Reviving the art of old trades

By Amy Russell September 30, 2015
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In workshops around the country, skilled Australian artisans are toiling and tinkering in an effort to save some of our oldest trades

IT’S ALMOST AS IF Glen Rundell is teaching me to dance. To the surprisingly melodic tune of the lathe, the chairmaker leans forward, one foot in front of the other, and lifts the heel of his left foot, before rocking backwards and raising the ball of his right. The chisel in his hands edges nearer to the sliver of timber that’s spinning so fast the outline is blurred.

As metal and wood connect, shavings spray up and fall over us like rain, while the song of the machine mingles with the chime of the wood. The comforting perfume of worked timber fills the air as sunlight streams in through gaps in the corrugated-iron walls.
Suddenly Glen flicks a switch that brings the lathe to a shuddering halt, and shakes the shavings from his clothes. He removes the chair leg from the grip of the lathe and runs his fingers along the profile he’s just carved into the English ash. “See, it’s just like doing the waltz,” he says, breaking into a grin.

Forty-three year old Glen has shaped hundreds of legs over the past three years, since relocating to Kyneton, a small town in the Macedon Ranges, 80km north-west of Melbourne. His workshop – a space the size of a small airplane hangar – is the shed of blokes’ dreams. Cupboards full of bits and bobs sit, with doors ajar and untidy innards exposed, alongside saws and dusty workbenches. Piles and piles of milled timber dry on shelves. Old parts and discarded machinery collecting cobwebs clutter corners, and, in the front room, the skeletons of what were, or will one day be, fine chairs sit discarded, enticing you to take a seat. 

It’s here, on this unseasonally cool morning, that Glen ushers strangers in from the cold. These eager, wide-eyed students – ranging in ages from 19 to their late 60s – have come to learn the art of Windsor chairmaking. Over the next seven days, they’ll shape spindles and carve seats with spokeshaves and drawknifes, drill holes with the aid of lasers and hand-mirrors, shape legs on the lathe and bend the crest rail using steam.

“Typically, furniture makers don’t like to make chairs because they’re complex things,” Glen says. “The basis of most furniture is a straight reference line or a square, but, with the Windsor chair, it’s all compound angles… They’re beautiful, stunning things and they’re completely natural. There’s not an artificial piece of steel in the whole thing to hold it together.”

It’s this complexity that attracted Glen to the process in the first place. A plumber by trade, he joined the Victorian police force in the early 1990s, only to find that, 18 years later, he was burnt out and uninspired. “I’d always kept my hands busy – I did a lot of leatherwork on the side while I was in the force, made belts and repaired bags – and I’d always had an interest in woodworking, so I got back into it,” he says.

The son of a high-country drover, whose father was a -carpenter, Glen attributes this resourcefulness to his childhood – one spent roaming fields the colour of corn in west Gippsland, and helping out on his family’s deer and game-bird farm. “Dad came from a very frugal family who made everything themselves. He can weld, he can build, he can plaster, and he was like a lot of Australian men in those days – you fixed your own house, serviced your own vehicles and that was the norm back then.”

The changing face of Australian employment

UNDENIABLY, THE SKILL SET of the average Australian looks a little different now, compared with 50 years ago. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 1966 almost half of all working Australians were tradesmen, process workers and labourers, while another 12 per cent were farmers, fishermen and timber getters. But a gradual shift away from production to service industries, and the mechanisation of processes within the production industries themselves, has seen us lose touch with some of our most valued handiwork. The most common occupations in 2011 were those of professionals, clerical and administrative workers; technicians and tradespeople represented just 14 per cent.

The thing about working with your hands, says Mark Thompson, author of Rare Trades: Making Things by Hand in the Digital Age – and curator of the resulting exhibition for the National Museum of Australia – is that it allows you to have a tangible effect on the world. As research for his book, Mark spent almost four years unearthing rare-trades people all over Australia. “This is our way of investigating, going out into the world and touching it and receiving it. Your senses are more alive, put it that way, from this kind of work.”
For Glen Rundell, getting back on the tools was a therapy of sorts; he found he was satisfied in a way he’d never been as a police officer. In 2009 he sold his dirt bike to fund a trip to Tennessee, USA, where he learnt chairmaking from Curtis Buchanan, a veteran craftsman who’s been teaching for almost 30 years.

“That taught me a hell of a lot about life,” Glen says, “[Curtis’s] passion is what he does every day.” Glen returned determined to carve out a similar existence, and so he and wife Lisa, with their son Tom, moved out of Melbourne. Along with Glen’s courses, they now run a store selling handmade goods – from Lisa’s leather satchels to millet brooms made in Tumut – and a bar, The Chairmaker’s Wife. “Things are tight,” he tells me. “We’re not setting the world on fire, but I see it as doing great stuff.”

Not everyone is attracted to this type of work, Mark says, and much of it is incredibly demanding. But for certain people, those interested in more than “massaging megabytes of data on a screen”, a trade can get its hooks into them. “They want to feel the heft of a hammer or the heat of a fire…the satisfaction and sense of purpose people get from doing all those things is quite significant. I didn’t find any unhappy rare-trades people.”
From the outset, the threat of hard work wasn’t something that worried Glen. Rather, he recognised that one of the biggest challenges to the success of the business would be the absence of other like-minded artisans with whom to compare notes. Glen knew of only one other Australian crafting US-style Windsor chairs, and he wondered what a local chairmaking association might look like. “I imagined it would be a fairly boring barbecue if it was just me and a heap of sausages.”

The seed was planted for Lost Trades Australia, a guild giving voice to makers, such as Glen, who are still working with traditional tools, in traditional ways. And as the Rundells began to put out their feelers, knots of talented tradespeople started emerging from the woodwork.

Keeping it in the family in Australian trades

GNARLED AND LEATHERY, George Smithwick’s hands move lightning-fast down the staves. Thin coils of kauri pine peel off, almost as easily as lemon rind, under the blade of his spokeshave. Ash from his cigarette drops onto the beginnings of a bucket, which he has wedged between his torso and the mottled old shave horse – a kind of seat and elementary workbench rolled into one.

Coopering is strenuous work, says George, in a voice that crackles like a campfire. “It’s a matter of working with your body and learning how your body works to a job.” Over the past 28 years – those spent shaping hundreds of buckets and barrels – the body of this 68 year old has had ample opportunity to adjust. Today, as he moves with purpose around his dusty workshop in Beveridge, about 50km north of Melbourne, George is as lean as the pitchforks stacked against the wall of the shed.

A sixth-generation cooper, he was a relative latecomer to the trade. “My great-grandfather come out here from Ireland in the 1800s and worked making barrels in the breweries in Deniliquin,” he says, as he takes a hammer and begins rounding a piece of steel. “And the grandsons were all coopers. That’s how it was. You did what your father did.”

When George finished school in 1961, however, there was only one cooperage left in Victoria. Increasingly, wooden barrels were being replaced by stainless steel and aluminium models, and breweries were taking on fewer coopers to work full-time. In 1977 the Federated Coopers of Australia, a union representing several coopers’ societies, was deregistered – the bottom had fallen out of the industry.

So George became a cabinet maker, which he kept at until just shy of his 40th birthday, when his father died. The idea that his family’s legacy might be buried along with Les motivated George to fall back in step with the Smithwick traditions. “I’ve been working with wood since I was born. [Becoming a cooper] was pretty basic I suppose. You’re a kid in the workshop with your old man… He doesn’t really tell you anything but you’re watching, you’re learning, you’re thinking.”

George inherited all the old tools and a small notebook given to his father by another cooper. Within its pages are rows of neat, curly handwriting – inscriptions of every possible -measurement a cooper could need. A note inside the cover reads: “For Les Smithwick’s eyes only.” In his father’s day, George says, coopering “was a closed shop” and highly competitive. “They’d joint a heap of staves and pack them at the end of their block… And blokes would pinch [them] so they didn’t have to join as many. Oooh it was a dangerous business.”

In its own way, this guardianship of trade secrets has contributed to their downfall. “With the passing of generations, there really is the threat that long-held skills and knowledge are going to slip into the pages of history,” says Gemma Jones from Craft Victoria. But a renewed appreciation of quality craftsmanship – and the popularity of antique goods and the ‘vintage’ aesthetic in homes and fashion – is turning things around. Etsy, an online marketplace for vintage and handmade products, with close to 1 million sellers, generated more than $1 billion worth of turnover in 2013.

“It’s been more of a slow burn than a dramatic increase,” says Gemma. “Over the past 10 years a generation of makers born during the last great handmade lifestyle movement is reconnecting with its own histories.” In George’s case, he started by making barrels for local wineries, at $120-$400 a pop. He then began giving demonstrations at country shows.
“The first one I went to, I never sold a bucket,” he says. “I thought, ‘Something’s wrong here.’ Next one I went to I put the price up to 65 bucks and Patchooooooo! Bucket. Bucket. Bucket. Couldn’t sell enough.” A mail-order business ensued and George received requests from all over Australia – the strangest of which was for a wooden washing machine, from a fellow in Perth. He also continued on the show circuit, going as far as Belvoir Castle in Leicestershire, in the UK, to demonstrate.

Ten years ago, however, his workshop caught fire – with it went all the Smithwick tools. “It was bloody disastrous,” says George. Although he was given a set by the widow of a cooper in Geelong and his shed was rebuilt by carpentry students from a local TAFE, things were never quite the same. When Glen Rundell got in touch, however, and floated the idea of a Lost Trades Fair, something within George reignited.

“I got off the merry-go-round for a while there but I’m back on it. Me wife calls me a showman, but I enjoy it…to show people how these things were done, and are done, is pleasurable – where else do they get the opportunity?”

Young people in old trades

HUNTLY BARTON’S LAUGH is almost as big as the man himself; it explodes out of him like thunder and reverberates around the cab of his ute as we roll down the Calder Freeway towards Melbourne. “I’ve spent my entire life falling into holes and digging myself back out again,” says the stonemason, slapping the steering wheel with delight. I imagine he’s told this joke before – probably while perched on a pub stool, beer in hand, or to the troop of young apprentices he puts to work each day in the William Thomas Jones & Sons yard in Kyneton, at the junction of Mollison and Piper streets.

Huntly recruits these apprentices young, he tells me, so that, like the malleable stone they work with, they can be moulded to the job. “I want them living at home with their mum and dad,” he says, “so that it’s an extension of their school life.”

Huntly himself didn’t wield a mason’s hammer until he was in his mid-20s. Before that he worked as a boilermaker, and it took his dad’s desire to build a house from stone at their property for Huntly to get his teeth stuck into stonework. He kept at it because he enjoyed the challenge. “Each type of stone presents a different problem,” he says. For six years Huntly worked intermittently with mentor Brian Johns – a fourth-generation stonemason – and he bought the Jones & Sons yard in 1991.

Now in his early 60s, Huntly and his motley crew spend half their time carving and lettering monuments and headstones, then there’s the dry-stone walling, restoration jobs and landscaping. What really sets them apart, he tells me, is that they’re still working mostly with their hands, using time-worn methods.

As a trade, stonemasonry is considered one of the most antiquated – from the very early days of civilisation, people pulled stone from the earth to build. A little closer to home, some of the oldest surviving buildings in Melbourne – such as the Mitre Tavern on Bank Place, first established in the 1830s – were constructed with local bluestone.
Nowadays, much of the stonework featured in kitchens and graveyards around Australia is imported, and Huntly worries specialised skills, such as lettering, aren’t being perpetuated. “We’ve all but gotten rid of traditional trade schools and we’ve created an education system where we think ‘manual labour’ is the name of a Spanish bullfighter,” says Huntly, who is as irreverent as he is generous with his time. “It’s just giving these young blokes [the chance] to develop their skills; It takes about a year for [them] to handle a hammer with precision.”

I meet two young masons from Huntly’s team when we pull into Mentone RSL, in Melbourne’s south. Tom Henderson and Ben Foran are applying the finishing touches to a cenotaph commemorating Australians who served in the armed forces. The slab takes pride of place in the yard. Painstakingly carved into its face are almost 2000 letters and a row of delicate red poppies. I trace the indent of a letter with my finger – the rut is clean and precise. It’s hard to imagine achieving such detail with the rudimentary chisel Tom brandishes tightly in his hands.

“It takes patience, strength, and you have to have a good eye,” says Huntly, whose most memorable job was a 36-piece monument he and Brian Johns built at Melbourne’s Victoria Market. “We worked for about $1.50 an hour – it was a complete disaster – but it was a challenging job to do. I had to buy champagne for all the neighbours because of all the swearing.”

The biggest threat to the specialised trades is the finances, says Rare Trades author Mark Thompson. Raw materials can be expensive and tradespeople are competing with cheaper, mass-produced alternatives. “The only people who [can] afford a plasterer or any of the old traditional building trades are people who want to maintain an old house or who have a lot of money in their back pocket,” he says. It then becomes a matter of what people are prepared to pay for quality. “The finer points of the techniques, especially ones that employ fine motorskills, are not easily found.”

Today, Huntly leaves most of the heavy lifting to the younger blokes, one of whom he hopes will eventually succeed him in the business. “I’m concerned about the importation side of things,” he says. “But there’s always going to be some mad bastard like me who can’t do anything else. The undertaker and I will still be here when everybody else goes.”

A tree-change of a different kind

SLOWLY BUT SURELY, after a relentless assault from her billhook, Kate Ellis can feel the limb letting go. Like muscle being stripped from bone, the branch pulls away from the trunk and hangs limply, still attached to its life source by a mere few centimetres of wood. The trick, the hedgelayer tells me, is to sever the branch to a point where there’s “just a small length connected – enough for the sap to continue to flow”.

Tearing at trees is not what I’d expect to find a doctor in environmental science doing. And judging by how often people stop to ask Kate, 42, what she’s up to as she tends to the hawthorn along her Kyneton property, I’m not alone in feeling a little stumped by this trade. Strong and willowy, like the branches she’s securing to a stake, Kate is one of a burgeoning group of hedgelayers that has recently cropped up in Australia.

The technique – taming and weaving trees into various hedge styles – is one with roots extending back millennia in the UK, when boundaries were first constructed around land to keep stock in and pests out. During the 18th and 19th centuries, it’s estimated that more than 300,000km of hedgerow were planted across England alone. Much of it was hawthorn – a tree related to the common rose – which was first introduced to Australia in the early 1800s.

Australian settlers laid hedges in similar styles to their -English ancestors, but the craft had all but died out by the -mid-20th century, following the introduction of wire and other means of fencing. Hawthorn still grows wild across parts of south-eastern Australia, and, in recent decades, the trade was revived in Tasmania.

Kate came upon hedgelaying in 2002. She was in England, taking a break from her PhD studies, when she noticed people clearing trees. “I remember thinking, ‘Why are they cutting the beautiful hedges down?’ Then I realised there was a technique.” She then began volunteering her time to the hedgelayers.

When Kate and her family moved to Kyneton in 2010, she realised hawthorn was growing along their property’s boundary line. Determined to fashion her own hedge, she read up on the process and spent a day with Tasmanian James Boxhall. One of our foremost hedgelayers, James is the only Australian to be accredited by the National Hedgelaying Society in the UK. With more than 500 members, the NHLS was founded in the 1970s to support craftspeople; at present, no similar body exists in Australia. “He showed me some techniques,” says Kate. “I bought a billhook from a blacksmith and got started.” 

Kate has since laid hedges all over Kyneton. “This area has so many original hawthorn hedges that were once laid, a long time ago, so it’s the perfect place to rejuvenate the trade,” she says. Nowadays, when Kate’s not helping run the local cafe she part owns, she’s a regular at horticulture events, where she gives demonstrations and sells garden structures – such as teepees and tree guards – which she makes from recycled natural materials.

“Once you start doing one thing, you realise how much you can do with stuff you usually throw away,” she says. And Kate’s next project will be her biggest yet – she’s been commissioned to tend to more than 300m of hawthorn at Kyneton’s Botanic Gardens, a job she admits wasn’t won easily. “I think partly because I was a female and they didn’t really trust what I was doing; a traditional job and also one they didn’t understand.”

The gender misconceptions surrounding trade work are common, says Gemma Jones. Domestic crafts have long been seen as feminine and not as valuable as the masculine, traditional trades. Ironically, though, “most of what is now defined as domestic craft, from macrame; to tassel making, was originally seen as a profession and exclusively the domain of highly trained men,” she says. “Given that you only need hands, skills, tools and materials;there is enormous potential to inspire both men and women to take up any kind of handwork.”

Looking to the future of Australian trades

THE HOPE THAT THEIR trades might prevail was a thread common to all the makers I met. On the weekend of the Lost Trades Fair in March, more than 7000 people drifted through the dusty grounds surrounding Kyneton Museum to watch demonstrations by, and hear the stories of, 35 tradespeople. From the fletcher (arrow maker) and the blacksmiths, to the coachbuilder, water hunter and harpmaker, I saw more raw talent than I did beards and checked shirts.

Next year it’ll be even bigger, says chairmaker Glen Rundell. He and wife Lisa have been approached by makers from all over Australia. Many of these men and women are working in trades that the Rundells didn’t know still existed – such as Derek Marvelly, a decorative painter who imitates the look of marble and wood grain. At a larger site, Glen thinks they could set up 100 fair stalls. “Why not?” he says. “Let’s really give ’em a show.”

And what of the future of Windsor chairmaking in -Australia? On my last night in Kyneton, I follow the Rundells on foot out of town. Tupperware containers in hand, we arrive at a blackberry thicket just as darkness floods the landscape, drowning the sun-kissed fields. Six-year-old Tom is quick to point out which fruit is ripe for the muffins Lisa is baking for tomorrow’s chairmaking course.

“What will you be when you grow up?” I ask him as he hurriedly stows one find and munches on another. “I’ll be a chairmaker like Dad,” he says, as if it were obvious. It’s a comfort to know, sometimes, the apple falls not far from the tree.

Gallery: Reviving lost trades