Wood you believe I made it myself!

When Benchspace threw open their doors for a workshop in woodcrafting, MARIA ROLSTON jumped at the chance. Here is how she got on...
Wood you believe I made it myself!
Maria Rolston at the Benchspace workshop, Marina Commercial Park, Centre Park Road, Cork. Picture: Jim Coughlan

IF you’ve ever wanted to make your own furniture but didn’t know where to start, or have even thought about taking a piece of uncut wood and turning it into something else, now’s your chance.

It’s not something I personally had ever really thought about, until I was recently invited down to Benchspace in Cork.

I’ve always admired beautifully handcrafted furniture and have a strong but uneducated appreciation for handmade designs, but woodcrafting is complex and hard work and should be left to skilled experts, surely, I thought!

My husband, on the other hand, had a very different viewpoint. That became apparent before our wedding, earlier this year. We had been planning a DIY style day, in that we had booked a venue where we were going to put up a big stretch tent and were organising the entire event ourselves.

The tent (beige in colour) lent itself nicely to a variety of styles: dressy, with traditional white tablecloths and smart chairs; or rustic, with wooden tables and furniture, possibly even benches.

We decided the ‘rustic’ option was more reflective of our personalities and personal style and would add to the relaxed style of wedding we wanted to host but it was proving next to impossible to find nice wooden furniture for hire that was either affordable, accessible or that we liked in the Cork area.

“I could make the tables myself!” declared the groom, without the slightest hint of self doubt.

I scoffed in retort. “The wedding is in six months! You’ve never made anything in your life! Let’s just go with the traditional round tables with white tablecloths and individual chairs,” I replied.

The truth was, I did not believe it was possible for anyone without any experience, let alone my husband-to-be, to take on such a mammoth project and produce the required amount of furniture for such a big event within such a short time frame — especially when we had so many other pressing things to do. I ridiculed him for even suggesting it, I am ashamed to say.

However, self belief and determination won the day. Husband-to-be got in touch with furniture making teacher, Sean Breen, at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa, who advised him of two things. Firstly, yes, it was possible for someone who had never made any furniture to produce enough tables and benches to seat 150 people within a three month time frame, and secondly, that plans were afoot for the opening of a shared workspace in the city called Benchspace, where furniture makers and craftspeople could access workbenches and space, industrial standard tools and machinery along with expert guidance and advice.

In the end, Benchspace didn’t open in time for husband-to-be to avail of it for the pre-wedding furniture making project. But with the help and generosity of some new crafty friends and a neighbour who lent them the use of a shed, the rustic wedding furniture making project got underway and was completed over the course of a few bank holiday weekends between April and June 2017. Collaboration, creativity and community spirit combined to make the project a success and I apologised publicly at the wedding for ever doubting my betrothed. We were all seated at lovely rustic tables that he had made by hand, after all. He had satisfied his creative urges, put his own stamp on the wedding and proved me wrong.

Maria Rolston at the Benchspace workshop.  Picture: Jim Coughlan
Maria Rolston at the Benchspace workshop.  Picture: Jim Coughlan

Fast forward a few months and the doors of Benchspace opened in Cork’s Marina Park, following a crowdfunding campaign. My now husband signed himself up for their first beginners furniture making course, with a view to improving the design of the tables and benches he had already made and exploring his new found craftsmanship.

A few months later and entirely by chance, I myself received an invitation through work to take part in a Benchspace workshop especially designed for people with no woodcrafting experience. The idea was to make a simple gin holder or wine valet (which I quite liked the sound of) within a few hours under the instruction of Benchspace tutors and take our work home at the end of the day.

I laughed at the irony of it all. Was it possible that I too could try my hand at woodwork and make something both useful and aesthetically pleasing? I doubted my own creative ability but said I’d go along and try it out. Hadn’t my other half proved that anything was possible?

And so the day arrived. I turned up at the workshop to meet eight other (mostly female) aspiring woodcrafters who had never done any wood work before. We were introduced to Benchspace co-founder and furniture making teacher, Fergus Somers and furniture designer Martin Horgan, who were to be our tutors for the day, along with facilitator David Scannell, an IT professional with a background in law who got involved with the Benchspace project as a creative outlet from his day job.

We were given a detailed run through what to expect in the four hour workshop and shown examples of the end product. A display table was laid out with sample gin / wine bottle valets, each holding a stylish bottle of Kinsale Gin and two glass goblets. Kinsale Gin had kindly come on board as workshop sponsors and we were all promised a bottle and two glasses of said product at the end of the class, giving us extra motivation to complete the project!

First we each selected a piece of wood. I went for a thick cut of yew, replete with sap lines, knots and bark. We then practiced cutting, under Martin’s guidance, using a flexible Japanese saw before measuring and marking out the points where we would drill three holes for the bottle and glasses.

The design was simple and perfect for beginners and before we knew it, we were lining up to use the power cutters, wearing goggles and earmuffs, to drill the different sized holes in our wood.

The glass / bottle holder was starting to take shape and I was beginning to feel like a pro, though admittedly, Martin, David and Fergus kept a watchful eye on us all and ensured that our work didn’t go off course. Once the holes were cut they offered to shape the edges for us using another powered device but we were left to sand and oil the finished products ourselves and voila! We each had an individually hand crafted gin / wine valet that we were all personally very proud of.

I was delighted with my efforts and showed off the end product to all the family when I got home. My husband was suitably impressed and even suggested that we go back to Benchspace in the weeks ahead and make a few more pieces as Christmas presents.

We toasted the idea over a glass of well earned Kinsale Gin that evening and booked ourselves in for a Benchspace Bites Scandinavian Christmas Decoration Making Class this Saturday.

Why not join us? There are two sessions available on Saturday December 9, from 10am - 1pm and 2pm to 5pm, where the Benchspace tutors will guide participants through the process of making beautiful wood shaving decorations that can be hung from trees or around the house. It’s an opportunity to get crafty this Christmas and if I can do it, anyone can.

*See www.benchspacecork.ie or Facebook.com/BenchspaceCork for more.

MORE ABOUT BENCHSPACE

Benchspace co-founder, furniture maker and tutor, Fergus Somers said: “Furniture maker Sean Breen and I wanted to create a space where people graduating from our furniture design course at Colaiste Stiofain Naofa would be able to start their own business. The cost of setting up a business is very high but when a number of people come together to share the costs, it becomes possible.

“Sean had been in Melbourne, Australia and had spent time working in a woodwork space that was a lot like this. There are a lot of these type of spaces in London, Holland and the U.S. They’re part of a maker movement but they’re also part of a creative economy where partisans, designers and technology people can share ideas and innovate.

“This is Ireland’s first shared access woodwork space and it’s been really successful since we opened last summer. A big part of the idea is create a space where people can meet and work together but also to provide equipment and facilities where people can test out their ideas.

“Our long term is to create a number of shared workshops here in Cork. We’d really like to see a digital making ‘fab lab’ type of facility, with laser cutting and 3D printing here in in the city and we’re working on that.

“We also started classes to engage with the public and encourage people to come along and try out wood work and craft and there has been a huge response to that as well. The people who are teaching our classes are skilled and experienced professionals and it’s important to us that they’re paid for their time and expertise, so there are fees involved so that the project can keep moving forward.

“Ultimately, we’d like people to know that there are excellent craftspeople and designers here in Cork. They can be hard to find some times so we want to give them a front door so that people can come down to Benchspace and have quality work made by excellent craftspeople or come and make it themselves.”

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