Greener pastures

“This feels good, it feels right” were the words of Leon Sadubin, who if there were such a thing as Australian woodworking royalty, may not be king but he’d certainly have a castle or two to his name. Instead he has something even better – a great workshop and it’s now my workshop too. A month ago we upped sticks and moved to the hilly green coastal town of Gerringong, two hours south of Sydney.

Leon’s comments came with a broad relaxed smile, standing next to me at my recently assembled bench looking around at the newly established bench room, observing the deliberate movements of my cooperative woodworkers Reuben Daniel and Elise Cameron-Smith. I too had felt these good vibes but as the newbie still wet behind my ears, I self censored my dewy eyed enthusiasm, only allowing myself the chance to eagerly agree. (As my wife and editor pointed out, “that’s a lot of face moisture in one sentence!”, but I’m leaving it.) Anyway, it feels that only in writing like this now can step back and take stock of where we have arrived, to help punctuate life’s narrative.

Gerringong woodworking Paul Chilton Leon Sadubin
Gerringong, NSW.

As with many things in life, in the not too distant past all this would’ve seemed out of reach. Not only had I struggled to find a workshop since the end of my training in the UK, let alone one the caliber of Leon’s, but also one that satisfied our plan to move out of Sydney. The worn truisms of cost of living pressures as well as the inevitable increasing pace of general existence that big cities unanimously experience, meant we had to join the exodus and hit the reset button on Sydney and try somewhere else. For those outside Australia, this acerbic article by Elizabeth Farrelly captures these problems well.

I first made contact with Leon towards the end of my training in the UK, after having approached the small handful of cooperatives. At the time he didn’t have space to let out as he was still making full time, but recently he has decided to take a step back from intensive making and commissioned furniture to focus more on his art and sculptural pieces and open up the workshop to other young makers.

Refectory Table by Leon Sadubin. Photo by Scott Donkin.

Not only has Leon been a woodworking teacher in the past, but the quality of his furniture and the organic, nature-inspired style of his designs are something I admire and see as inspiration for my own work. Having made pieces for parliament house and even a writing desk as a gift commission by the Australian Armed Forces for Prince Charles and Princess Diana’s wedding, his commitment to the craft needs little justification. It’s also fascinating to be already observing specific differences emerging in attitudes and approaches to woodwork. For instance, I pulled out Bonsai to consider reworking some details after some wood movement had occurred. Leon highly regarded the piece, which was flattering, but I was much more interested in his critique – almost instantly picking out the brass brusso butt hinges; “they’re very English,” he said with tongue in cheek. “I usually much prefer the elegant profile and operation of a knife hinge, it’s fresher. Think Krenov.” I couldn’t unsee it after that, and he was right, for the sweeping uncluttered look I was going for, knife hinges would have been obviously better.

Another side-tickling quip was his attitude towards perfection. Along with a number of other pragmatic insights on finishing techniques, he responded to my amazement at this tambour cabinet – how its precision appeared to defy logic – with: “Paul, there’s a peculiar type of illness with woodworkers, this obsession with perfection, I don’t buy it”.

I think this is perhaps one of the secrets to being a successful furniture maker, as not only do you learn where to draw the line, but also more importantly remember who you’re making for, which is not other woodworkers who will crane their necks under and behind, trying to find fault. It’s for the client, and the client most cares about the design, which is one reason I’ve hung up my drawings in my new workshop space, to remind me of this central fact.

While it all sounds rather rosy so far, the commission I had anticipated kick-starting my making here unfortunately fell through, at least for this year – such is the roller coaster business of commissioned furniture. So I am spending this time instead designing and making a speculative piece that will add to my repertoire and keep the creative muse alive.

Paul Chilton Woodworking Gerrinong.jpg
At the old bench, in the new workshop, with my current work in progress.