“Far better it is to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs, even though checkered by failure, than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much, because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory or defeat.” – Theodore Roosevelt
We may never be a president or conquer such feats as the Panama Canal, and we each define our victories differently, but how do we steer clear of our own ‘gray twilight’? This is what I’m hoping to learn, starting by understanding the approach of others.
The furniture making course I’m enrolled in has a tendency to attract people seeking change, often after one or more breaking points. Mine was staring down the barrel of a life behind a computer, in an office environment that even after six years felt alien. It was also the news of a distant university friend committing suicide that turned the mirror on my own mental health to make me sit up and realise that all was not unicorns and lollipops.
Edward Wild is a successful contemporary furniture maker who was himself a student at David Savage’s school over six years ago after deciding that he wanted a change. He’s s also my patient but uncompromising tutor who now teaches part time at Davids woodworking school in parallel to his own business. Eagle Eye Ed is how I’ve come to regard him, as his attention to detail is second to none and talon sharp. Ed was kind enough to answer a few questions for me and I hope you’ll enjoy hearing about his journey to this point.
We’ve talked before about the ‘breaking point’ that flicked on the high beam of reality for you. Can you share what you were doing before furniture making, and how you came to decide you needed change?
It was probably seeing the realities of life – people die in pointless ways and you suddenly think, life’s short, why am I doing this stuff that I’m not interested in anymore? I’d taken my previous job as an environmental chemist as far as I wanted to. After my degree I went on to do a PhD and then into lots of really fascinating research, but I knew I didn’t want to move on to a professorship or anything like that.
I’d been working with wood since the age of five or six with my granddad, making planes, boats and things like that, and I moved into furniture in my teens, but there was a point where I realised the furniture I was making wasn’t good enough. I knew that it wasn’t up to my granddads standard and I needed more training because I’d picked up bad habits
What made you realise you liked furniture making enough to make a living from it?
I always intended to make furniture. I was originally going to study furniture making at 16 and, well, life sometimes happens doesn’t it? You get good grades and all that, and you kind of flow through the system – one small decision leads to the next. I’m actually glad I didn’t do it at 16 because I was young and gung-ho like everyone at that age, and by doing the science first – where you have experiments that might be running for three years – you learn to be patient and disciplined.
I was tapping into an existing love of wood. When you’re a kid, once you’ve touched wood and worked with it, you’re gripped, that’s it. Even if you want to do something else, it will draw you back, there’s something intrinsic about working with it, it’s that tactile nature and as soon as you work with wood you see that it’s organic, it’s living, it’s something that really has its own personality. I remember cutting open a bit of timber one time and where I’d cut it, the two pieces fell open and on one side there was a perfect little heart shape, and that’s now in a piece of furniture. If I’d cut that a millimetre either way that wouldn’t have been there. What are the chances of opening wood up and finding stuff like that?
I was always making for other people, not for me. People would say, how can you give it away? And I’d say simply – because it’s done. The enjoyment comes from the challenge of making it. You have something in your head and you’re making that real, you’re converting an image in your head into something tangible, and so when it’s done you want the next challenge. But even when I was making these pieces for other people, I had the realisation that it could be better, simple as that. I needed training to take it up to the next level.
Once you decided you needed a change, what was the reaction of your friends and family?
Well one of my friends said “at last”, but she’d known me right the way through school. Mum and dad were maybe a little surprised at first, but they were all for it – they knew I was making furniture anyway and they remember me in the garage working on a rickety lathe run off a washing machine (that thing was terrifying, it went way faster than it should have. It was basically a summer of terror working on that thing). So, they knew all time that this is what I loved doing and they gave cautious support. You find people say things like “we really respect what you’ve done, it’s brave, you’ve gone from a successful career and you’re jumping into something else”.
One or two friends looked at me as if I’d grown an extra pair of ears, but there were also a lot of people who were obviously wanting to make changes themselves and they were very supportive. Many said “I wish I was doing that”, but they didn’t know what they wanted to do.
Can you share your biggest success or feeling of fulfilment since the switch, and also the most significant failure or mistake?
The biggest success came this year, when I won the Wesley-Barrell Craft Award for furniture. That was fantastic because about 144 people applied and about six or seven were shortlisted for the two categories – ceramics and furniture. After I applied, I remember an email coming through saying I’d be shortlisted, so straight off I was excited because the shortlist pieces get exhibited in London and taken on a tour of the UK. I’d also get a chance to meet great makers and lovely people, so it was brilliant. But when they announced I was the winner, I really was in shock. I was really happy because those first few years when you set up are just hard work.
Another success of sorts was getting some stuff up on Design Milk. I’d had a couple of commissions in the bag from my furniture in galleries, but then I started to get the calls and commissions through from that one piece on the blog.
It’s the start of external recognition. You start to veer away from the shows where people say: “That’s very nice isn’t it? But oh god it’s a bit expensive!” You get comments like that, but then you say “There’s a weeks work in that, how much do you earn in a week?” they suddenly realise you’re living off gravy.
I don’t know what’s been the worst bit but there’s been hard times. You have moments when your cash flows drops to nothing. The orders come through in waves and you have to be very careful that there is always stuff trickling through, so you always have moments when you’re thinking – I’m going to die! But then you think, no I’m not, I’ve got an amazing life and I’m not living on a rubbish dump. You put things in perspective and get on with it
Then we’ve all had those disasters when you’re working on a piece and you suddenly realise that you’ve cut a joint in the wrong place and you let out a deathly scream because you’ve just realised you’ve wasted three days or three weeks of work. But it’s all solvable. Stuff happens, nothing that when you look back on it is particularly dreadful, but at the time those things are horrific.
I think of some of the small things I get hang ups over on the projects that I’m working on, how my perspective gets warped…
It is important that you do feel pressured. If you’re getting stressed over a joint, it means you’re working to the best of your ability and you’re going to produce the highest standard you can. It’s really important to understand that you’re making furniture that is not a rickety chest of drawers, it’s the high-end stuff, stuff that’s going to long outlive you. People will say in a hundred years time “That’s nice, that’s an Ed Wild isn’t it? Ahh, gosh that must be worth a lot!”
The idea of leaving a legacy is something I really enjoy, because you are making something that will be someone’s pride and joy and it’ll be passed down. I remember a great moment at the first show I did – a customer had bought a jewellery box made from timber that my brother and I had planked when we were sixteen and that had sat drying for 15 years before it had gone into making this box. She had bought it and then she knew I was coming to that event so she came especially to say thank you. That’s a special moment. The aim is to always to blow the client away, so when they see it it’s even more than they expected.
Describe the qualities of fine furniture and what it’s like being a fine furniture maker.
It should in essence all be nailed together… okay maybe not. Fine furniture has to have the mark of a human touch, it’s got to be special.
You want to know that it has been made by someone who has skill, who has craftsmanship, who has spent time learning the craft. Importantly, it’s something that can’t be done on a machine. Machines can do a lot of stuff, but they can’t necessarily give you that look, that feel of the human touch. If you plane something by hand, you are putting a mark onto it which can have a bit of a rhythm to it… Secondly, I think you have to put features on it that are different. I like doing sunbursts because if you get it right and you get those 32 or 64 triangles to meet in a perfect point in the centre, it’s spectacular – you’ve spent the time looking at the wood, the grain direction, the direction of the ripples and you’ve laid it up and used your insight and aesthetic to really pay attention to what the wood is like before you’ve even made a cut. We could do the same with a machine, but it’s going to miss many of those qualities. For instance, the Burnett Table is very simple, but what I’m trying to do is bring some of the real fine tradition of English furniture making – things like sunburst, the quarter match, the french polishing, the string lines, the beading – using all of that but in a very modern setting, because I don’t live in the 1800s and I don’t want to make furniture of that period, I want to make furniture for now, but which gives a little nod back to what it has come from.
You have these skills as a craftsperson that have been passed down to you. I’ve had skills passed down from my grandfather but also of course huge amounts from my teachers. For instance, some of my grandfather’s chisels have his names stamped on them, the name of the person he apprenticed with, another chap’s initials and then one more name. That’s going back a long way. But if you take it right back you’re looking at the furniture of Pompeii or the furniture of the Egyptian tombs. Many of the same techniques we are using today were used then. The Buddhist temple work in Japan is incredible because, while our stone masonry was developing in the 12th, 13th and 14th centuries, their joinery skills were developing as their building construction was mainly based around timber. You look at some of the joints and you just take your hat off. It is thoroughly fantastic craftsmanship.
We’re still working with tools that are really ancient. We’re still working with a tool like the scratch stock – it’s an incredibly simple and ancient tool, and yet still the only tool you can use for some jobs, for instance working around a curve that a router can’t get into. The scratch stock is the only tool that can do it and you can make one yourself.
What would you say to anybody reading this who has started to have questions about their own career direction?
Life is very short, it goes by very quickly. I live by a view that I want to have no regrets, simple as that. I embrace and take forward what I want to do. People die in pointless ways, and then you reflect on life and it makes you think.
I’ve changed my life around to do the things I want to do. You have these thoughts and you just have to just get on with it because you may not get the chance again. If you try and don’t suceed, at least you know you’ve tried. The only person you can blame is yourself and while that’s very scary, if you fail at least you know you’re not going to be 80 and watching some crap on telly in a care home and thinking “what if…”