EMRJ Woodwork: bespoke craftsmanship from Wanaka
Jeremy (Jem) Culpitt describes himself as a self-taught maker of bespoke contemporary furniture who focuses on the “apparent simplicity” in a finished piece. He operates from his one-man workshop in Wanaka selling commissioned pieces – and some joinery – mostly to local people. “I’ve been working at this full-time for two years or so, and part-time before that for five years.”Jeremy Culpitt: “I love being able to focus in minute detail on a single piece … really sweating the finest of points.”
His attraction to wood and woodworking came via his father. “He was one of those classic ‘have-a-go guys’ in the 70s when I grew up – building and modifying our houses his entire life until he passed away last year. That had the effect of making me believe in the power of giving it a go.
“In 1996 I was teaching skiing in Vancouver, Canada and Dad met me there. He took me to the Museum of Anthropology at the University of British Columbia, where I saw Bill Reid’s First Nations sculpture, ‘The Raven and the First Men’. It stopped me in my tracks, made me question how he made it, and marvel at both the process and the outcome.
“I came back to New Zealand the following year and in Dad’s small domestic workshop I started carving – which ended up not being my forte, but I was hooked on making things from timber.”
Jem has spent most of his working life in sales. “I worked for Icebreaker for almost 10 years, with the final five years or so as New Zealand sales manager. It was a superb company with great people and a great product.”Oiled oak and black birch ply stool. The birch ply component comes in a choice of six colours.
Being based in Wanaka ended up being a problem when he was faced with the prospect of taking redundancy or moving his family out of town. He took the former and began working for friends who had a frozen food export agency based in Wanaka. “I was also making the occasional furniture commission for friends out of my garage workshop.
“The furniture making grew rapidly and soon took up every spare moment. Then I went into it part-time – one day a week. That quickly became difficult to manage and in 2017, when a 75-square-metre workshop space became available, I moved into making full-time.”
Jem says in adult life he had always aspired to being his own boss … “being able to manage things with a family in a far more flexible fashion, satisfying my sense of self-determination and having a creative outlet. It was also a case of do it now, or don’t do it at all. The part-time stuff had become almost unworkable, and working from the home garage was also not cool!”Oak and walnut bench seat with woven nylon paracord.
He gets great satisfaction from working with clients and developing their initial thoughts. “Most come to me with a problem to solve, images of what they’re after and some dimensional ideas. From there I use the SketchUp 3D modelling program to design more or less everything I make. It allows me to resolve most of the design problems on the computer and give clients much more accurate estimates for materials and labour. It also means I can sit with them and push and pull things to get to where they want … with no extra ‘cost’ in making those changes.
“SketchUp 3D has allowed me to push ideas so much further than physical experimentation could. In 30 minutes I can take a thought through to ‘seeing it’ and deciding how to progress.”
Jem received some financial assistance from a close relative, which allowed him to purchase machinery to expand his capabilities. “My Hammer K3 sliding table saw and A3-31 jointer/planer give me great confidence in the accuracy of my work. To cut a mitre and go straight to glue up off the saw is superb.
“And I love my Festool Domino machine, which I use for regular hidden joinery connections and to expose contrasting colour hardwoods – for example, in the anchoring of my woven bench seat or in-drawer boxes. I don’t have a CNC machine, but in a perfect world that would also form part of my toolset.
“I do plenty of chisel work … and hand planes too. Nothing can replace a sharp block plane!”Left: Three-door oak cabinet with negative details in walnut plus a hidden locking system embedded in the base. Right: American white oak stools, which feature tapered legs and a brass pin in the centre of the seat … a decorative detail where the four triangles meet.
Simplicity and perfection
He is a huge fan of Hans Wegner – the master of Danish chair design – and his emphasis on ensuring a whole piece is executed to perfection. “Wegner said you should be able to turn any piece of furniture over and still find it beautiful – something I’ve held onto. Mostly though, my work is clearly modern, with few curves, and as little obvious decoration as possible. The challenge is to make things appear simple, and to have the confidence they will last a lifetime.”
Jem makes a lot of furniture from birch ply, which he describes as “super on-trend. A bunk bed I make from the material is a very popular piece around Wanaka! I use a large-bed CNC machine at CABINETree, a local joiner, to cut and batch the birch ply components. Its accuracy is amazing to work with.
“Hardwoods I use tend to be mostly American white oak – which is a client-driven trend – plus black walnut, Tasmanian blackwood and kwila.“Most of my work is happily in use in people’s everyday lives around town. And I’ve also made retail counters for three stores here in Wanaka – Wilson & Dorset being a great example. I was commissioned to produce a white HPL on birch ply counter, large-format branding on the wall behind, and the shop’s exterior signage.”
Jem makes a wide variety of furniture, but regards seating as the most technically challenging. “I’ve got a stool and a bench seat that took a while to get right – both aesthetically and because you touch these things with your hands, and they interact with your body constantly. If they’re not perfect they fail in their purpose – and clients notice those things.”Left: Oak end grain chopping boards. Right: Tasmanian blackwood table with powder-coated steel leg assembly from Metalworks Wanaka.
Taking care of business
He is now concentrating more on furniture and less on joinery. “I am extending my range, and working with local retailers and direct to customers. I love being able to focus in minute detail on a single piece … really sweating the finest of points. There are already a lot of amazing joiners here in Wanaka … and while the occasional large-scale project like a kitchen is fun to dive into, I do love having one thing on my bench at a time.”
Business-wise, Jem is making increasing use of online opportunities. “The Instagram world is an incredible place of learning and ideas, and I’m constantly amazed at how many people share such specific information about how they make things.
“To date, work opportunities have come almost entirely by word of mouth – but slowly I’m getting more website and Facebook enquiries as I invest more time and energy into my online presence.”
To see more of Jem’s work, go to https://emrj.co.nz
– Michael Smith
All images © Jeremy Culpitt