Friday 31 October 2008
Andrea Hargreaves finds out how to be a successful turner
A bad day for Mike Dean is one where there is no time to turn a hollow form. He'd had one of those the day before I visited him in his cavernous two-unit workshop at a rural business park a few miles from Hastings, East Sussex.
"I was making 300 apple cores for a conference," he says. "I'd given the customer a sample. She was made up with it and said she needed them in a week. That's what you get!"
But is Mike grumbling? Not a bit. His eyes gleam with the excitement of being able to keep his family of wife, Karen, daughters aged three and five and eight-month-old son on what he makes from woodturning. He says he is not the least bothered by the fact that he needs to spindle turn in order to be able to go on creating his first loves, hollow forms.
Always an opportunist, Mike exploits his abundant energy to grow a relatively new business that shows every sign of continuing success. Although he acts as the Production Manager for what is primarily a woodturning concern, he will tackle any job connected with wood, recalling that on a business trip to Birmingham he heard of someone who had some elm. "I got 77 pieces of burr elm - it's very unusual to get it now - and I'll probably use it for dining or coffee tables and leave the bark edges all natural."
This timber was stacked next to a 2.7m x 90cm (9ft x 3ft) burr oak refectory table which he said he would probably let go for £2,000 instead of a more usual £3,500, explaining: "I got the wood for a nice price; you can't be greedy."
Career pathWhen Mike was five his Dad bought him his first tool kit. He enjoyed woodworking at school, went to various woodworking shows and bought a small lathe, on which he did some spindle but mainly bowl turning.
A Youth Training Scheme placement where he did some woodwork led to employment by a joinery firm. "I spent nine years making window and door frames, conservatories, all sorts of things, and for the last three years I was there I was out on site fitting them. I learnt to deal with the customers and not to go flying through their homes with muddy boots on.
"It was quite an eye opener. I remember this job we did for two school teachers. When we got there - we were going to put in a window over the kitchen sink - the washing up was piled up to the ceiling. They'd said 'help yourselves to tea and coffee', but we had to wash up to get a cup. Now I would have just put it all to one side so we could start work, but the bloke I was working with got the Fairy Liquid out and did all the washing up for them.
"Most people are really nice and in three years we met some amazing people. I used to sell to these people. I always carried photos of my stuff.
"I was just looking in the local paper when I saw an ad for a turner with Chris Carver at Newhaven. That built up my experience and after 18 months I moved on to Creative Timber in Hastings for two years, doing all sorts of different things. Their furniture all had turnings as decorative features, like twisted spindles, farmhouse legs and coffee table legs."
While he was working for Creative Furniture, he made a big stand with wooden decanter and six goblets for a Wembley woodworking show. This was presented to the former President of Zimbabwe, Dr Canaan Banana.
Mike left Creative Furniture in 1998 to start up Barley Wood in a rented unit about three miles from his present premises. His business partner Mark Pryor, Treasurer of the Association of Woodturners of Great Britain, looks after the financial side of things, leaving Mike to do the marketing and making, with the help of an assistant.
They've been at Westfield for some two years and Mike says the units are ideal, being about four times the size of the old, and having double doors at either end to allow for easy lorry access.
Eight months ago he set up a web site which is now receiving around 540 hits a month. "It's not all jobs but 540 people have looked at the site and can see what we do. In the long term the internet is going to be very, very good," he says, adding: "Those apple cores came off it."
Bread and butterThe well-ordered workshop contains an exciting woodpile, shelves are filled with turning blanks, and collections of rather dusty hollow forms and lamp bases are stacked in corners.
"Turners say that not many people can do both spindle and bowl turning, but it helps if you can do all sorts. I can make tables and do most things with a piece of wood. It's quite handy when you can do all things. You've got to be adaptable. "I've just quoted a wholesalers for 1,500 candlesticks which they will take to different shows.
"Last night I stopped work and decided to do a bit of turning to relax me. I got a large lump of yew and then three hours was gone... but the bread and butter comes from spindle turnings from regular customers.
"If you can do all sorts, why not? Last year I sold a bowl for £2,500 to the London restaurant La Tante Clare. It was more satisfying to know it had gone there and that people are seeing it, than the money."
He has also worked for various celebrities including Anthea Turner and Nick Faldo. "I was being interviewed at the South of England Show and without thinking about what I was saying I said I had made knobs for Elton John," he recalled, wishing that in this case he had used the word 'handle' instead.
"Always push yourself forward," he advises. "Don't leave people to find you. Get out there and push what you do. When I set up I said 'I'm going to do well'. I'm pushing it as much as I can; if I don't keep pushing it and keeping my skills going I might not be able to do woodturning again. But that's not going to happen. I can't sit about; if someone says they want 500 newel posts by the end of the week then they've got to have them. Then the customers keep coming back. I look at it as if I am the customer. I treat them as I would want to be treated myself."
Taking risksMike and Mark started up with the help of a bank loan which Mike hopes to have paid back in a year from now. He recalls: "Cash flow was difficult at first, but if you don't take a gamble in life you never progress. I had to stick my neck out and I'm confident it's going to take off. If business slows up a bit I go out to see customers. Four months before Christmas I was working silly hours making tables and things."
His client base is mainly but not exclusively local. Most pay on delivery, but some of the bigger ones want 30 days to pay. "Only one or two customers are bad payers and I might have to wait a little while but I get it. They'll only do it once. They'll be asked to pay up front next time."
So is the life he has chosen making him happy?
"I don't think even if I won the lottery I could pack up entirely. I love turning the really big stuff. It's a bit of a challenge. You start off with a big log, put it on the lathe, start turning it away and a shape appears out of a tree, knots appear... like this bowl I did out of yew wood. It goes in and out. I mounted it on the lathe so I would end up with all those slots - the holes make it easier to turn; you can see inside and the shavings come out easily. Yes, I'm a happy man, with a beautiful wife and family that I can provide for."