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This week in The Woodworker Sessions , I chat to seasoned furniture maker Duncan Nel of Cape Town about his passion for woodworking.
Duncan in his Workshop
Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodworking?
Duncan: I started woodworking along with other trades like plumbing and electrical work at my father's knee, literally. My childhood toys were tools and legend has it that my comforter as a baby was a carpenter’s brace and I still have it, rather than a teddy bear.
My dad worked for a company that imported goods from Germany and he had access to the packing cases after unboxing. Rough sawn, but great quality timber of all descriptions that he used for everything from furniture to built-in cupboards.
We did not have a single power tool, so everything was done by hand. Rip sawing, crosscutting, planing, smoothing, sanding & jointing of every description. We even drilled holes in concrete and brick with a star drill and hammer. I still have a Yankee screwdriver and I will take on most cordless screwdrivers any day!
Tobias: What aspects of your craft do you find the most and the least enjoyable?
Duncan: Over the years, I developed a love of creating useful “things” from scratch and a passion for perfection. I was taught that when you used traditional wood screws, the slots had to line up. I have a huge respect for the tools that made it all possible and I have a “can do" attitude.
I also learned very early on that there is limited opportunity, within the boundaries of one’s own existence, to practice a craft which is essentially a hobby. There are only so many pieces of furniture that can fit into one small house.
If you don’t embrace the chance to share your talent and skill with other people, there are just not enough projects to allow you to develop and learn new techniques or perfect old ones.
A word on the "why": Creating beautiful and functional things is good for the soul.
Spending time in the workshop pottering with loved tools is great for stress, but in reality, I am so disillusioned with the quality of work produced by the very average tradesmen who are such an essential part of modern life, that I would rather do it myself!
Tobias: Which are your favourite hand tools?
Tobias: Do you use a dedicated space for your craft, what floor area do you have available and how much time do you manage to spend on woodworking per week?
Tobias: What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is the next piece you wish to build?
Duncan: The first real piece of furniture I made on my own was a hall table in Yellowwood and Imbuia. I was given a 9" x 9" Yellowwood beam from a demolition project in Long Street. I cut it into eight, 1" thick planks with a hand saw. It took a day per plank. I turned the legs on a home made lathe which vibrated so badly that my wife used to stand at the door while I worked, so that she could be close by if the piece came loose and did me a damage! We still have it 45 years later and my wife now uses it as a dressing table.
My favourite piece is a massive Outeniqua Yellowwood dining room table built in 1985 with the help of a great friend, Chris Thompkins of Craft Equipment Company. It is battered and scarred, but will never be refinished while I own it.
It is my favourite because it epitomises the reason why I build. Strong and practical, designed to be used and enjoyed, it has a patina of years and holds the memories of friends and family, some long departed, of birthday parties, Christmas dinners, debates, discussions over good food and wine, even the odd argument.
At the end of the day it is a reflection of lives well lived. Isn’t that why we all build?
Future project... I hope… Towards the end of the year I am going to build my son a traditional Roll Top Desk in Red Oak. Plans and tools are well advanced and I have been practicing some of the rail and style techniques that will be required. The large panels have to float, otherwise they will crack, etc. It will have to be easy to dismantle to move, otherwise it will have to stay in the workshop…
Tobias: What are your favourite timbers to work with, what timbers do you avoid and why?
Duncan: I tend to select the right wood for the right product. I don’t have a favourite timber and I try not to be patronising about wood. The stuff is really expensive and I would hate to have a woodworker, young or old feel less than adequate because he can only afford to work with Pine, Plywood or Melamine for that matter.
In fact, it is pretty easy to cut a great mortice and tenon joint in Oak or a great dovetail in Beech or turn an elegant tapered leg in Imbuia. It takes a real craftsman with sharp tools to do the same in Pine. I work with what my clients can afford and give them the best product that I can produce.
That being said, I try to avoid woods like Tambotie and Iroko which are toxic, Pink Ivory because the colour leaches out long after the project is completed and exotic hardwoods that are not commercially grown and contribute to deforestation in third world countries and Pau Marfim which just seems to hate me!
Tobias: What is your standard finishing process for your pieces?
Duncan: I like wood to remain wood, so I avoid anything that changes the character of the piece or changes the colour. I use Sanding Sealer on Sheet Goods, Plywood and Pine, any Nitro Cellulose Lacquer will do the job and I use Woodoc Oil based products on hardwoods. I generally let the oil cure well and finish with wax. There are some very good waterproof wax products like GWax and Nic Wax that are designed for leather that produce really good water resistant finishes for table tops and other surfaces that will take a beating. They do need to be mixed with a good measure of elbow grease though.
Tobias: If you could add another discipline to your woodworking arsenal, what would it be?
Duncan: Another discipline. That’s a good thought. Probably patience. Plan it, practice it, take the time to do it right the first time.
Jokes aside, I would like to be a better woodcarver. I have spent my life making things that are straight and square. Three dimensional carving would be a nice change.