Ken Wills: patience, expertise and a lifetime of experience

Based out of his small workshop in Wanaka, master craftsman Ken Wills has some 40 years’ experience in the joinery and furniture industries – and a family background in the trades.

KenWills1 Left: Ken Wills specialises in restoration work and creating one-off pieces of furniture from his workshop in Wanaka. Centre: French doors leading to a wine storage room. Right: Barn door project: one of four made for the same client.

“My grandfather was a builder/joiner and my uncle was also a joiner. Later in life I was told that I used to collect all the offcuts that we played with at kindergarten and take them home. I would always be trying to make stuff out of them.

“I also enjoyed woodwork more than metalwork or any of the other similar classes at high school, and soon developed an interest in the joinery trade.”

Ken completed his four-year apprenticeship at John Jackson’s in Timaru (no longer in existence), where his uncle, Norm Wills, was the factory manager. “I owe him a lot for introducing me to this craft. In those days we made a variety of solid timber items – stairs, windows, doors.

“Several years after my apprenticeship, I moved to Brisbane to play rugby – a lifelong passion of mine. I started working for a company doing shop and hotel fit-outs. That’s when I first became interested in furniture pieces and items for the home.”

On one particular job, Ken was asked by his boss and a client what he would do to fill a space. “I told them my ideas and then sketched them on the wall. The client really liked what I came up with and agreed to go ahead. That encouraged me to believe this was something I could do in the future.

“A couple of years later, when I moved back to New Zealand, I started my own joinery business … but very quickly got sick of doing repetitive modular kitchen units and began to give furniture more thought.

“I made a few pieces for my own house and visitors would often comment on them – so I started to make items and advertise them for sale, and things just took off from there. That’s basically how Ken Wills Furniture started and I never looked back.”

KenWills2 Left: Refurbished and repaired table and chairs originally made for a customer 20 years ago. Centre: Oversized barn door under construction in Ken’s workshop. Top right: Restoration project – recycled matai flooring timbers were used to create this table … paint splattered from its former life. Bottom right: Detail of a new oak table – finished with a hand plane to create a ‘worn look’.

Initially Ken was at Pleasant Point (a town inland from Timaru), working out of a small workshop, before he bought into John Jackson’s. He quickly learnt a lot about running a business, and eventually decided to go out on his own.

“I rented some space from another joiner, but soon moved to a larger workshop. After about three years I built the fit-for-purpose showroom and workshop at 300 Hilton Highway, Washdyke. By then I was expanding the operation and ended up employing up to 25 staff, including salespeople for the showroom.

“I generally took on younger guys and trained them … but we had a good age range in the workshop with varying skill levels, which ensured we were capable of producing a wide range of furniture.

“The style I was making at the time really resonated with people. Bedroom furniture, sideboards, dining tables and coffee tables were all favourites. I tried to stay on trend by making small changes to my basic pieces, as advertised in the Ken Wills Furniture catalogue.”

After a busy 25 years running his own business, Ken decided to look for new challenges in life and work. (The business would continue following a merger and rebranding.) “I took some time out to travel and to work as a rugby coach overseas.”

He thought long and hard about where he would like to settle next and decided on Wanaka – always a favourite spot. “After moving here, I opened a small workshop where I now do one-off pieces … mainly through word of mouth, walk-ins off the street or via my website or local advertising.

“I have been really lucky to have many repeat clients who recognise me from my time in Timaru, and who bring in others on recommendation. People are always welcome to visit the workshop.”

Ken is really enjoying the variety of his current workload – from barn doors and floating shelves through to refurbishments, specialist wine rooms and more. “No two jobs seem to be the same in Wanaka, and I hope to continue as I am now – creating bespoke items that people can showcase in their homes.”

KenWills3 Left: Made-to-measure floating wall unit. Right: Bedhead made for a client who had seen a wall constructed in a similar manner.

When it comes to working with clients, Ken says the key is to be a good listener. “Only then do I suggest how to make an item look balanced and aesthetically pleasing when finished … and to get that stamp of distinctiveness.

“Some people want me to come up with a piece to suit a particular space and basically give me a free rein. Others have a firm idea of what they are looking for and I will involve them every step of the way.”

As a working material, Ken says he can’t go past New Zealand kauri. “It’s a beautiful timber to shape. In fact, I like working with all native timbers for their colour and decorative grain.”

He adds that American white oak is in vogue and a big favourite with customers. “You can do a lot with oak texture-wise and it can have many different looks depending on the stain.”

Ken says he has witnessed many changes in the furniture industry – most notably the proliferation of cheap imports and the fact that many items are now made by joiners. He acknowledges that CNC machines and the like will always have their place in a production sense – but he’s now more than happy to take advantage of the hand skills he acquired early in his career to create one-off, beautiful and functional pieces.

“Most recently I have been doing refurbishments for people who have had my items for 20 years. I can restore or reshape and restain them, and they will comfortably last another 20 years.

“Previous clients had a 10-seater dining table that I made in 2004. I reshaped the turned legs into tapered legs, changed the edge of the table top from a round to a splayed edge, reshaped the tops of the chairs, and sanded and restained to achieve a more contemporary look.

“I have also taken a six-seater table and extended it to a 10-seater, which was a bit more challenging!

“It’s great seeing pieces that have stood the test of time given a makeover while still retaining their original character.”

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Michael Smith