does this!
What are proving to be your most popular classes at the moment?
Our ‘Open Courses’ and any classes associated with our international and interstate guests have been well-received. The Open Courses are popular because each student is making their own individual piece at their own leisure. Therefore, one person may be making a box with hand-cut dovetails, while another person may be making a complicated chair. The classes are small (max 7-8 students per class) so the instructor can go around to each student to teach them the next skill that they’re needing to know in order to move forward.
Can you share any interesting discoveries your students make in the classes?
One of the most common discoveries students make when they come here is patience! About 90% of our students are initially surprised at how long projects take. But also, people develop a deep and profound understanding and appreciation for what is involved in producing beautiful pieces of furniture. Furniture that has hand-cut dovetails and other joinery, personally selected timber, hand-planed surfaces, carved elements, or hand-finished with oils or shellac.
Also, a really enjoyable moment as a teacher is to see students genuinely surprised and thrilled by their achievements. Surprised because often these projects are complex and require a great degree of effort, determination and skill to complete. These moments keep me motivated.
Is there anything you would most like to change about the industry of woodworking?
In short, an accurate answer to this question would take far too long! But some things that I would love to change are people’s perceptions of our craft and for that matter, crafts in general. Generally, people don’t have a great appreciation for anything handcrafted in Australia. We would much rather spend thousands of dollars updating our bathrooms and kitchens than spend money on a beautifully crafted piece of furniture.
Also I would like to see a stronger emphasis on traditional skills in the industry and a reduced influence on our education facilities from the kitchen cabinet-making industry. A reintroduction of a traditional apprenticeship program. A bi-annual national prize in the tens of thousands of dollars to compete with some of the other major arts prizes. I could go on, but these are just to name a few.
In Germany, for example, furniture makers are licensed. In France, to become a furniture maker requires at least 6 years of study. In Japan, a temple making apprenticeship takes 12 years! There is a very long and passionate history of fine arts and crafts within these countries. The relationship between the arts and crafts and their societies is strong, dynamic and sustainable. Encouraging this same relationship in Australia is one of the driving forces behind our school.
What advice do you have for those just starting out?
For anyone considering becoming a professional furniture maker in Australia, firstly, I would say you need to be committed, completely committed! Australia is one of the toughest environments in the world to become a successful furniture maker. Being committed is easily maintained by staying connected to like-minded people through clubs and schools, and continuously seeking the advice of people who love and are passionate about their chosen career. Get involved in Instagram where this passion is there for all to see. Share a workshop with people who inspire you.
Lastly, what are you working on right this minute?
I am working on a commission for a client who lives in King Lake. They survived the “Black Saturday” bushfires in 2009. They managed to salvage a very old pear tree that had perished in the fire on the family farm. I milled the pear tree for them and remarkably I have two boards that have a charred section at their base. Emanating from this charred section is a contrasting red and orange streak of hard wood that looks just like a flame! The two boards are for the top of the hall table and the base is being made from ancient red gum, which is black and was buried metres down on their property and dug up in 2010.
Get started in fine woodworking and furniture making!
Melbourne Guild of Fine Woodworking
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