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NZ centre for fine woodworking keeps working

As it turns out, the old, dying tree from Queens Gardens that the council gave to the Centre for Fine Woodworking is in fact a particularly rare Cyprus cedar, the oldest of its type in Australasia. Source: Stuff NZ

The tree, one of the first planted by European settlers in Nelson, New Zealand 132 years ago, was becoming dangerous.

Its wood, more than four cubic metres of it in milled form, now sits stacked at the school in Wakapuaka, drying and almost ready to be planed, shaped and given new life as many beautiful pieces of furniture.

Centre manager Helen Gerry says the cedar has already been put to use in slab form, as tables at an al fresco party to celebrate the centre’s 10th anniversary last month.

She hopes the wood will be able to be crafted into something suitable to give back to the people of Nelson, although in what form she doesn’t yet know.

Over its years of operation as New Zealand’s only full time woodworking school, Ms Gerry has seen many creations from the woods they source from near and far.

Students at the centre, based in a hangar-sized workshop just north of Nelson where kitchen units were once made, have produced side tables, chairs, chessboards, lamp stands, cabinets, jewellery boxes, and guitars.

One graduate of the full time 32-week Furniture Makers’ program planned to make tiny houses.

The school is set up as a not-for-profit charity and is funded by grants from the Rata Foundation, Dick Roberts Community Trust, other philanthropic support and student fees.

Ms Gerry says this means the trust that runs it has been free to implement a curriculum that is nearly 100% hands-on.

She says the only downside of not being NZQA-certified is that prospective students can’t access student loans, but the upside is the absolute passion and commitment of those involved. She says the feedback shows the model is working.

“We’ve got a huge network of students from all over the world. People think really highly of us.”

The practical basis of the courses is a great leveller.

“We’ve got high-court judges, the best hand surgeon in New Zealand … mingling with boat builders and somebody who’s done one carpentry course.”

As the school moves into its second decade, Ms Gerry says the courses are changing to appeal to different markets.

While the most popular course remains the beginners’ weekend workshops, they also offer intensive guitar making, chair making, table making and “build a cabinet-maker’s bench” courses.

The school has also started running an 8-week intensive course, which tends to appeal to people from overseas who are in the country for a limited time.

Ms Gerry says the first course has attracted students from Brazil, India, Alaska, Singapore and Hong Kong, alongside one from New Zealand.

Master classes are offered by furniture-makers well-known in their own right, including Nelson’s own David Haig and John Shaw, alongside Canadian Michael Fortune, American Brian Reid and Australian David Upfill Brown.

Ms Gerry says passing on the knowledge from people of this calibre is an investment in the future of furniture design.

“They are all in their ‘60s, they have so much experience and knowledge, and they are a dying breed. That generation who learnt in a really hands-on way will disappear,” she said.

“There are lots of great emerging teachers but these guys have 35 years of furniture-making experience.

“You can’t learn these skills anywhere else.”