J SMITH WOODWORK
Jo Denbury, Features Writer
Tucked away in the valley that houses Corton Denham and Sandford Orcas is a lazy lane of slothful curves and leafy hedgerows brimming with wild flowers. At this time of year it is a joy to behold. Down a bumpy track, through a yard and into an ancient dairy building, we find Jamie and Rhiannon, a young couple quietly living life on their terms while working doggedly hard to build their business. >Fortunately, ‘work’ to Jamie and Rhiannon is also a joy. Together they set up J Smith Woodwork and have barely paused for breath since its launch last summer. ‘To be honest, I am just doing what I love,’ says Jamie who, since leaving the Gryphon School with his A levels 8 years ago, has been honing his craft as a cabinetmaker.
‘I grew up in Bradford Abbas, where my father was a gardener. My love of working with wood came about as I began building things using his off-cuts.’ Jamie explains. ‘First it was just ramps in the woods, then friends started asking me to make bits and pieces for them.’ Later, while watching from the wings as his parents had a new kitchen fitted, James was inspired to pursue carpentry as a career. ‘I asked the firm if I could do work experience with them. They took me on for six weeks and I stayed for five years.’
It doesn’t come as a big surprise to learn that carpentry is in Jamie’s genes as he shows me faded sepia photographs of his great grandfather stood outside his own carpenter’s workshop. Jamie still uses some of his great grandfather’s well-worn tools. Handling them they have a balance and weight that is hard to find nowadays. Jamie has also caught the eye of contemporary toolmakers Axminster and Triton, the latter sponsoring him to give talks and carpentry demonstrations both here and abroad (an arrangement that ensures Jamie remains ahead of the curve in terms of the industry’s latest equipment and technology).
Jamie and Rhiannon’s decision to go self-employed was not taken lightly. They have invested heavily in making the workshop fit for purpose but are glad to have given the otherwise derelict farm buildings a new lease of life. Filled with that wonderful scent of freshly sawn timber, their workshop is a hub of creativity. Working with largely recycled and certainly FSC timber, they source all their materials locally so that they can be sure of its provenance. Their preference is to work with oak, ash or walnut. Using time-honoured and trusted techniques, Jamie makes sure every kitchen he builds has a hand-finished quality that will last for life. Frequently he is commissioned to produce a kitchen from a client’s sketch. ‘I love a challenge,’ he says, unfazed. ‘I was asked recently to produce a >curved island for a minimalist kitchen near Shaftesbury,’ he laughs. ‘That really was a challenge but the client was very happy with the end result.’
Attention to detail is clearly something close to his heart. I notice a pair of simple stools standing on a workbench. Their design is minimalist, restrained, but on closer inspection I realise that each seat has been finished with a delicate, flush oak butterfly. Rather like an embroidered cuff on a dress, it is something that isn’t instantly obvious but then draws the eye. ‘I particularly like working with Ash,’ he adds, ‘there is just something about its grain and texture.’ Rhiannon is often the one who oils the wood after the piece is finished and is careful to give each piece three coats in a raw oil that will not colour the wood. ‘I prefer to avoid that “orange” fake tan finish that can sometimes be created,’ she adds.
Rhiannon brings her love of interior design to the process. ‘As a child I was forever decorating and rearranging my room,’ she laughs, and her eye for furniture and design has been a guiding force in their work. ‘I am still learning the skills,’ she adds. Recently she has produced a number of chopping boards with copper detailing and a series of wooden ‘doll’s chalets’ which promptly sold out (she promises something new for the autumn). Her latest project is a skateboard in black walnut striped with purpleheart – an unusual wood that is quite dull when first cut but develops an aubergine colour as it ages.
Jamie admits that his favourite part of the job is working with a product of nature. He is happy for a project to be informed by the shape and patina of the material’s raw design. It is on the contemporary platforms of social media however that their business thrives. Serving as both showcase and journal it draws commissions for the couple from across the UK. As Jamie humbly points out, ‘Rhiannon brings our business to life online and that keeps me busy in the workshop’. They make for a great team - Rhiannon, sharing their work with the world, helping now to rearrange other people’s rooms. And Jamie, as happy today as he was making ramps in the woods.