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Hearts of oak
I t is splintery and grey, and seems to have some dark stains on it - a hefty slab of seasoned oak that looks not merely old but second-hand, as if it has been ripped out of a building.
It doesn't even look as good as the rough planks you can buy in a DIY store, let alone something that could be transformed through the alchemy of craftsmanship into one of the gleaming, covetable pieces of furniture in the showroom next door.
"People are often surprised by what the wood looks like when it comes in," said Barnaby Scott, founder and proprietor of Waywood Furniture Creation.
"But seeing it in this raw state brings home just how much skill is involved in seeing the wood's potential. That is actually a beautiful piece of wood," he muses, peering closely at the surface. "It will scrub up well."
The exact nature of the transformation will depend on the craftsman, each of whom has his own style and preferences, for example, about whether he will orient the grain of the wood in a symmetrical or asymmetrical way.
Deciding on the precise thickness of a table is another instance where craftsmanship requires the maker not to slavishly follow instructions but to respond sensitively to the material: "It is only when you start to make it that you get a physical impression of what it feels like. It is no good me putting on a drawing this has to be 32cm'," Barnaby explained.
"The culture we live in seems to worship the designer and ignore the maker - but the making is just as important a process as the designing. We don't see ourselves as artists - we are very proud to be craftsmen and designers."
In a world where most people's experience of work involves being a small cog in a big machine, the job satisfaction of craftsmanship is something rare and enviable. Waywood's senior designer-maker is Clive Brooks, who trained at Buckinghamshire College in High Wycombe and has been with the company since 1990. He said: "It is very rewarding to produce something, and to be involved all the way through."
Barnaby set up Waywood in 1987 and now employs four people: Clive, Simon Smith, Julien Faure and Yoann Meyronneinc.
They work in two stone barns in Chadlington, near Charlbury, surrounded by 19 acres of trees which they have planted for the furniture-makers of the future.
They make bespoke pieces for individuals and corporate clients; the latter have recently included an international bank that wanted an impressive reception area and boardroom tables, and a major commission for Gloucester Cathedral.
Whenever possible they visit the client to see exactly where the piece will be situated and to discuss their requirements.
It may take a few meetings and follow-up e-mails to arrive at the final design; to aid this dialogue the designer/craftsman produces drawings and sometimes models or full-size mock ups out of plywood and clay, which they use to model the seats and backs of chairs.
They sometimes use computer design software to produce images virtually indistinguishable from photos. The grain of the wood is scanned in from samples. A few keystrokes enable them to see the design in different combinations of wood.
Barnaby said: "We resisted computer design because we had heard stories about people's designs being affected, becoming more inert. Then, when we realised it would open up possibilities, we embraced it. But a computer is just a box - it is what you bring to the party as a human being that is important."
Clive enjoys experimenting with new designs. One strikingly beautiful table, its delicately interwoven golden inlay contrasting with a dark background, was inspired by the Spirograph geometric drawing toy.
"Sometimes a customer will give us a complete free rein," he said. "That is an opportunity to try something that has been at the back of your mind for a long time."
For example, someone wanted a piece of furniture to go in a bay window. Treating the commission as an in-house design competition, everyone in the team came up with a possible design, from which the client selected an innovative drinks cabinet.
Most of the wood they use is from local sawmills. They import wood from North America and use some tropical hardwoods, but only from Forest Stewardship Council-accredited sources, which are producing wood in a demonstrably sustainable way. They have a box showcasing samples of about 50 different woods.
Clive reflects on those he prefers to use: "Some are amazing to look at and horrible to work with. Jatoba, a tropical hardwood, is very, very hard, and blunting. But others are lovely to look at and lovely to work with. My favourite is probably walnut."
They also discuss the finish with the client. Some will want something low maintenance, while others will be prepared to put in the time and effort to achieve a full linseed oil finish, which takes about a year of regular applications. All finishes are natural - they never use stains, dyes, or synthetic varnishes.
One of the mysteries that the craft of carpentry highlights is why trees grow in the way they do. The resultant irregular patterns are called figuring' and they vary widely between species, for example rippling and quilting is common in maple, while medullary rays are a feature of oak.
The most eye-catching piece of furniture in the showroom is a table made of pale poplar burr with a pattern like an exuberant tablecloth. Burrs are the lumpy parts of a tree's trunk from which whippy twigs emerge, each giving rise to a knot which compresses the surrounding wood.
Their work is very tactile.
"In the showroom parents tell their children don't touch' and we say, yes, do'!" said Barnaby. "The furniture is there to be touched and used, even smelt."
They line their chests of drawers in cedar (also a natural moth repellent).
The throwaway culture that leads us to buy cheap furniture is an anathema to craftsmen. Barnaby said: "You buy something and get a horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach that it is not going to last. It is bad for the soul somehow."
While their work is undeniably expensive - a dining table will typically cost £4,000, a chest of drawers around £8,000 and a kitchen £20,000 - the price reflects the skill and time that goes into it.
A table may take four to six weeks to make. And this initial outlay will be spread over many years because these are not pieces of furniture that will end up in a skip or listed on Freecycle - they are heirlooms.
Barnaby said: "There is no reason why a piece shouldn't still be around in 500 years' time. That is important on several levels, it gives us a sense of purpose; the customer can pass it on; and then there is the environmental aspect - you are only making something once."
Several pieces have been awarded guild marks by the Worshipful Company of Furniture Makers, an accolade given only to a few exceptional works each year, and eight feature in an impressive new illustrated book about handmade furniture, Bespoke: Source Book of Furniture Designer Makers. Five other Oxfordshire furniture-makers' work is also included.
Clive said: "Although something that is handmade can be viewed as a luxury item, it is a practical expense, because it is something that will be well used."
Barnaby added: "And as an extra you get something you can fall in love with."
Waywood will be exhibiting at Art in Action at Waterperry between July 17-20 .Bespoke: Source Book of Furniture Designer Makers by Betty Norbury is published by Stobart Davies at £39.95, and is available from www.stobartdavies.com For more information, including directions to the showroom and opening times, visit the website: www.waywood.co.uk