Hands-on woodwork conjures memories of wonky tables and misshapen pencil holders fashioned on the fly in high-school woodwork class. Even if that’s all a distant memory, it’s not too late to tap into the rewards working with wood can bring.
Whether you’re idly chiselling a decorative spoon in the backyard or fashioning expertly composed oak barrels to store high-end whisky, a respect and appreciation for this simple but complex material is key.
Ahead of The Makers by Maker’s Mark, a hands-on craft workshop in Alexandria, Sydney, centred around the elements of wood, water, wheat and wax, we talk to two experts who bridge the gap between small and large scale woodwork.
With more than 30 years in the wine industry, Darren Lange has dedicated the latter half of his career to “coopering”, the specialised art of barrel-making.
In 2010 Lange founded Master Cask, which distributes a boutique portfolio of oak barrels and by 2014 had begun his own cooperage, Tasmanian Cask Co., which now makes roughly 120 barrels a week for various distillers of wine, whisky and more.
“Barrel-making is more than 2000 years old,” says Lange. “It’s one of the very few tools we use in any industry that has that sort of history.”
Coopering emphasises the power of oak. Beyond just a storage vessel, the wood’s properties are essential to creating the taste of the liquid inside. “All of that beautiful golden colour in whisky comes from the barrel,” says Lange. “As well as typically 50 to 60 per cent of the flavour.”
It means a cooper’s role goes beyond just crafting a well-made barrel. “Our role is to consult closely with the distiller to understand what style of whisky they’d like to produce,” says Lange. That means sourcing a distinct oak, then coopering accordingly, which includes “charring the barrels to bring out the specific flavours the distillery is looking to achieve.”
Lange says not all wood can do all things. “Oak is really the only material that can be used [for distilling],” says Lange. “It’s impervious to liquid, [plus] the fibres mean you can actually bend the barrel into shape. You couldn’t use most of our Australian hardwood to hold liquid, because of knots or grain orientation.”
It’s this kind of knowledge Lange will share at The Makers by Maker’s Mark, both in discussion and demonstration. While the barrels that impart Maker’s Mark whisky its caramel and vanilla flavours are exclusively made from air-dried New American Oak, their importance to the finished product – such as being hand rotated to control conditioning – is a concept innately understood by Lange.
As for what a newcomer to wood might learn from a cooper? The importance of moisture. “For anyone using any sort of wood to build anything [structural],” says Lange, “you need to make sure the wood has been moisture stabilised.” This is done by drying the wood first or treating the wood to ensure its moisture content remains even. “If you don’t, you might create a perfect join or build something only to find it [warps and becomes] a different shape and structurally compromised,” says Lange.
The bespoke teacher
Using stabilised wood is less of a concern for Peter Trott. Based in the regional Victorian town of Lauriston, Trott teaches woodworking, specifically spoon-carving classes and bespoke workshops at nearby Rundell & Rundell in Kyneton.
Trott started tinkering with wood as a kid, making his first spoon at “around eight years old.” Two years ago Trott ditched his day job as a set dresser in the TV and film industry to focus purely on his passion for hand-making wooden objects.
Rather than the high-end oak needed for barrel-making, Trott uses simple “green wood” when carving – timber recently cut or felled and more malleable than dry wood. “Green timber is as you would imagine it coming off the tree,” says Trott. “We don’t just put it through a big saw mill and haphazardly saw it into planks. We’re actually taking it from the tree and working it into objects.”
Trott says the variety of green wood and where to get it comes down to what you’re making. “If you’re just making spoons, green wood could be as close as your backyard,” he says. These include fruitwoods like apple and pear, which are traditionally used for smaller carving. “I also use a lot of sycamore, which is a beautiful, white, crisp timber.”
How do you know if it’s green or dry? “Timber takes a long time to dry out, so it can still be green two years down the track if left inside a big enough log,” says Trott. “If it’s splitting severely at the end, like a piece of old firewood, that’s a telltale sign it’s dry. Green wood will also be a lot heavier than a dry bit of wood.”
While you might not need a kitchen stocked with handmade wooden spoons, this hands-on approach will teach you the fundamentals. All you need to make something as simple – and useful – as a spoon, is an axe and two knives, says Trott. Just a few more will make small pots and vessels for salt or flour.
“Grain direction, the use of blades and edged tools on timber – they’re all things you have to learn to get comfortable with [woodwork],” Trott says. “That simple knowledge is part of what really draws me to it. It can set you up in really good stead for general woodworking, if you want to take it further.” Plus, it’s also just a satisfying use of time. “People get a real thrill out of working with their hands, being able to improve their skills and make a really beautiful object,” says Trott.
This article is produced by Broadsheet in partnership with Maker’s Mark. Hear more from Darren Lange about working with wood at The Makers by Maker’s Mark – a bespoke workshop experience in Sydney exploring four key elements of the iconic Kentucky bourbon: water, wood, wheat and wax.