in conversation | bill blair

Bill Blair is a traditional wood craftsman based in Kakanui, a small Otago coastal town near Oamaru, in New Zealand's South Island.

He supplies garden objects with beautiful handmade trugs and rakes, using traditional techniques, and natural materials.

His objects are crafted from locally grown and sourced timber and produced in his little red shed.

Here he tells us about his life and his craft.



 1. Can you tell us a bit about yourself and how you came to be a traditional wood craftsman in Oamaru?

I was raised in North Otago on a sheep farm and in the fishing village of Moeraki. After my youthful travels overseas, which included working offshore on oil rigs in Scotland, slaughtering sheep in Scandinavia and riding my bike through Africa, I returned to North Otago to eventually become involved in the revitalization of the Victorian precinct in Oamaru. To support myself I fell back on my childhood love of woodwork and established myself as a maker of traditional wooden tools in a rustic red shed in the Oamaru harbour area.

2. Where did you learn your skills and craft?

My favourite subject at school was woodwork but it was not perceived as a “proper” academic discipline so I was sent off to law school at university – a wrong decision as it turned out. When I established my self as “Coppice Crafts” in 1997 it was with the moral support and mentoring of an old friend and fellow craftsman, Lindsay Murray. The rest was learning on the job – get on and do it – trial and error – much trial and lots of error. My thinking at the time was that playing with old tools, wood and trees will suit me for the rest of my life and I can learn a lot in the next half a century while making good stuff to sell. 

I am a great fan of the wonderful Centre For Fine Woodworking at Nelson and many people prefer the hands-on, group learning with a master craftsman such as John Shaw or David Haig there. But I enjoy pottering away in my shed and reading woodcraft books of which there are an ever increasing number. And now the internet allows one to communicate with and watch talented crafts people the world over. I have in recent years been visited regularly by an English, Sussex trug maker, Richard Bingham, whose daughter lives in NZ, and we bounce ideas off each other – Richard is involved with the promotion of traditional woodworking in England and is very busy at present after trugs featured prominently at the Chelsea Flower show.

3. Your work embraces traditional and sustainable production techniques and materials - is this something you carry across to all aspects of your life and way of living?

I’ve always preferred to support sustainable farming by buying certified organic produce, travelling by bike as much as possible and dressing in locally made woolen clothing and promoting all of these things as well as all the other things that can make human activity in the ecosphere more viable: renewable energy systems, tree planting and managing, avoiding materials that don’t compost, such as plastic. I get a joy out of a basic thing like shopping with the willow basket made by my local friend and fellow craftsman, Mike Lilian.

4. How does seasonality and local supply of materials effect your work and the products you make?

Both the above mentioned basket maker, Mike, and myself grow our own willow coppices and the main cutting of the crop is done in mid-winter when the leaves are down. This allows the maximum amount of time for the new growth to establish and harden up before the next years frosts. Other wood I collect or harvest from peoples’ gardens or woodlands and there can be some serendipity in this which makes life varied and fun. I have made a choice to use predominantly introduced tree species grown locally in my work to promote their use and small local wood millers provide sawn planks. 

The northern hemisphere, broad-leaf trees thrive on continual coppicing – some of the oldest trees in Europe are coppiced trees as they are less likely to be blown down in storms than untrimmed trees. Coppicing was a major part of the old European economy and technology development right up to the mid-twentieth century when cheap coal and petrol became the major energy source (arguably a major wrong turning for sustainability of the human economy).

5. Are you able to tell us a little about any new products or projects you are currently working?

I am so busy keeping up with demand that the long list of things to develop just keeps getting longer but I will be making more different shaped and sizes of trugs as I go. I also need to go on a study tour of crafty types and coppices in Britain when time and money permit – this would be best by sailing ship, of course!

6. And finally, is it true you ride a penny farthing on your daily commute?

I have been riding a penny farthing for sixteen years now but mainly for recreation and promotion of historic Oamaru as well as on our annual long distant tours each November. It’s not so good for transporting wood and tools so I use an old black, safety bike with a willow basket made by Mike for commuting between the town and workshop. (And, I cannot tell a lie, I also use a car and trailer.)

Above: Bill's rake and trug, both of which can be purchased at garden objects. Click here to shop.

All photographs are very kindly supplied by Philip Smith from O2 Landscapes

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