Wanaka Furniture Design

Dave Millwater has worked in the furniture industry for some 30 years. Originally from England, he and his family came to the Bay of Islands in 2004, where he established his own business. Ten years later the family relocated to Otago where Dave started Wanaka Furniture Design. He currently designs and makes bespoke items, while also creating kitchens, bedrooms and bathrooms.

DaveMillwater1 Left: Dave Millwater favours traditional skills that he believes still work best. Right: Dave’s workshop in Wanaka.

Dave remembers that, as a child, he enjoyed making model aircraft from balsa wood and tinkering in his father’s shed. “I had access to a lathe and fruit wood from the garden. This gave me an appreciation of various timbers, the way they grew and the difference between hardwoods and softwoods.

“After leaving school, I started working in a little antique restoration business in the Forest of Dean. Learning about the restoration process sparked an interest in me to pursue a career in cabinetmaking.”

His eagerness to learn about the trade saw him embark on a three-year course at Brunel College in Bristol, where he obtained a City & Guilds 1, 2 & 3 in Furniture Studies. “The courses initially covered all aspects of the furniture industry – and then the focus shifted to studying and creating fine furniture.”

Dave’s first employment after qualifying as a cabinetmaker was at a company in Ross-on-Wye (Herefordshire), and then for Morel and Partners. “The majority of the work was making kitchens for stately homes and manor houses. And the style was very traditional … working with elm, oak and ash.

DaveMillwater3 Among the variety of work Dave undertook in England were benches for the British Museum and the altar for Bristol Cathedral.

“After three years I was offered a position at Fine Furniture Design in the Cotswolds. This was a bigger company with all nine staff having studied under the same lecturer at Brunel College.

“Here I was fortunate enough to have made the altar for Bristol Cathedral, benches for the British Museum, various pieces of furniture for the British Medical Council, and a vestry for Corpus Christi College, University of Cambridge. They were all projects designed by Luke Hughes of Drury Lane, London.”

He adds that the altar is the most technically challenging piece he has made so far in his career. “It was quite large and the base had to be built in four sections, so it could be moved from the nave to the Lady Chapel.

“Another technical piece I designed and made was the Grandview coffee table. This was inspired by the Grandview Range and had many angles, and mortise and tenon joints.”

DaveMillwater2 Left & bottom right: Grandview table, inspired by the Grandview Range, features many angles and mortise and tenon joints. Top right: The ‘I Beam’ coffee table in American white ash can divide into six side tables.

On moving to the Bay of Islands in 2004, Dave began his own business. “I like the autonomy of being in charge of the whole process of a project – from liaising with a client to delivering the final piece. That was the motivation to go out on my own. Some of the work I did at the time included making wine cellars, an oak library, bespoke kitchens and lots of free-standing furniture of my own design.”

Among the influences Dave acknowledges in approaching his craft are Scottish architect and designer Charles Rennie Mackintosh and English architect Edwin Lutyens. He is also an admirer of the Shaker style, mainly when it comes to designing kitchens. “I especially like the simplistic Shaker style of using peg rails to hang shelving, mirrors and curtains.”

Dave enjoys working with most hardwoods but his favourite timbers are Zebrano, wenge, walnut and all species of oak. “I take a great deal of time and care selecting the timber so the grain will complement the design.”

He enjoys the challenge of working with a variety of clients, and meeting or exceeding their expectations. “I like to have an idea of the space where the furniture will sit … to make sure it works for them aesthetically. It’s always nice to create something with a client that they’ve been looking for but can’t find – either in the wood or the finish they want.

“The same goes for my customers requiring kitchens. Generally they come to me because they know I can work outside the square and help them with their vision and design.”

DaveMillwater4 Left: Sliding barn doors add rustic charm to a home and save on space. Right: Island unit in oak (3.2 metres long and scaled up from a coffee table Dave designed). It features curved legs and breadboard ends.

Dave regards himself as very much a pencil and paper designer. “I definitely see the merits of using technology – and the tools that come with it – but up to now it hasn’t been part of my approach. All my furniture is handmade using traditional construction methods such as dovetail and tongue and groove joints – techniques of the master craftsman.

“So far it hasn’t been a problem with any of my clients. If anything, they admire and enjoy the organic process … and the mostly bespoke nature of my work. I consider myself a craftsperson and still favour the traditional skills that I believe work best.”

Dave says the nature of his work means he has no need for a CNC machine, but he does make good use of his planer/thicknesser and sliding table/panel saw with a scribe blade. “The planer/thicknesser converts rough sawn timber into neatly dressed pieces, while the sliding table/panel saw is important for accuracy when working with solid and veneered timber boards.

“I also use my spindle moulder for curved work with a ring fence. And it has a sliding table that’s useful for tenoning … plus a tilting spindle for bevelling.“

A lot of Dave’s work is generated via his website and Instagram page – but he is also out in the field showcasing his wares. “The best response we have had since living in Wanaka has come via our stand at the A&P show. We are fortunate to have had the same spot for the last five years, which means we get our regulars coming back. We always enjoy having a catch-up.”

As for his future business prospects, Dave says he would love to create his own range of furniture and gain wider recognition for his design skills. “The beauty of exhibiting at the show is that I’ve been able to gauge the interest in different designs.

“Currently, I’m in the process of building a portfolio. The pieces will include dining room tables, credenzas, bedside cabinets and coffee tables. And I am also designing an interior and exterior hanging chair for two people.”

He acknowledges that space is always at a premium in his workshop, so gearing up for the practicalities of the extra production involved in offering a portfolio will mean having to streamline his current processes.

Michael Smith