Centre for Fine Woodworking

Located at Wakapuaka, between Nelson and Cable Bay, and with wonderful views of Tasman Bay and the western ranges, is the Centre for Fine Woodworking – arguably the country’s finest woodworking, furniture making and design school. 6268sml Tutor Thorkild Hansen (left) taking the popular two-week course, Introduction to Fine Woodworking.

The school’s creation was the culmination of many years of teaching woodwork by its founder, John Shaw, who had formal furniture-making training in the UK and California. Shaw came to the realisation that unless these time-honoured skills were preserved (outside the available trade qualifications), then they would be lost.

Early days

School manager Helen Gerry takes up the story: “Without John and his vision to start the school we would not exist. From small beginnings back in 2006, well over a thousand students have passed through our doors to attend one of our short courses, workshops or our full-time programme. Our reputation has steadily grown to a point where we are now respected and acknowledged alongside other more well-known international woodworking schools.”

Gerry reports directly to the board of the Centre for Fine Woodworking Trust. “Not everyone realises that the centre is a not-for-profit organisation. We gained charitable status back in 2008 – granted to us in recognition of the quality of tuition offered and subsequent high skill level attainable through our courses; for passing on and preserving fine furniture making and woodworking skills; and for creating an opportunity to foster and mentor our future craftspeople.

Cap1&2 Left: Full-time student Max Maltby bandsawing the edge of the torsion box structure, which will be covered in MDF and then veneered to make the table top. Right: The completed table: Max Maltby’s ‘Upstanding L’Orange’ (in walnut). Photo: © Daniel Allen Photography

Income streams

“We are mainly funded through income generated from student course fees. And over the years we have also been supported by generous donations from the Rata Foundation and the Dick Roberts Community Trust – as well as financial support from numerous private individuals under the umbrella of our ‘Friends of the School’.

“The school is modelled on other similar schools of excellence around the world – notably in the USA, Canada, the UK and Denmark – where the emphasis is on the highest level of craftsmanship, with courses being attended by anyone who has a passion for fine woodworking.”

Gerry is solely responsible for organising everything from the full-time/short-course programmes and media and promotion, to selecting/hiring the tutors and submitting funding applications. “I am the only non-woodworker here so I do everything that keeps this place going other than teach woodworking! The school employs a part-time technician and all tutors are contracted to teach their specific area of expertise.”

Cap4&5 Left: Tutor David Haig (left) and full-time student Lance Palmer performing a complex glue-up of Lance’s tabletop. The clamps are placed at strategic points with consistent pressure so the tabletop is true and flat when complete. Right: Furniture designer/maker Michael Fortune critiquing a student’s mock-up … as part of a chair design and make course.

Burgeoning reputation

She says that in 2007, the school only ran a very small range of courses in benchmaking and cabinetmaking … with two tutors. “Our reputation has steadily grown over the years and we have an average of 100 students completing the short-course and full-time programmes each year.”

The current premises was originally a kitchen manufacturing workshop – one big room located on the owner’s farm. Gerry says the building was gradually upgraded and kitted out with two dedicated teaching rooms, an office, kitchen facilities and a machine room.

The school’s status is such that it has been increasingly able to offer high-quality opportunities for fine woodworkers – enabling them to create work to a level unattainable at any other school in New Zealand. That has been due, in no small part, to the school’s ability to attract eminent and highly experienced furniture makers/tutors – among them David Haig, David Trubridge, Michael Fortune and Adrian Ferrazzutti.

Participants, men and women aged 18 to 75, come from a variety of backgrounds and countries, including Argentina, Canada, the UK, Germany and the USA. Some have completed design degrees and then specifically identified that they would like to work with wood. Others are passionate hobbyists who want to be the very best they can be at fine woodworking. Many of them return year after year to undertake new courses or learn new techniques.

Distinctive approach

Gerry says the school doesn’t offer any qualifications – a policy that has been debated a number of times. “It does inhibit young people from attending the full-time programme as they cannot access a student loan. But if we were to offer a qualification, we believe the restraints involved in such a framework would completely change the courses we offer.

“Most of our students have absolutely no desire to gain a qualification as they see that what we offer is unique. A qualification would dilute the experience to explore and challenge themselves. We would, in an ideal world, love to offer a scholarship programme, but at this stage that is not available.”

Students are not necessarily looking to pursue a trade career in furniture making – but the teaching helps them to create studio furniture using highly skilled techniques, which clearly show they are handcrafted, one-off pieces.

Gerry adds: “Some of our students do establish themselves as furniture makers, but we don’t teach any ancillary courses [such as setting up a business]. That tends to be a common model followed by similar woodworking schools elsewhere.”

Cap6&7&8 At the end of each year, the students’ work is exhibited at a Nelson gallery. Pictured left: Lorraine Moss-Smith’s ‘Standing Lamp’; American white oak and copper glass shade. Centre: Eliot Brand’s ‘Dream Steamer’ chair (English ash, Silky oak and brass). Right: Vanya Smythe’s ‘Epiphany Table’: matai and totara. Photos: © Daniel Allen Photography

Proficiency and creativity

The school’s flagship course, the Furniture Makers’ Programme, is an intensive 32-week immersion “intended for the serious woodworker”. The aim is “to teach students to become proficient in a wide range of technical woodworking disciplines” and to give them “the skills, understanding and confidence to design and develop their own work”.

For some it will provide the basis of a career in furniture designing/making … while for others it will be more of a personal journey to enhance their woodworking skills.

Split into four equal terms, the course includes an introduction to fine woodworking, cabinetmaking, toolmaking, steam bending and curvature, and chair making. In the final term students have an eight-week timeframe to create a piece of work that reflects the development of their design awareness and individuality.

Cap9&10 Left: Saul Parkinson’s ‘Blanket Chest’ (American ash, swamp kauri and Cyprus cedar). Right: Lance Palmer’s ‘Workbench’ – European beech and jarrah with pattern-maker’s vice. Photos: © Daniel Allen Photography

On display

Come the end of the course in December, the students’ work is presented at a gallery … an exhibition that always attracts a large number of visitors (students can choose whether or not they wish to sell their work).

Gerry elaborates: “We are fortunate to be able to work with Refinery Artspace, a not-for-profit gallery here in Nelson who don’t charge the market commission for selling work. Rather, they reduce it drastically to 10 per cent to encourage emerging artists.

“Students have gained commission work through the exhibition – we currently have three full-time students from 2018 working here at the school on commissions.”

Gerry says the school offers new courses every year, depending on who is visiting and their area of expertise. “Our programme is ever-changing and can be tailor-made. For example, if we are approached by a group of six people who say, ‘Can you do a carving course?’ then we make it happen. And we have been targeting the Australian market as woodworkers there see that what we offer is not available across the Tasman.”

She is unequivocal about the school’s evolution and status. “We are the best little woodworking school in the southern hemisphere.”

For more information, go to www.cfw.co.nz

Michael Smith


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