Master Craftsman

By Andrea Louise Thomas   Photos Yanni

There are very few people in Australia, or anywhere else for that matter, who can do the kind of work Richard Amy does. Most probably they wouldn’t even try. Though he would balk at the suggestion, Amy is a master craftsman in every sense of the term. To say he could make virtually anything from timber is a fair statement, but then he’s been working at it for over four decades. Without so much as a shop drawing he can visualise the finished project and then build it, provided the timber cooperates. He works with rare and recycled timber, which makes his work all the more interesting.

His love of woodwork began in high school. Academic subjects weren’t really of interest to him. He preferred woodwork, metal shop and sport. Working with wood particularly intrigued him. His first woodworking project was the family dining table. He started making other pieces of furniture in his Dad’s garage and this was the start of a lifelong passion.

“Wood is a great medium to work with. The grain never ceases to amaze me,” Amy says. He especially likes to work with reclaimed or recycled wood. Timber that people typically burn in their fireplaces is just the sort of wood he likes to rescue and breathe new life into. “The types of timbers I’ve been blessed to be able to use just through recycling are absolutely amazing – really beautiful – better than the stuff you buy at the timber yard. A lot of it is irreplaceable. Many of the sizes that people are burning are just not available anymore”, he says.

The techniques he uses today he’s learned predominantly on his own, but he also did an early apprenticeship in cabinetry. He really started to gather steam when he bought a joinery business in Hastings. By chance a fellow from Iceland, twenty years Amy’s senior, came into the shop looking for a job. Amy spent the next eight or nine years learning from him. “Though I employed him, I considered him my master,” Amy says with a laugh, “He would be the best I’ve ever seen.” Together they did lots of big jobs, such as fitting out the Stock Exchange in Melbourne.

“I’m still learning and I still make mistakes and that’s the best thing about it,” he says. “Timber is a natural product. If you don’t treat it right, it will come back and bite you. It will move. It’s alive. If it gets wet it will swell, if it gets dry it will shrink and split. Over many years you get different techniques, different designs, different ideas,” he says.

Amy doesn’t pick favourites; he likes making everything because the work is never the same. He does a lot of custom work primarily because people can’t find what they are looking for in the marketplace. Neither the quality, nor the size, nor the choice exists in a typical furniture store.

He’s had the opportunity to make some unusual things. One of the most interesting jobs he did was making huge wooden hot tubs for Peninsula Hot Springs. He had to experiment a lot to figure out how it was all going to work together and then test the timbers to see if they would hold water.

Coming from a Norwegian background on his mother’s side, Amy had always been fascinated with Vikings. From childhood he’d always wanted to build a Viking ship. So he contacted the University of Oslo, had some drawings sent over and embarked on building a ‘Gokstad’ – a 6.6. metre, four-oar replica Viking ship. He still sails it every summer. However the university sent three drawings and so far Amy has built two of the three boats. He respects the phenomenal skills and the perseverance of the Viking boat builders. “It took Vikings 600 years to perfect their vessels to the shape we know today,” he explained.

If he had to choose a favourite timber, it would definitely be sassafras. He loves it for its beautiful character. He does a lot of bookmatching with it because it has a fantastic grain, but it’s difficult to get now. It’s one of the rarest timbers in the country costing $14,000 per cubic metre. In Tasmania they recently discovered some sassafras trees at the bottom of a dam along with other rare species of wood. Those trees had been down there for several decades. He’s sourced his timber from some unusual places, but much of it has come from paddocks across the Peninsula.

Amy loves the Japanese style of building and crafting, but he also loves the simplicity of Scandinavian design. These influences are evident in his work, but he clearly has his own style. A Richard Amy piece of furniture speaks for itself, though he generously credits the timber. “The wood kind of directs you how to make whatever you’re making. It’ll tell you how it’s going to go together and the end look I suppose,” he says.

To become a master craftsman one has to have perseverance and stubbornness. Amy says great craftsmanship is about, “Not letting the piece of wood get the better of you. Not letting the wood win. Things always come out for the better. You gotta persevere and you gotta be patient and understand that you’re working with a material that can be unforgiving. You can’t let it get the better of you. Dovetailing by hand is the most difficult work. It’s interesting and intricate, but not many people would bother doing it these days.”

“The cabinetry I do is all one off commissioned pieces, a buffet or an overhead display cabinet or kitchen cabinets. I do a couple of kitchens a year for clients who want a particular style. When you open the doors you see timber. There is no white board. It’s not the cheapest way to do it, but it’s the best way. It’s all individual stuff. People order their own particular style for their own particular need. It may be a freestanding wardrobe, desk or bookcases with bookmatched ends.

His projects are always evolving. He’s not a man to stand still. To turn out good work, he says, “means thinking about design and how you’re going to achieve that look – that’s what making furniture is about – a lot of imagination. You’ve got to be a designer, but you’ve got to be a good machinist too.” Clearly, Amy has the skills. A trip to his Somerville workshop and a visit to his gallery can attest to that.