When Tony Wells works on a table, set of drawers or a front door, he meticulously crafts every piece of the timber until it reaches its final destination in a home where it will be cherished. He developed his talent at Old Malton, North Yorkshire, making traditional and contemporary furniture with native English timbers.
“I had an interest in furniture and I’ve always been artistic. I liked working with my hands, so I started designing furniture and got cabinetmakers to make it,” says Tony. “I needed to know how it was put together so I understood the constraints, and that was how my furniture making started.”
Tony brought his craftsmanship to New Zealand five years ago and worked in boat building. The country’s luxury yacht industry gave him an opportunity to further his experience in bespoke custom-built furniture and fittings. However, demand dwindled as the industry diminished and Tony returned to his roots operating his company — Dovetail Designs NZ.
“In the UK, there’s a big market for [bespoke furniture]. It’s all traditional — the buildings are traditional and they want furniture that’s the same.
“Here the market is completely different. It’s much more contemporary, which is dictated by a lot of the homes that are built at the moment.”
His furniture has unique features that make it stand out from mass-produced merchandise. A table made with New Zealand grown ash has a cross-banded black totara inlay, which highlights the inherent beauty in nature.
“The totara would have been in a river for about 50 years and it goes a lovely black colour. This particular figuring is nice, which you don’t often get in totara.”
It could only be attached by hand in small strips, which takes numerous hours and nothing is simple with curves. Everything is hand-shaped, and mortise and tenon joints are used. It’s difficult for Tony to know the exact man-hours invested, but he uses estimates to ensure he makes a living.
Solid timber, unfitted kitchens have a niche market in Auckland’s timber villas, although they would also add character to a newly built home with traditional bones.
Tony designs everything on paper, saying he doesn’t have time to get his head around computer design programmes. It’s also difficult for the detail of bespoke furniture to be accurately demonstrated with modern technology.
His Silverdale workshop is an orderly balance between machinery and hand tools. Using hand tools takes longer, but it’s the best way for Tony to achieve a perfect fit. His clientele are looking for a kitchen or a feature door that they know is unique and handcrafted. “You make the hole and then make the drawer to fit the hole. I’ve always done it like that.”
“I’m getting used to New Zealand woods now. It’s a pleasure to make something and see the effect it has on people. I like using classic European hardwoods too, but I try to get them New Zealand grown.”
The cooler South Island climate is more like conditions in the UK and produces timber with a closer grain. The timber is readily available whether it is home-grown or imported, and Tony stores it in racks until it is suitably dry.
Walnut logs are currently air-drying and will be put into a kiln before Tony can cut them up to make something.
He has a couple of totara planks, which he says are too precious to use on a whole piece of furniture, so he will eventually inlay it into numerous pieces.
“Some of the woods you can pick up are really attractive. Even if it’s a small amount you can incorporate it into a bigger piece. A lot of wood has a story with it too.” In the UK, Tony was machining the cross section of a tree trunk and hit a piece of metal. Suspecting it was a nail that had ruined a blade, he was frustrated by the inconvenience. However, when he discovered it was a centuries old gunshot, he loved telling stories about the timber’s history.
Different sealants are used, from oils and waxes to polyurethane, dependant on the client’s request and the use of the furniture.