Furniture maker combines precision with creativity

Ross Nicholson always had a yearning to find a niche for himself in life, but it would take until his mid-thirties before he truly found his calling.

Clash 1 Ross Nicholson’s increasing passion for detail and precision sparked the thought of making furniture. Photo by Hayden Warren Visuals.

His interest in wood and woodworking came some time after completing his schooling. “I remember making a treasure chest in my Form 2 woodwork class, but that’s about it. I sort of stumbled upon building much later … and saw it as a way of starting my own business and working for myself. That was the point when I came to realise I enjoyed working with timber.”

Ross began his apprenticeship at the age of 23, and after six months or so was doing a lot of finishing work. “I started out working on renovations that, for the most part, were old villas in which clients were trying to re-establish the period features. It meant working with a lot of rimu skirtings and architraves, fixing matai floors, etc. I guess that work – and my increasing passion for detail and precision – sparked the thought of making furniture … but it would be almost 13 years before I acted on that.”

Clash 2&3 Left: Currently some 90% of his work involves machining … “even to the point where my next big purchase will be a CNC machine”. Right: Working from home (Hataitai, Wellington) in his double garage keeps overheads to a minimum. Photos by Hayden Warren Visuals.

New possibilities

He already had his own building business when he decided to take the plunge and make furniture. “I stumbled across Kingpost Timberworks’ YouTube channel and began to watch Joey Chalk do his thing. He mentioned in one of his videos that he used to be a builder but had to pack that in because of ill health … and whilst at home he decided to make a few things.

“Seeing his progression really opened my eyes to what was possible. I decided to reach out to him and try and figure out if furniture making could be a possibility for me. We ended up chatting and he basically told me to just get on with it. So I did.

“Joey and also Jem from EMRJ Woodwork in Wanaka have probably influenced me the most. I’m only two years into making furniture and those guys have helped me see what’s possible with a bit of time.

“I was really disillusioned with building, so it didn’t take much of a push to put me on this path. I had a double garage and figured I would throw caution to the wind and give it a whirl. Worst case scenario … I’d just go back to building.”

Current focus

Ross says that at this stage of his career, he is focusing on custom-made items. “I think this is part of the reason I’m still around … because I’ll make anything from kitchen cabinets to designer chairs.

“I always ask my clients to bring in or send me a picture of what they like. From there I take the dimensions and do CAD designs that encompass the style clues they indicate. A lot of my clients don’t really know what they want design-wise – so to some extent I get to impart my style into their piece. I also have my own designs which I’m hoping to get a chance to produce, to supplement the work I do now.”

Jeweller's desk The most challenging piece Ross has made so far is a jeweller’s desk – fashioned from solid oak.

Technical challenge

The most challenging piece he has made so far is a jeweller’s desk – fashioned from solid oak. “The desk is 2m long by 700mm deep by 1.2m high with 19 drawers and four catch trays – a very specialised piece which took me four weeks to build.

“For half of the time it felt like I was standing there scratching my head looking at it. I’m not classically trained as a joiner, so I have to learn on the spot … teaching myself as I go, without the luxury of getting it wrong. The desk was the first time I’d attempted bent lamination, which to date is probably the most specialised technique I’ve used.”

Ross says that one-off chairs are the most technically difficult things to make. “A designer I was contracted to commissioned me to recreate a pair of an Australian designer’s chairs. Reverse engineering things from a single picture is hard at the best of times, but these were out of control. I got there in the end, and had to redesign them to work … but it’s just one of those things I do. I just have to figure it out and get it right first time.

“I think this is where my building background helps as I constantly have to work through potential problems – in my head and on paper – before I even get to touching anything.”

Currently some 90% of his work involves machining … “even to the point where my next big purchase will be a CNC machine. I love what I do, but it is a business at the end of the day and time wins over passion at this stage.

“Because I’m creating a wide variety of things – which have to be made relatively quickly – I don’t have the luxury of fully teaching myself how to dovetail or hand-flatten a table top.”

ClashGroup Left: Ross focuses on custom-made items, but still gets to impart his style into a client’s piece. Right: Recycled rimu kitchen server made from a sleigh bed.

Favourite species

He is a big fan of Scandinavian furniture and especially its application in American white oak. “It’s so hard wearing and stable, making it an easy choice for me to suggest to my clients. Also, it’s relatively well priced and takes stain well, which makes it really versatile. Plus it’s sustainably grown, which is always a big bonus.

“Oak and ash have been staples for me since I started and I personally like a vibrant grain pattern that you get from a crown cut piece. I’d be inclined to say if you are concerned about the ‘distraction’ of a strong grain pattern, maybe timber is not the best medium for your purposes. Each timber has its own unique brand of drama – and that drama should be a marriage with form.

“Along the way I’ve also found kauri and elm – probably the easiest on my machines and to work with. But kauri, especially, is very soft so longevity is always a concern. I like to think the pieces I make will stand the test of time.”

Clash Group2 Left: Recycled rimu credenza. Right: Folding solid oak tables for the Thistle Inn, Wellington.

Business direction

Ross gets much of his work via his website and increasingly by word of mouth. “I do work for three interior design companies and I have been on https://builderscrack.co.nz since I started out two years ago … so between all of those I get a steady flow of work. Through some 5-star reviews on Google I’ve managed to make it to the top of the first page for furniture makers in Wellington.”

He chose to strike out on his own as a furniture maker for job satisfaction. “If this path can sustain the lifestyle I have now, then that’s great. With no major overheads as I work from home [Hataitai, Wellington], and no staff to look after, I feel I’m in a comfortable spot.”

Ross says that, from a practical business standpoint, the purchase of a CNC machine will be like a one-off payment for a highly skilled and efficient worker. “Right now I take all my panelled stuff to a kitchen maker friend of mine to get cut … so it would be nice not to outsource that process.”

The machine will allow him to achieve perfect repeatable cuts, quickly and methodically. “It means I can do a huge range of things from kitchens to lampshades. Creatively, it will open up opportunities to cut solid timber pieces, and possibilities that are only restricted by my imagination.

“If I can get to a point where I can make my own designs, and also produce custom pieces for people and sustain a good family-work balance, then I’ll be winning.”

For more on Ross Nicholson and his work, go to https://www.clashfurniture.com

– Michael Smith

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