Upton Oaks: handcrafted furniture from Marlborough
Dave Monahan is the owner and driving force behind Marlborough-based Upton Oaks, a furniture manufacturer dedicated to designing and making fine handcrafted pieces. He spoke to Michael Smith about realising his dream job – working closely with clients to create bespoke items that cover the whole design spectrum … from classic rustic to contemporary.Dave Monahan in his workshop: Upton Oaks creates bespoke items from classic rustic to contemporary.
A carpenter by trade, Dave recalls his initial interest in wood (rather than woodworking) came via his grandfather – a bridge-builder who lived in the small town of Ikamatua on the West Coast.
“I remember his woodshed – not timber, just good old West Coast firewood … red beech sawn at the local Ikamatua sawmill. It was there that the sweet aroma entered my consciousness and it’s never left.”
At the age of 16 Dave was “encouraged” to apply for a job as a carpenter for the Post Office. “Well, that’s what I thought I was applying for. As it turned out it was for an apprentice carpenter’s position with C. Lund & Son actually building the Post Office!
“I endured it to the end of my apprenticeship and couldn’t get out of the trade quick enough. Boxing and pouring concrete just wasn’t doing it for me. Funny thing was … I had it in my mind that carpenters would be working with wood. Who knows where I got that idea from!
“Anyhow, after three or four years away from the trade I actually did return to work on residential house building for a while. Surely these guys must work with wood. Well, perhaps a little bit more – but if treated timber, gib board and Pink Batts are what you’re after, carpentry has it by the truckload. Not to mention more concrete!”Left: Chair and carver in oak … upholstered in velvet. Right: American oak cross-base coffee table: compound angles, a mitred frame top and mid-dark antique finish.
After two attempts at his ‘trade’ Dave still had a huge desire to work with wood. “By now I was married [to Sue] and living in Blenheim. Our circle of friends included a furniture maker by the name of Peter Thwaites. The very first time I visited his workshop, I was absolutely smitten!
“Where do I start? This place had it all. Honestly, I didn’t know where to look first. It was a treasure trove full of amazing things and my senses were exploding! There was machinery like I’d never seen before, gadgets and jigs hanging from everywhere, boxes of brassware, bundles of turnings, and this amazing boiler/heater that he called the Stanley steamer … amongst many other incredible things.
“And the aroma … woods I had never seen or smelt before. This place was truly amazing, and I just knew this was it! That’s where it all started for me. Thank you, Pete.”
Not long after, Dave had the chance to work alongside Richard Boyce, a boatbuilder by trade who had also visited Thwaites’ workshop. “We were a great team, both mad about woodwork – well, to be honest, ‘furniture’. And we just couldn’t get enough of it. To this day, I have never found anyone as passionate about furniture as we were at that time.
“Richard said, ‘I’m not going to employ you. But if you’d like to work alongside me in the workshop, you are welcome.’ This opportunity gave me the start I needed with my new-found love of furniture making.”Oak cross leg dining table.
Taking the plunge
Dave says he had always wanted to be in business – preferably self-employed in one way or another – and there came a time while working alongside Boyce when he decided to go it alone. “In June 1990 I took the bull by the horns and went for it. I started by working from what is now our dining room.
“Over the years we have employed up to nine skilled and enthusiastic craftsmen at any one time. Some of our guys had been trade trained in other professions, like our ‘baker’, Neil. This didn’t concern me terribly as the main ingredient I was looking for was enthusiasm.
“My ‘baker’ ended up becoming my top guy and foreman, and stayed with us for almost 20 years! He was instrumental in training and guiding many guys through their furniture-making apprenticeships. And he instilled a great work ethic that came from many years of very early starts and long hours in the bakery trade.
“Today we are much smaller and only employ two tradesmen on the floor along with myself. I believe in upskilling our guys to be adaptable across all facets of the trade from timber selection to making, and through to the finishing processes. We have found this to be a winning formula for developing well-rounded craftsmen.”
Dave says the Upton Oaks catalogue covers everything from glazed cabinetry and kitchen/joinery to coffee tables and bookcases. “But dining tables would have to be our favourite. We seem to have carved out a bit of a niche with them – especially very large and incredibly heavy ones.”
The firm has also done some commercial work in the form of display cabinets and shelving. And he is particularly proud of the restoration work he undertook for Laurella Cottage – self-contained boutique accommodation in the grounds of his family’s property just outside Blenheim.
As for the ‘materials’ of his trade, Dave sees beauty in all timber species. “Those early days had me working with timbers I’d never seen or even heard of before – like elm, Cupressus arizonica, Lawson cypress and walnut. Everyone had heard of oak and rimu, but to be handling those sorts of timbers was something new and special.Left: Bespoke kitchen and stools. Right: Oak Marseille table with breadboard ends, available in a selection of sizes.
“If I had to pick one timber that hits the note on every level, it would be oak – any oak. It could be New Zealand-grown English oak, French oak or even American white oak – I’m not fussy. It’s just a great timber that represents so much history worldwide.
“My first love was for oak country furniture, especially from the very early oak periods. It’s simple and unfussy … good honest furniture. I had the privilege of visiting England on a couple of occasions and just loved viewing the likes of Shakespeare’s family homes around Stratford-upon-Avon. The age and character of these pieces is mind-blowing. To think that they have endured centuries of use and still look great is just amazing!
“It’s a style that has influenced me and has, in turn, influenced the designs we’ve made over the years.”
He says that, as a result, Upton Oaks’ methods initially veered towards the traditional. “Our brand was built on antique reproduction and therefore required some fairly traditional skills such as hand turning on the lathe, spoke shaving and lots of hand planing … before sanding by hand and applying oils and waxes to create the desired finish.
“Today we have had to develop many more skills across the board. It’s quite normal for us to be making a modern contemporary piece that requires clear clean timber and such precision that you’d think it had popped out of a computer-generated machine! It’s a far cry from the beaten old oak pieces that we cut our teeth on.”
Dave adds that, lately, Upton Oaks has been restoring more old furniture. “It has become quite normal for a client to turn up with a box of wooden bits and say, ‘This is a chair we’d like to be restored.’ We sometimes think to ourselves that they’ve got to be kidding. But they’re not!
“We love a challenge and to date we haven’t been beaten. You just take it a step at a time and eventually you complete the job and say, ‘Wow … so that’s what was in the box!’”Left: Georgian entrance console – features turned legs, and raised end panels and drawer fronts. Right: Entrance sideboard in American oak – finished in a combination of very dark stained black and light black washed top.
He is a firm believer in working closely with his many clients nationwide. “They can be so trusting of my designs. That comes from getting alongside them and working through all their expectations of a commissioned piece. I like to think I’m a pretty good listener and can visualise what they have in mind without too much trouble. That’s the key, along with getting it down on paper for them to sign off before we start.
“This is where my ability to draw comes to the fore. I’m still an old-fashioned paper and pencil guy. I wouldn’t know where to start with computer-aided drawings! I like to be as flexible as possible and try not to have any preconceived ideas. After all, our customers want something special, which is why they’ve called on us.”
Dave says that from a business perspective – after many years of liaising with retailers – it is much easier dealing directly with clients and getting paid for items before they leave the workshop rather than, at times, six weeks later.
“But the main thing is the rapport we build with customers and the way they come back to us time and time again. We have a policy of making sure they are totally happy with not only the end result, but the whole process from start to finish.”
For more information, go to https://www.uptonoaks.co.nz
– Michael Smith
All photos © Dave Monahan