In the Woodworker Sessions #8, I talk to Joel Harris, a remarkable and exceptionally talented, young South African furniture designer/maker from KZN.
Joel Harris has been woodworking from the age of seven. Born into a family, who for two generations had embraced the craft as either a hobby or occupation, meant Joel had been exposed to many aspects of the trade by the time he matriculated.
Joel worked for a year at a large-scale factory in the board upgrading industry. During this time he gained insight into the world of veneers, profiled mouldings, wrapping, CNC routers and mass production. He then moved on to work as the Senior Carpenter at one of Durban’s most prestigious furniture and kitchen manufacturers. Here he quickly learned the ropes and made every effort to draw knowledge from his extremely experienced co-workers.
In August 2017, Joel made the move to pursue his own business - Harris Creations, on a full time basis.
He then moved to California to spend three months working & living with the highly prolific and successful designer/builder, Jory Brigham in April 2018. His stint there could be described as an adventure of a lifetime. (www.jorybrigham.com)
Joel's eyes opened to a totally different woodwork culture and working in mediums such as steel, concrete and brass brought new learning curves to the fore. He was able to tour the Greene and Greene suburb, visit The Gamble House and experience first-hand the mastery that is held within their walls.
Furthermore, two comprehensive tours of the Maloof Foundation gave him full insight into the life of arguably one of the greatest woodworkers to have ever lived. His tour here included a special private visit to Sam’s personal residence guided by Mrs Maloof.
Joel is definitely one of my top young South African creators to watch.
Tobias: How, why and when did you become interested in woodworking?
Joel: From about the age of 5, so 17 years ago. My uncle had inherited my grandfather’s setup and we would occasionally visit him for Sunday afternoon tea.
I remember having free reign of the disc sander, scroll saw and a decent pile of scraps to tinker with. My childhood consisted largely of Lego, Meccano and dismantling any home appliance that happened to decease. If it had moving parts, I was fascinated and woodworking was a medium I found where I could create whatever idea I had in my head.
For Christmas at age 7 I received a workbench, power drill and some other bits and bobs, it was all downhill from there.
Stool in Pink Beech
Tobias: What aspect of your craft do you find most enjoyable and least enjoyable?
Joel: Most enjoyable – Definitely two fold. The first would be applying finish to a piece which I have spent a good while in making. When the oil hits the grain it’s like giving the wood a heartbeat, the whole piece just comes to life and it is rather exciting!
The second part would be delivering a piece to a client, who jubilantly receives it and is genuinely appreciative of the hours spent crafting.
Least enjoyable – That’s easy…… Sanding!
Particularly hand sanding, I don’t mind being hooked up to a vacuum with a random orbit sander and some country music going, it is quite therapeutic. But tight corners and interior angles… These drive me crazy.
Building a Vanity in French Oak
Tobias: What are your favourite hand tools?
Joel: Ah, the hand tool department. In all fairness, I don’t spend enough time here to have any favourites. Each of my hand tools I make use of out of necessity.
Here I use the typical joinery gear (some decent sharp chisels, a dovetail saw, a square that is actually square). This is not to say that I don’t have a huge appreciation and respect for these tools, I just don’t yet have the privilege of a quality arsenal.
If we are talking sentimental attachment, then my Stewart Spiers Infill Coffin Plane tops everything, it’s a gem and well over 120 years old and it is rather good looking!
My Stewart Spiers Coffin Smoothing Plane
Tobias: What are your favourite power tools and stationary machines?
Joel: Power Tools – Festool DF500, Makita RP2301FCX Router and Makita Track Saw.
The Festool Domino machine has been a massive asset to my workshop and has changed my entire approach to furniture construction.
The router is often thought of as a tool that just puts an edge profile on a panel, they really can do so much more. My Makita router is literally a hand held spindle moulder, love it!
The Makita Track Saw has blown my mind! As a one-man workshop, it has drastically improved safety and cut quality. Breaking down an 8x4 with a 10” table saw is not a pretty site.
I’ve starting turning to this tool more and more for odd angle cuts, where making a table saw jig is too much of a mission.
The Three Musketeers!
Stationary Machines: Table Saw, this tool can be used for so much more than just ripping and cross cuts. Diving into coving, raised panel work, joinery… The list is endless, an absolute powerhouse of a machine!
Bandsaw – AKA electric pencil. Enough said.
Tobias: What machines, power tools or hand tools could you not do without?
Joel: My Festool DF500 Domino! A square that is square, tape measure and sharp tooling all round.
Angled Dovetailed Box in Bocote
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?
Joel: I work in a dedicated +/- 33 square metre space. However, I do tend to spill over into the parent’s double garage, my flat, the lounge, dining room…
I never have enough space!
Vanities in French Oak
I’d like to say 50-60hrs, but it varies from week to week. Some weeks are more admin inclined, others may be on the road with clients or collecting stock.
Tobias: What was the first piece you ever made, what is your favourite piece and what is the next piece you wish to build?
Joel: From what I remember ,I think it was a box for my drum sticks made from Camphor. Due to a shortage of scraps, it was later dismantled into something else, another box as I recall.
Taking inspiration from Sam Maloof, my favourite piece is the one I am presently working on. It’s difficult to separate yourself from something you spend so much time on.
My next build on the list is a Walnut & Zebrano whiskey cabinet with brass inlay and a Maloof knuckle latch on the centre doors. I am super excited about this build, as the plan is to incorporate Bluetooth controlled internal lighting, with motion switching and some other gizmos that will all be Arduino powered.
Whiskey Cabinet in Black Walnut & Zebrano
Tobias: What are your favourite timbers to work with, what timbers do you avoid, and why?
Joel: Ha, Black Walnut all day long! It’s a friendly, warm and inviting wood. It is almost as if it wants to help you along the way, readily conforming to the odd dodgy bit of joinery, where a timber like oak would split or show an unsightly gap.
Whiskey Cabinet in Black Walnut & Zebrano
My first dovetails were cut in Wenge, it was a painful process, trying again in Walnut, the difference was like comparing chalk and cheese. Any other joints I have attempted have been seamless in this glorious American lumber. The pleasant chocolate, nutty, smokey aroma just adds to the romance of the timber.
Black Walnut & Wild Olive
Iroko is the elephant in the room for me. I value its brilliant outdoor properties, but at the cost of coughing my lungs out, teary eyes and general discomfort, I use it as little as possible. (Can’t wear safety gear all day long, some exposure is always guaranteed)
Tobias: What is your standard finishing process for your pieces?
Joel: Typically, my furniture items are sanded to 220 Grit, then oiled with Gobelin's Danish Oil or Tung Oil Blend. I apply 3 coats upping the grit each time (220, 320, 400) and burnishing in between with an emery pad.
Imbuia & Maple Keyed Dovetail Box
I have used Woodoc, Monocoat, Watco and Pronature, they all have their place, but Gobelin's had proved most practical for me.
On my Watch Boxes, I go right up to 600 Grit and then jump to a 3000 Grit pad to give them a sweet sheen and buttery feel.
Walnut & Wild Olive
Tobias: If you could add another discipline of woodworking to your arsenal, what would it be?
Joel: Hmm ...perhaps the ability to not make a mess whilst working, though this could be counted as a superpower?
Vintage Car Steering Wheel in Black Walnut & Maple
On an academic level though, I’d love to spend time at a well kitted out sawmill, gaining further insight into the process that a plank goes through before it reaches the shelves of Eco Timbers.
Here is my wish list:
- Festool ETS 150/3 Random Orbital Sander
- Festool RO90 Rotex Sander
- Floor standing drill press
- Restored monster "old school" bandsaw, just for fun!
- Helical Head Planer/Thicknesser Combination Machine
- 8x4 5.5Kw CNC Router
- Good Dust Extraction System
- A workshop with a roof that doesn’t leak!
Link to Joel's website: Harris Creations