Old men and camphor laurel

Wood shavings
Timber on its way to becoming chopsticks at a Japanese tools stall.

Just like any other occupation or industry, timber-working has its own Expo  and what better forum to begin familiarising myself with my future peers and suppliers?

Walking towards Hall 6 at Sydney Olympic Park on a clear, crisp Sydney winter morning recently, I was impressed but probably more bemused at the sight of a queue at least 200m long. The demographic of punters was equally intriguing, with no clear predominant pattern I could identify. Wow! I thought. I think I’ve vastly underestimated the common person’s interest in timber!

Approaching the end of the queue, I started to smell that unmistakable camphor laurel and almost at the same time saw a group of bearded old men, belts cinched up under their ribcages gathering around a small booth. Ah ha. This was the entrance to the timber show. The 200m line was for the Good Food & Wine Show. Of course.

Not feeling put off by the vague sense of looking at a mirror in 30 years’ time, we (my parents, wife and I) ventured towards the blast of an impromptu sawmill set up next to the entry.

Entering through a haze of sawdust, I could choose to wander over to one of two stalls; one manned by a young wolverine-lookalike to talk about the latest bandsaw technology coming out of Italy, or the other to look over the range of furniture that this year’s NSW HSC Design and Technology students had created.

Slightly intimidated by the shoulders on wolverine – no doubt honed under a life of  manoeuvring of iron bark saw logs – I chose the latter option. The approachable man standing behind the counter was one of the head assessors and he was keen to show off his students’ real and immediately obvious talent.

What was most memorable (and disconcerting) from the discussion was his comment that those students who most loved their project and excelled the most (some achieved ATAR scores in the top one per cent of the state) were actively encouraged to go on to study at uni, most likely engineering. Few chose cabinetry or similar trades. This, as I’ve come to realise, is a common experience: students who achieve high marks are implicitly assumed to not only go into tertiary education, but to only choose from those degrees that do ‘justice’ to their marks. Is this right? Is this the way to maximise the chances of this individual’s long-term wellbeing? Is this about increasing your ‘options’ later in life? I’ll revisit this dynamic in later posts.

One of the predominate themes of the timber expo was ‘every man and his lathe’. These men (yep, no women) had a very apparent kinship with their machines, and they were eager to show how their tango with these turning beasts produced bowls, cups, toys and spinning tops. While their fulfilment from this enterprise wasn’t in question, I felt there lacked signals of viable, self-sufficient business models. It was clear of most of these men that this was a hobby that brought in some pocket money on the side as they approached or cruised through retirement. My gut instinct had written off this type of woodworking as a career option, and this direct experience now appeared to warrant that initial reaction.

However, there was still a strong presence of relevant Australian furniture designers and makers. One leading commercial fine furniture maker on display was kind enough to share some generous (and valuable) advice for this potential future competitor. Encouragingly (in a strange sense) the key pitfalls he flagged for me seemed to be similar to any other small business that specialises in luxury goods.

These include, for example, having too much of your business overheads tied to one client/contract; not investing enough on your pipeline of future work; too little diversity in products for leaner economic times; etc. This helped remove any lingering concern I had about a sufficient market. Rather, it made it a problem of business administration, and while this is something I have little direct experience with, I see it as an exercise in problem solving – far preferable to the more esoteric problem of trying to create a market.

One day, I’ll have a stall at this show – but will it be with a lathe turning out slightly naff wooden toys and utensils, or as one of Australia’s leading fine furniture makers?

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