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.
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
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"
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!
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
- Drill Press
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,
- 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
- Bench Vise Table
- Band Saws
- Pony clamps
- Marking Knives (Single Bevel)
- Pencil and compass
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.
- 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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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