Everyday poetry: the Ōtautahi woodcarver combining beauty with utility

John Robertson of Wood and Chisel crafts beautiful wooden homewares from his Ōtautahi Christchurch family home. His work is a response to the absence of beauty and meaning in modern day mass production. His mission? To create beautiful and useful objects with unique pieces of reclaimed timber, to bring moments of joy as we go about our everyday activities.

What do you make?

I love making small carved wooden items that make our lives more enjoyable – it could be that you’re measuring out coffee in the morning with a hand-carved tōtara scoop, or displaying a sculptural bowl made of walnut, or stirring a pot of soup with a mataī spoon. 

How did you get into your craft?

I have enjoyed working with wood since a really young age but as I have grown older, and have discovered carvers around the world, I have moved into carving kitchen items and wooden spoons.

Over the last five years I have found carving to be a really enjoyable relaxing creative outlet. In our busy lives, it’s nice to make and complete something that is tangible and usable.

Do you have formal training or qualifications in your craft?

When I left school I trained as a furniture maker and worked in that industry for about five years. I picked up carving through trial and error (and a few YouTube videos!) 

Your favourite materials, tools and processes?

I love it when people pass on some special timber. I’ve been given kauri from an old church, walnut from dead trees and storm-blown timber from the big storms up north last year. The swamp mataī rescued from a new Christchurch subdivision by a good friend has been the most amazing timber to work with. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work with this rich chocolate-coloured timber. 

My favourite tool is a 1950s bandsaw that weighs a ton and looks very cool. I’m always a little nervous using it but it is a piece of art in itself. I also have a particular gouge that is super high quality and a joy to work with. 

Tell us about some of the techniques involved in producing one of your pieces

I make my pieces with a mix of modern power tools and traditional hand carving. 

I begin by band-sawing out the shape and removing as much of the timber as possible. Once I have the rough shape I move to the hand carving tools to refine the shape. I often do this while sitting outside with our dog and the neighbours dropping by to say hello. 

I find the mix of new and old techniques a great combo. I’m not sold out to either modern or traditional approaches, but use whatever gets a great and enjoyable job done. 

What inspires you?

Wood is in itself inspiring – how it looks and the different colours and grain that are within it. 

I also really like seeing and hearing people enjoy the finished products. Watching people pick up a piece, look at it, and enjoy it is pretty cool. That gives me a bit of a buzz that keeps me working away on my craft. 

Is there a philosophy behind your work?

Yeah there is. It’s a pretty simple one. I think most of us are surrounded by everyday objects that lack beauty and creativity. Things that we have no connection to. In response, I create beautiful objects with unique pieces of reclaimed timber to bring moments of joy as we go about our lives.

What has been a highlight of your maker journey so far?

Two things really.

I was super happy when I got my first sale on Felt to a complete stranger in Wellington. It’s a nice feeling to sell to someone who is not a friend. You know then that someone values the work and not just helping you out.  Of course, I appreciate friends buying too (in case they are reading this).

Secondly, late last year I was approached by North and South for the Meet their Maker spot in the mag. That was a really fun experience. The editor that interviewed me was really great and I had a interesting afternoon and kōrero with Hōhua Kurene the photographer sent around to take photos of my space. Pretty grateful for that experience. 

Describe your workspace:

Our family live in a small flat in Christchurch that has a one car garage. We kind of decided it was a waste to park a car in a garage when that space could be used for something creative. So that’s where I work. It’s small but it is amazing what can get done in a small space when you put your mind to it. ‘

It’s great to share the space with my son who makes kids wooden toys in his spare time. He sells his stuff on Felt, too: tuitoys.

Your favourite feedback from a customer:

I have a customer from the West Coast of the South Island that regularly buys from me and has dropped over to pick things up and say hi. Not only has he bought products, but he has donated some bits of tōtara timber. This was his last feedback. I think it’s pretty cool: “Our fourth scoop from John. Fabulous work and a very nice bloke.”

What are you currently listening to?

I’m really into audio books and the odd podcast. I find that listening to an audio book helps me both carve better and listen better. They work well together. Recently I have been listening to great books: Anxious People by Fredrik Blackman and The autobiography of Martin Luther King Jr. I’ve been following a Scottish podcast called “We are makers” that interviews independent makers from around the world. Well worth a listen. 

What’s your favourite childhood book and why?

Treasures of the Snow by Patricia M St John. It’s a classic. It’s also what got me into carving when I was young. 

Who is your hero/heroine? Why?

I’m a big fan of Martin Luther King Jr. Few people can move me with their speeches like he can. A remarkable man. Secondly I’m a fan of Mother Teresa. Her commitment to caring for those living in poverty is pretty significant.

A favourite quote:

Mother Teresa: “Not all of us can do great things. But we can all do small things with great love.”

Martin Luther King Jr: the “I have a dream” speech. It’s worth listening to once a year I reckon. 

Tell us about your pets:

We have a very cool black cavoodle dog. I wasn’t that excited about getting a dog and it kind of just happened but I’m well and truly converted now. 

If you were a crafty superhero, what would your name and superpower be?

“Gouge”. Sounds painful and sounds like I could do lots of damage to bad guys!

What would your advice be for those starting out in a crafty business?

I think give it a go and see what happens. Felt is an awesome way to test what people think of your work and if they would want to buy it. Use Facebook and Instagram to show what you’re up to and how you make your work – take people on your journey with you. Learn to take great photos and video. 

I also decided to aim to sell things and improve my skills as I go rather than demand a good price at the beginning. That way I could sell things slightly cheaper at the beginning, but have the opportunity to get my skill level up. I have found better prices come as my skills improve.

Why do you think it’s important to buy handmade and/or locally made goods?

When you buy something handmade you get the chance to invest in that person, and invest in their skill development. You know where it came from, what it’s been made with, and the skills used to make it. There is a closeness to the product that doesn’t come with mass produced products.

What does it mean to you when someone buys your creations?

It makes me really happy that someone likes what I’ve done and appreciates the beautiful timber it’s made in. 

What was the last handmade item you bought and what attracted you to it?

It’s an odd one but I just bought some Common Good Coffee. Roasted by hand, two minutes walk from my house and tastes so good. I know the roaster, love the product, and love where the money goes when I purchase the product. 

What’s your favourite item in your shop right now?

I do like my coffee scoops. I think they are pretty special and a pleasure to use. They make lovely gifts. I like the dried flower vases too. They are a super fun thing to make which really show off the beauty of the timber. 

What’s in store for the rest of 2023?

I’m keen to get back to my furniture roots and start making some side tables and shelves. Got a few cool designs on the boil there. I might also look at building a new workshop in a 20ft shipping container but we will see about that one. The year seems to be getting away on me a bit so that probably is wishful thinking!

Special offer for Felt readers!

John has generously offered Felt readers 10% off any of the beautiful creations in his Felt shop, when you enter the voucher code WOODANDCHISEL in the voucher code field at checkout. This offer is valid throughout the month of October 2023. Thank you so much John!

One thought on “Everyday poetry: the Ōtautahi woodcarver combining beauty with utility

  1. This interview made me feel good.

    Deep respect for the carver and appreciation for the beautiful creations from wood. And the photographs are wonderful.

    I carved a wooden spoon once, and loved doing it. Now this article has me thinking of returning to carving wood.

    Thanks for running this.

    Brian Sulkis

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