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The Woodworker Sessions #21 - Ten Questions with Brian Coetzee of White River

The Woodworker Sessions #21 - Ten Questions with Brian Coetzee of White River

The Woodworker Sessions is about sharing our craft and learning from each other. Our techniques, shortcuts, mistakes and triumphs all combine to grow our common passion - working with wood. I am always looking for interesting, intriguing and dedicated workers of wood to interview. If you are, or you know of a woodworker who fits the above bill, we would love to hear from you.


"Brian Coetzee - South Africa's Iconic Box Maker" 

In White River in Mpumulanga, Brian creates exquisite & detailed boxcraft for his ever increasing & discerning clientele. Playing card boxes, jewellery boxes, knife boxes, memory boxes, watch boxes, presentation boxes, chess boards & backgammon boards, each piece is crafted to perfection. 


 Question #1

Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodworking?

Brian: I have always loved to fix things and dabble in DIY. Up until my late twenties, neither wood nor woodworking featured in my life. The little bit of exposure to school woodwork was stressful. In retrospect, I realised that the chief causes of this stress were dull blades. We were never taught how to sharpen blades and tune tools!


Whilst living in Durban and working 9 to 5 as a clerk, very unhappily I must add, a work colleague wanted some built-in cupboards installed, and I said “I can do it, part time though”, much to my own surprise and not really believing what I had just said!

Here I was, a thirty year old clerk, wondering how the hell I was going to pull this off. I worked out a quote for chipboard cupboards to be hand painted, which was accepted. I bought a Bosch jigsaw to accompany my Metabo electric drill which I had acquired only a few years earlier. It was a rather terrifying project, which upon completion, turned out be very satisfying. Within the next year I had completed four such cupboards, with very happy clients.

This sense of achievement was, and still is, very fulfilling.

After seeing a newspaper classifieds ad for recycled Oregon Pine and Burmese Teak, I borrowed some money to purchase this lot. I still only owned the all-encompassing electric drill and jigsaw. The seller showed me some really beautiful furniture he had made. This awoke a sleeping giant within and I was hooked. Woodworking was soon to become a passionate hobby.

A critical instrument in my workshop - The Humidity Stick!






Just before my 35 birthday, in 1997 I became a full time woodworker. By 1998, after having made a few custom furniture pieces and boxes, I developed an affinity with box making and have been building and making boxes for the past 21 years.

Marking Knives in Left and Right Bevel Format

Question #2

Tobias: What aspects of your craft do you find most enjoyable and least enjoyable?

Brian: First off, I will never tire of the wonderful woody aroma that greets me every morning in the workshop. Fresh eyes assist in seeing what you did and didn’t do the day before.


As with many hands-on folks, I  think that designing and building are hugely enjoyable and challenging, especially when planning to use woods for their specific properties, which may or may not assist in overall design and stability.


Wood selection can be either therapeutic when making your own creation, or mildly stressful, especially when the client does not give any direction. Repetitive hand sanding in between lacquer coats is probably my least enjoyable physical chore. Mentally though, it allows those latent thoughts on the brain’s backburner to surface and many a solution and creation has arisen out of the ‘hand sanding trance’. If I’m really busy, my wonderful wife, Gail, helps out with sanding.

Essential Box Making Clamps, Vernier Caliper

and the all-important "Splinter Removal Kit"






Question 3

Tobias: What are your favourite hand tools?

Brian: I don’t have many hand tools, but use them all. I thought of listing these tools in order of ‘favouritism’, but that is impossible for me.

  • Lie Nielsen Block Plane
  • Stanley Bailey No 3 Smoothing Plane
  • Stanley Bailey No 4 Smoothing Plane
  • Stanley Bailey No 5 Jack Plane
  • Stanley Bailey No 5½ Jack Plane
  • Marking knives – Self-made, left and right handed.
  • Chisels – various, acquired from flea markets
  • Chisels Marples – for rough work
  • Cabinet scrapers – Veritas, and various self-made
  • Files and Rasps (various)
  • Small chisels and scratch stock, self made from old needle files
  • Tenon Saw
  • Dovetail saw
  • Branch trimming hand saw – Japanese style.
  • Spoke shaves (various)
  • Shop-made sanding blocks
  • Stanley Bench Vise

A day's worth of sharp Plane Irons at the ready!  

Question #4

Tobias: What are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?

Brian: I seem to have found my ideal balance using hand and machine tools.

I do believe that my Makita Router, mounted on a self made router table and fence is my most used set-up. It’s versatile and accurate. It is the centre of my box making universe…

My shop-made Featherboard system for the Router Table


The Router Table Fence with various custom inserts



Wood preparation is of paramount importance.

I have a Martlet Table Saw for breaking down larger planks. The 150mm Jointer and 300mm Jet Thicknesser contribute massively to this cause. In the workshop are two 14" bandsaws.


A Metabo Bandsaw which is my go-to for resawing and veneer cutting from solids, and a wonderful Rockwell Bandsaw, way older than me, which I use for cutting the very thin strips for inlaying and stringing. I also have a Stayer Compound Mitre saw. Apparently this has been discontinued. Not surprisingly!

In my workshop are also:

  • Dust Extractor
  • Makita Belt Sander 9401
  • Cordless Drill
  • Compressor
  • Drill Press

Question #5

Tobias: What machines, power tools or hand tools could you not do without?

Brian:  I have hardly any superfluous tools, so everything is used quite regularly:

  • Basic hand saws: Tenon Saw, Fret Saw, Dovetail Saw,
  • Chisels
  • Sneezewood Mallet
  • Diamond Lapping Plate
  • Water paper on 6mm glass, for polishing bevels
  • Engineer’s squares
  • All of my hand planes
  • Tape Measure
  • Cordless Drill
  • Thicknesser
  • Bench Vise Table
  • Band Saws
  • Pony clamps
  • Marking Knives (Single Bevel)
  • Pencil and compass


Question #6

Tobias: Do you use a dedicated space for your craft, what floor area do you have and how much time do you manage to spend on woodworking per week?

Brian: Yes, as a full-time woodworker / box maker, I have a dedicated workshop, approximately 9 x 6 metres, somewhat dishevelled most of the time. (Ok, all of the time.) It’s probably the least glamorous workshop of any serious woodworker but it does work for me.


A storage room is attached, in which most of the really precious woods, veneers, inlay stock and prepped pieces are stored.

Workshop Setup:

  • Concrete Flooring (wish it was wooden flooring!)
  • LED tube lighting
  • Steel workbench with a bench vise and granite slabs on which to handplane and glue small items
  • Assembly / Gluing table
  • Awkward tool cabinets
  • Sharpening Station
  • Sanding Station

Store Room Setup

  • Wood Storage
  • Large custom cyclone dust extraction system
  • Drying room for sprayed work
  • Packing / wrapping station for product despatch

Question 7

Tobias: What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is the next piece you wish to build?

Brian: My first piece was a glass topped Oregon Pine coffee table.

I have a few favourite pieces: Two Charles Mackintosh chairs - a Willow Chair and a Radiused Chair, both made entirely from one photograph each.

Macintosh Raduised Chair Component Layout


Macintosh Radiused Chair

Macintosh Willow Chair


A Backgammon set made from Tamboti, Sneezewood and Red Ivory.

Chess board made with Macassar Ebony and lightly Quilted Maple, with edging of Partridgewood, Sapele Mahogany and Curly Maple with Macassar Ebony feet.

A box made from Curly Tamboti, Sneezewood and African Blackwood.

There are a number of different boxes I would love to build, but topping the list right now would be another humidor.

Question #8

Tobias: What are your favourite timbers to work with & what timbers do you avoid?

Brian: I have become really fond of our indigenous woods. They’re very charismatic, mostly hard or very hard, extremely versatile and largely frustrating and tricky to work and thus, very rewarding. They are quite scarce and I go to great lengths to ensure sustainable use.


My favourites are Tamboti, Partridgewood, most Mahoganies, the Dalbergias (Rosewoods), Mitzeeri, Bubinga, Kiaat, Boekenhout, Stinkwood, Imbuia (which I now upcycle from old furniture), Hard Maple, Bird’s Eye Maple and very possibly some others that do not come to mind right now.

Highly figured woods will be processed into veneers on my bandsaw, with thickness ranging from 1 to 3mm. I do this mainly because it goes further and tames wild and unstable woods like Wild Olive, Matumi and False Mopani.

I do not like to work with woods that are inherently unstable. This is a huge no-no in box making.

Question #9

Tobias: What is your standard finishing process for your pieces?

Brian: I mostly use lacquer on my boxes, simply because it’s more efficient. In some instances, I may use Woodoc 10. It all depends on the application of the box. I would love to use shellac but require more practice.

Question #10

Tobias: If you could add another discipline of woodworking to your arsenal, what would it be?

Brian:  Possibly marquetry. I say possibly, because the market for high end boxes in South Africa is very small. But I still think it would be remarkably rewarding to do.

    Previous article The Woodworker Sessions #22 - Ten Questions with Neville Comins of Pretoria
    Next article The Woodworker Sessions #20 - Ten Questions with David Duncan of Johannesburg


    Brian Coetzee - October 15, 2019

    Good morning Chris. Lovely to hear from you and thank you so much for your generously kind comment. I often think about what that box is being used for… and I’m making very good use of the wood you gave me, thanks again. Those Mackintosh chairs were a real lesson in woodworking for me! He was indeed a genius…
    Stay well and hope you’ve settled into your new home.

    Chris Morewood. - October 12, 2019

    Him Brian. So pleased to read your honest comments from the master himself. We treasure the box which you so kindly gave us 4 months ago. Your Macintosh chairs reminded me of the pleasure of visiting the C R Macintosh house museum in Glasgow and seeing his genius designs so far ahead of his tines. We also went to the Willow tearoom where we saw how he designed everything …the building, superb furniture, lights, crockery, cutlery etc. Regards to you both C & D.

    Tobias Lochner - September 30, 2019

    Hi Hannes.
    Brian’s number is 083-372-8784.
    Email address is:

    Hannes Venter - September 30, 2019

    More Brian , hoe kontak ek jou , stuur asb jou cell no. of e/pos adres. My no is 0824506696

    Brian Coetzee - September 28, 2019

    Baie dankie Hannes. Kom kuier gerus ja. Ek praat bitter min met ander houtwerkers en sien uit daarna om jou te ontmoet.

    Hannes Venter - September 28, 2019

    Dagsê Brian , ek het jou inset baie geniet en wil graag ontmoet, Ek woon in Nelspruit en het op ouderdom 60 weer my liefde vir houtwerk opgeneem as n stokperdtjie en het omtrent al die gereedskap daarvoor aangeskaf behalwe n Bandsaag. Sal graag by jou wil kers opsteek vir waarna om op te let voor ek koop. Jy kan my ook skakel op 0824506696. Groete

    Brian Coetzee - September 27, 2019

    I have just been made aware of the comments section so please allow me to sincerely thank Tobias Lochner for the opportunity, and to those of you that posted such incredibly kind and motivating comments.

    Johan I am all too aware that I may be a little pedantic but will attempt to answer your question as briefly as possible. The humidity stick essentially reacts to the ambient humidity in your workshop. Now we all know that wood moves, all the time, albeit at different rates according to species, grain orientation and relative humidity which can cause the moisture content in the wood to fluctuate marginally. Even though it’s marginal we usually underestimate how much it actually moves, and this humidity stick is a novel and constant reminder as to how sensitive wood is to atmospheric moisture, or the lack thereof, through the changing seasons.

    Making one is easy enough. One glues together two strips of wood, and their opposing grain directions are going to cause the wood to deform into the most glorious arch imaginable when exposed to the air. I use two strips of wood, one is very thin, even veneer will do, long grain, the movement of which is zero to minutely negligible end to end. The other piece, slightly thicker (2 to 4mm), but the same width of the thin piece (6 to 10 mm will do) is cut from the end of a flatsawn board, as flatsawn wood has the most movement from side to side i.e. the growth rings expand or contract laterally (quartersawn wood moves less and is thus more stable). I use white glue, but any flexible glue will do. Clean it up, and if you can, plane the edges clean rather than sanding them as this will leave the pores more open to absorbing or releasing moisture.

    I really hope this makes sense. If not, do let me know and we can somehow do it with pics or videos.

    Tobias Lochner - September 27, 2019

    Thanks for the great comments Don, Maybe we can twist Brian Coetzee’s arm to come down to Cape Town for a few days and do a Masterclass?

    Tobias Lochner - September 27, 2019

    Billy, Thank you so much for your beautiful comment.

    Billy Griffiths - September 27, 2019

    Baie netjiese werk. As afgetrede houtwerk-onderwyser doen dit my hart goed om die liefde vir hout te sien. Doen so voort.

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