Craftsman keen to pass on his expertise
David Mead is a master craftsman and highly experienced woodwork teacher who regards old-fashioned craftsmanship as food for the soul. He founded the Auckland School of Woodworking in Onehunga as a means to pass on his woodworking expertise and to promote connectedness, personal achievement and patience.David Mead: teaching woodworking skills to promote connectedness, personal achievement and patience. “The training I received back in the fifties and sixties was the best New Zealand had to offer.”
“The training I received back in the fifties and sixties was the best New Zealand had to offer … and I felt a strong obligation not to take my skills and talent to the grave.”
Mead says his parents and grandparents were practical, hands-on people with skills that were quickly passed on to him. “I started off making model boats – just cutting a point on the bow end and maybe angling the stern corners. And then I would nail around the perimeter and use fuse wire to create the handrails.”
He would go on to have skills-based lessons at the Porirua Manual Training Centre – and still has a paint-flecked three-step stepladder from that time.
Mead was a foundation pupil at Mana College in 1957 where the emphasis was initially on hand skills. In his fourth form year, theory came to dominate – including tools, borer and timber drying. “I made a two-seater piano stool with lift-up lid and cabriole legs … and even upholstered the seat.
“In the fifth form we learnt how to build a state house from start to finish – including the foundations, setting out the timber framing, making staircases, kitchen cupboards, etc., and accommodating roof loads via load-bearing walls.”
He was also introduced to some basic surveying and technical drawing skills/principles, which led him to begin work in an architect’s office in 1961. “I did just over three years there, but realised I wasn’t suited to sitting in front of a drawing board for the rest of my life.”
Learning a trade
At 23, he began a cabinetmaking apprenticeship at Drexel Furniture in Johnsonville. Just over a year later he transferred to J.W. Backhouse Ltd where he would learn about solid timber construction and veneer work … eventually completing his Advanced Trade Certificate in Cabinetmaking in 1968.
“The apprenticeship system was brilliant. Much of what I learnt wasn’t necessarily used in the furniture trade back then. But the in-depth knowledge stood me in good stead for later work I undertook.”
Over time he has sensed a dumbing down of apprenticeships. “Inevitably, the old chaps who had a wealth of knowledge and understanding of materials and techniques are no longer around. But, hey, their knowledge isn’t needed to create MDF kitchen cabinetry … which might last 10 years.”Left: Corner wall unit with entertainment facilities, bookshelves and display areas. Top right: Recycled kauri cabinet – 10mm-thick door panels float in the frame. The bottom rails of the doors hang for grip to allow them to open. Bottom right: French oak two-drawer bedside cabinets, before staining and polishing.
Although Mead says his teaching career was something that just happened, he always felt a strong need to pass on his knowledge. “Even as I was undertaking my trade certificate, I was invited by a tutor at Wellington Polytechnic [Ted Campbell] to teach first- and second-year students at evening school.”
After completing his teaching diploma in 1971, he would teach woodwork and technical drawing at secondary and tertiary level – notably at Selwyn College, and Penrose High School and the Auckland Technical Institute (as they were then known).
In later times, Mead made good use of his skills to create interior joinery for superyachts, and custom-made furniture for residences and offices. “I’ve worked in a number of boatyards over the years. For instance, I got the job of making 27 doors as part of the complete refit of the three-masted schooner Shenandoah, at McMullen & Wing in 1996. The doors were made from padauk – a hardwood that came from West Africa – with not a nail in them.
“I also made the tables, doors and three chairs on the ocean-going Sea Toy, by Warwick Yacht Design.”
More recently he has made everything from a two-drawer, curved-front basin unit with glass top … to a corner wall unit with entertainment facilities, bookshelves and display areas. And he has just completed a pair of Danish-styled, two-drawer bedside cabinets in French oak (for a retailer in Newmarket).
Working the grain
Mead says the oak is easy to work, as is kauri and red beech from Southland. “Kauri is firm enough but workable as a timber to teach techniques; and beech was used a lot at Wellington Polytechnic.
“On the other hand, rimu is demanding, being short in the grain. It’s easy to lose a corner or an edge. And I have no time for pine. The winter growth is so hard, while the summer growth is spongy – the complete opposite.”
He says that where a piece of furniture might sit plays an important role in choosing a species. For instance, our harsh sunlight can often mean light-coloured timbers are most appropriate.
Mead is happy to acknowledge his eclectic tastes and influences – which include Shaker furniture, the Arts and Crafts movement and Danish design – but that, always, craftsmanship is the key. In the 1980s he was fortunate to share his workshop at Selwyn College with two distinguished furniture makers, Alan Peters and James Krenov. The former was strongly connected to the Arts and Crafts period, while Mead says Krenov’s work is particularly appealing “because of his honest use of materials, the fluidity of his designs and his use of traditional cabinetmaking techniques”.Examples of his students’ work. Left: American ash chair. Right: American cherry wood desk with waterfall effect (logical grain flow).
Mead’s courses at the Auckland School of Woodworking include the sharpening and maintenance of hand tools; seasoning timber and understanding its movement; hand veneering and inlaying; and assembling and finishing an item ready for polishing.
His teaching emphasises hand skills but with some input from machines. He operates the dimension saw and spindle moulders on behalf of his students, and also helps with their designs by ironing out any technical faults.
“I am not trying to compete with the Nelson campus [the Centre for Fine Woodworking] where they teach to a very high skill level. I just want to give people the chance to get started and go from there.”
For more on David Mead and his woodworking courses, go to: http://aucklandschoolofwoodworking.com
– Michael Smith