Benjamin Baldwin is a man who opts for time honoured methods over modern shortcuts. He finds beauty in every join and detail and the time and skills required to get there. And as a maker who works only with recycled materials (and machinery!) he knows the value of a decent piece of otherwise discarded timber better than many.
From billy carts as a kid, to his current creations that are made to stand the test of time, building has long been in Benjamin’s bones. We caught him for a chat, while his lovely lady, photographer Hilary Walker, snapped these great pics of Benjamin doing his thing!
Tell us about your business and what you do?
“I am a Melbourne-based furniture maker living and working in Brunswick East. I have a small workshop where I design and build everything by hand.”
What is your background, and what led to the start of your furniture making?
“Ever since I was a kid I’ve always been obsessed with drawing and building things. Amongst the billy carts and flying machines, the natural world is what fascinated me the most. After finishing school I went and got a degree in Industrial Design, but by the end of it I was feeling pretty disillusioned by the lack of ecological consideration in the industry and decided I wanted to have more direct involvement in the environmental movement. I found that in the marine conservation group Sea Shepherd, where I have worked for the past nine years as everything from the ships carpenter, engineer, bosun to ship manager. However, over that time I never lost my desire to design and build environmentally responsible products, so a couple of years ago I started my business in the hope to offer a real alternative to the unsustainable furniture and product manufacturers out there.”
What does a typical week involve?
“A typical week for me involves a lot of early starts down at the Williamstown docks with Sea Shepherd. Once I am done with work on the ships, I spend my afternoons and evenings in my workshop building a variety of things, from my own line of chairs and tables to custom furniture for clients. That work keeps me pretty busy and thankfully it’s never boring. Depending on the day, I will be milling odd shaped recycled timber down to size, cutting intricate joinery and test fitting pieces or applying finish to a product.”
Tell us about your style and the ethos behind your work?
“Minimising my environmental impact is the most important consideration when it comes to the design of my products, so I am very realistic about the need to apply restrictions to the processes. This includes everything from the material choices, dimensions, construction techniques and finishes to the overall aesthetics. So to start with, all of my products are made entirely from locally sourced recycled timber. I like to find timber that other people might not have much interest in because it is too thin or requires too much preparation. And even though I am using a recycled resource, I want to be responsible with it, so my designs ensure that excessive usage and waste is kept to a minimum. All the measurements and angles are dictated by the strength that they provide and I use very traditional joinery techniques that offer more durability and longevity than modern methods. And on top of it all I only use non-toxic glues and finishes in the process. So put simply, each product is based on the morals that I work and live by rather than the influence of current ephemeral trends, and by maintaining this ideology my products will not only last physically but aesthetically too.”
What do you love about working with recycled materials?
“I love the recycled timbers I get to work with because they all have a story to tell. It is great being able to take a piece of timber that was essentially a waste product and give it a new life.”
What do you love about the process, and what you do?
“From start to finish, I enjoy every part about the process of designing and building my products. As I mentioned above, much of the design is dictated by the recycled materials readily available and the engineering requirements to turn that material into simple, yet strong furniture. Once the design and timber choices are finalised, I use machinery to do the majority of the hard work, milling the wood down to the necessary dimensions. I own some very old machines that I have restored and use everyday. Just like with the recycled timber, they require more love and attention, but there is something very special about these machines and I get a lot of joy out of working with them.
“Once I have cut the timber down to size I begin measuring and marking out for all the fine joinery. I don’t use any fixings or screws in my furniture so most of the time that will involve traditional joints like wedged mortise and tenons, half lapped joints, or dovetails. This is where I move to using hand tools to fine tune and clean up the mess that the machinery usually makes. I love this part of the work because it is where I get to focus on the details, from honing the surface of a table dead flat with my smoothing planes, getting all the edges crisp and the joints fitting perfectly, to applying the final coat of finish. I learn a lot in these stages and even though the production processes are very refined, diverse batches of wood and slight variations in grain mean that each piece is a little different, setting it apart from the rest of the mass-produced world.”
What are some of the things that inspire you in the work you do?
“I am lucky enough to have a small workshop with amazing light, filled with old machinery and tools, so I find that very inspiring. But having the opportunity to work with my hands on natural materials to make products that will last for generations is probably what inspires me most.”
What’s next for you and the Benjamin Baldwin furniture business?
“I would like to see my furniture continue to develop as I refine my production processes and designs. However, I am in no great rush with this and look forward to seeing each piece evolve slowly over time.”
To see more of Benjamin’s work, visit www.benjaminbaldwin.com.au.
Photos: Hilary Walker // Words: Emma Bowen