Respecting our resources: the Christchurch team working to save timber from landfill

A small but dedicated salvage team based in Christchurch, The Silvan started out life as an art gallery and café. When their building was lost in the 2011 earthquakes, the team came back fighting, shifting their focus to saving and repurposing beautiful timbers, hand salvaged from damaged buildings. Founders Debra and GT believe in minimising waste and reusing everything they can to make pieces that are practical, beautiful, and full of soul.


What do you make?
We make unique, hand crafted wood creations from hand salvaged Christchurch earthquake timber. The Silvan line up consists of our main maker GT, along with Josh. These guys make and finish our frames, with Debra making the final touches of backing, adding their story and getting them out into the world – every piece they produce has its origins recorded on the back. Yasoda Dulal created the sculpture that has become our icon. All of us have been involved in the timber salvaging and we all take the different rolls to achieve the final products.

Both our daughters are also involved, with Terryn setting up media formats, signage and business cards (helping to shape our look over the years), and our other daughter Jyr attending markets with Debra. We’ve also been lucky to have had friends and builders we know work with us to help salvage and sort, and share timber for their own use. We are passionate about the amazing resources we have been able to save and plan to keep creating until the final piece is used.


How did you get into your craft?
We started a demolition company in the 80s in Christchurch, called Ferry Road Demolition. This ignited our love for repurposing materials. By the early 90s GT had finished his studies at film school, and started his photography, and was about to have his first exhibit when he met Ray. Ray Hastie owned a workshop in Addington, Christchurch, and is an outstanding carpenter. GT asked Ray to help him create him some picture frames for his photography. Ray worked aside GT teaching him to create the frames and unknowingly started a completely new path for us.

In 2005 we opened up The Silvan, an art gallery café on Selwyn Street in Christchurch where we produced and sold the frames on site. Then unfortunately the February 2011 earthquake destroyed our beautiful 1800s brick building. Feeling a little lost and heartbroken we started Silvan Salvage to rescue beautiful timber and materials being liberally wasted and tossed into landfills. We worked hard with our small team for four years, hand salvaging what we could and storing it. We then had the opportunity to be involved in the amazing Whole House Reuse project, that was exhibited at the Canterbury Museum. We worked alongside some amazing people to completely repurpose a whole house, even down to some old socks left on the door step!

It really opened our minds to what we could be creating with all we’d salvaged and saved. We really started to branch out in 2017, trying our take on shadow boxes, trays, bread boards and even tables. We’re still coming up with new ideas daily and looking forward to where we can take The Silvan in the future.



Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?
Forty years in demolition and hand salvaging!

Your favourite materials, tools and processes?
Our favourite materials to use would have to be native New Zealand timbers. It’s such an amazing experience to be able to preserve and create, using such a precious resource.

Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces
We start off with the timber, decide what we are going to use it for, cut to size, nail and glue the frame together, sand down the timber (which sometimes excitingly exposes a history of layered paint colours, especially if we are using old weatherboard) and we then apply an oil wax coating. It’s left to dry, heads out of the wood shed to be glazed, the glass is cleaned and backing board applied. Lastly Debs adds the hand written provenance on the back. Then it’s ready for its new venture!

What inspires you?
Currently our inspiration has been coming from the exciting vibe of the rebuild of Christchurch. It’s all coming together as a new exciting city for our future generations. We’ve also always been inspired, in awe and astonishment, by the fantastic creatives we have been lucky to meet, work, and collaborate with on our journey as The Silvan.

Is there a philosophy behind your work? Recycle. Reuse. Repurpose.

We believe it’s so important to be reducing the amount of waste that is heading into landfills, and respecting and protecting the precious resources we have. It’s also very important to us to pass on the history of these amazing buildings and give them new life.



Describe your creative process: We like to let the wood do the talking.

Describe your workspace: Creative chaos!

Your favourite feedback from a customer
It’s really exciting and inspiring to receive photos back from people showing how they have used our work, often in ways we wouldn’t even think of. We also get a real joy from people contacting us from all over the world saying how special it is to take a piece of Christchurch with them.

What are you currently listening to?
We have on repeat a playlist we dedicated to our late friend Lindsay, which is a nostalgic look back at the music over our forty years of friendship. It’s got everything from our friends’ punk bands from the 80s, to The Rolling Stones, and some New Zealand artists like Rhombus and Trinity Roots.


Recommend an album: True by Trinity Roots.

What’s your favourite childhood book and why?
The Hobbit because it’s such a great story of the adventure of a lifetime.

What are you reading now? The Penguin History of New Zealand, by Michael King.

Who is your hero/heroine? Why?
Amelia Earhart because she was so inspiring, strong and confident and made waves all over the world.

A favourite quote: “Take only memories, leave only footprints.”

Tell us about your pets:
We have four cats we have rescued. Funnily two of them, a brother and sister, were found nestled up in one of our timber piles. We also have our team mate Max the demo dog who always seems to be asleep on the job and only excited for lunchtime.


What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?
Before you start, work out who your target market is and who your biggest competitors are.

Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?
We love to know we supporting hard working New Zealanders like us who are passionate and proud of their craft. Mindless consumerism and fast fashion is polluting our planet and striping our precious resources.

What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?
It’s really special to us that from something so horrific and damaging for Christchurch, we have been able to create something unique that will go on to have another life and be treasured while having its history remembered and celebrated. We also feel we are honouring the beautiful trees we use by giving them a true life cycle.

What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?
We purchased some beautiful soap by the Naturalus company at the Christchurch Arts Centre Market, all their products are made by a clinical medical herbalist who specialises in making everything natural and paraben free. They have very similar ideals to us and recycle and reuse wherever they can.

What’s in store for the rest of 2019 and the new year?
We have teamed up with The Hori art gallery in Otaki and have created some large beautiful frames for their Tame Wairere Iti art exhibit. We are also are super busy around this time of year with a lot of fantastic markets and pop up shops coming up and we’re rushing around finishing off orders for Christmas gifts. We’re definitely excited to see what 2020 has in store for us!

Prize draw for Felt readers!

The Silvan team have kindly offered a beautiful prize for one lucky Felt reader, of this gorgeous handmade kauri box (see below), crafted from timber salvaged from an 1800s farmhouse lost to the Christchurch earthquakes. To be in to win this gorgeous piece, leave us a comment below telling us what you love about The Silvan’s story and their work.

The draw closes at 5pm on Monday 9 December and is open to New Zealand residents only. Thank you team!


31 thoughts on “Respecting our resources: the Christchurch team working to save timber from landfill

  1. I’ve been buying things from Sylvan for a number of years, especially gifts for expats overseas. I am in love with NZ native woods and I love the idea that their products are reusing wood that was destined for the landfill. Deb and GT are awesome people with immense talent and who are always producing new and innovative products.

  2. I love that the silvan have taken material from such a horrible day and are making beautiful items out of them. As a cantab that has been living in other parts of NZ for years, I still prefer to support small NZ business especially Canterbury ones. The Silvan is one of my favs and I enjoy chatting to these wonderful people whenever I’m home and get to one of their Market stalls!

  3. I love how the silvan team make such beautiful creations out of the damge that the earthquakes caused. I love that the wood is rescued and not just dumped. There is so much beauty that erupted out of the city following the earthquakes. It was such a dreadfully hard time and it is a profound statement to make something so beautiful from the destruction. This contrast is what draws me to the silvans creations. I just bought a beautiful frame on the weekend (made from wood that was saved from a house in Emmett St) and gave it to my son as he left our city earlier this week to make a new home in Auckland. He was so touched as this piece represents so much of what he has grown up through, the beauty and the damage. Thanks so much for the work that you do and for what it represents.

  4. I love anything arts and crafts with a unique story… my mind is spinning with ideas of photography / art pieces I could create and display using these stunning salvaged timber frames …. I’m feeling super inspired!

  5. I adore all of the different pieces I have bought from the silvan, they are so unique and having a piece of christchurch history makes it all the more special. My favourite was a frame that used to be floor boards and still had stiletto marks in it, very cool! Absolutely love your work!

  6. I have recently returned to Aotearoa after about 12 years abroad, what has struck me most in the past few months is how passionate Kiwi’s, like Deb & GT, are in their craft and particularly in repurposing existing, beautiful, often native, materials that would have otherwise clogged our landfills. What stunning work you are producing and with a higher purpose to help save our planet for future generations.

  7. The Silvans work is wonderful, but the fact that they are reusing wood that would otherwise have gone to landfill is the best part of their story. They’ve given new life to these pieces of wood and allowed the beauty of them to continue to be seen. It’s nice to think that out of disaster has come something beautiful. I hope they keep this up, as in this time with the waste that is created, it gives people something to learn from and be inspired by. Rubbish is not always rubbish, it depends how you look at it!

  8. This story is so refreshing and uplifting. I am currently visiting relatives in Missouri (USA), a state that has just given up on recycling altogether. Everything goes into the trash – bottles, cans, etc. So depressing. This story gives me hope and the inspiration to do more.

  9. I love the thought and care that goes into creating each piece, the history and stories that must be behind each one, and the fact that the building might not be able to go on – but these pieces of craftsmanship can and will.

  10. Really appreciate how each piece has a history! Every year I visit Christchurch and love to see all the new additions to this exciting city. Parts of the old city buildings are priceless!

  11. I love your passion and resilience – you kept going and diversified. Your work is beautiful – bringing purpose and joy from something that was ruined. An inspirational story – well done.

  12. I am so excited to see this article. The Silvan Cafe was my local cafe and I have half a dozen of their frames gracing my walls. Post quake I never knew where they went and I missed their lovely cafe and work. How wonderful that they have kept going! Things produced by the Silvan have such a lovely atheistic and are so tactile and full of life.

  13. We went to the Encraftment Market recently and I purchased a frame which was from Avonside, where we used to live. I wish we had of thought to take some wood from our place when it was demolished but I thought this was the next best thing! Great work.

  14. I love how you are saving these gorgeous timbers and repurposing them. My dad always reused timbers when rebuilding and renovating, he would take all the old nails out and straighten them too.
    Your work is just amazing.

  15. Oh wow.. such thought, skill and beauty. True craftsmanship that is a privilege to own and use each day. Win or not, I will take pride in a beautiful tray that will grace my home.

  16. I love the unloved items you breathe life into and the fact that your business also came out of the upheaval of the earthquakes adapting to change creating something vibrant and new.

  17. Recovered timber from a heart breaking event, restored, recycled and ready to be re-loved. What most impressed me is that you know exactly the buildings where the timber once was. Love your work!

  18. I love that these beautiful old materials get to live a totally new life as something new, and that they aren’t being thrown away. Also specifically love the re-use of native timbers.

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