A HERTFORDSHIRE CRAFTSWOMAN WITH A PASSION FOR RECYCLING BRINGS NEW LIFE TO DISCARDED PLANKS AND PALLETS
A pile of timber is stacked outside a wooden workshop beneath an evergreen tree. Planks of wood of varying age, condition and length, are all heaped together. A few feet away lie piles of pallets, drying in the Hertfordshire sunshine. It is all castoff wood that has outgrown its original purpose.
In the careful hands of Vicki Brand, it will re-emerge sanded, polished and converted into useful furniture. At her workshop near Hatfield, she specialises in bringing new life to this worn out, unloved wood. Nothing goes to waste. “I use anything I can lay my hands on,” she says. “I’ve developed a good relationship with farmers, workshops and scaffolders who have wood for me.”
New life for wood
Finding new uses for old wood is a passion for Vicki. “Pallets and scrap wood are cut up and burned at building sites. It seems such a horrible waste to discard it,” she says. “It might have come to the end of its original purpose, but it can continue to be useful.”
Her enthusiasm for breathing vitality into unwanted wood began when she moved to a small cottage in Hertford four years ago. There was only a minimal amount of storage and she failed to find furniture that matched the dimensions of the space available. She had never made anything before but believed her practical nature would enable her to produce her own furniture. “I used an old crate to make a trunk that fitted my cottage,” she says. “It was unique and looked good. Next I wanted a corner cupboard for my bathroom. I cut up an old cupboard my parents were about to throw away, and remade it. I now have several of my own pieces at home including shelving units, storage crates, a side table, coffee and kitchen tables.”
The decision to turn her hobby into a business came just over two years ago, after making a coffee table for her mother. “Some friends saw it and wanted one. As people saw what I was making, orders for bespoke furniture started arriving. That’s when I decided to create my own business.”
She has no formal furniture-making training, but has benefitted from her father’s advice. “Dad is good at carpentry. He inspired me, and has been an excellent teacher,” she says. “Now I prefer to learn on the job and figure out solutions to new problems. I started off making trunks, then I moved on to kitchen tables and picture frames. Last year I made a picnic table.”
Building a workshop
For the first 18 months, she was based in her parents’ garage. Then in January this year, she built her own workshop on the site of her family’s horticultural business. “It took me three weeks to build, including re-concreting the floor. Old fence posts were used for the corners. I made the window frames with glass from an old greenhouse.”
The large doors on the wooden structure were built from an eclectic range of planks. When they are tied back, the sun’s rays penetrate the building. They allow her to wheel her machinery outside to use.
Light shining through windows in the roof illuminates the work surfaces within the L-shaped workshop. Curled wood shavings line the floor, while layers of wood dust coat every surface. Dried-out wood awaiting reinvention is piled up against one wall. Nearby, a dustpan and brush are propped up next to wall-mounted storage boxes housing nails and screws. Next to them are rows of ordered and readily-accessible hand tools. “I have extremely sharp chisels for fine work and an extremely good router for picture frames. This creates an indent for the glass to sit in,” she says. Many of her tools are recycled, including her router which came from a builder, and a mitre saw from the family nursery. Her most expensive tool is a bench saw that cost £500. This motorised circular saw is mounted beneath a worktable, with the blade protruding through an opening.
Cleaning the wood
When the wood first arrives, it needs a considerable amount of work before it is usable. Much of it has come from building sites. Old screws must be ground off, tar and spray paint purged by a sanding process. The nails and screws are recycled, and used to hold the furniture together. The pallets are pulled apart with a long-handled implement her father made. “I use leverage with the tool and my body weight to break them up. By the time I have finished, they are not recognisable as pallets,” she says. Pallets that come from building sites have hardened patches of cement on them, which is removed by sanding. Vicki repeatedly sands and polishes the wood, until it is unrecognisable from its origins. The scaffold boards are used for the large pieces of furniture such as tables. The pallets become signs and legs.
Old scaffold wood, usually pine but occasionally oak, is durable. Ageing and being exposed to the elements causes the planks to turn grey. Uneven recycled wood requires sanding by machine to level it out and create a flat surface. Despite splits and knots, by investing sufficient effort, she restores them to a standard indistinguishable from new wood.
Working by instinct
One of her pieces is a coffee table with crossed legs, built with scaffold planks. “I select flat sections for the table top then leave them outside for two weeks so the sun dries them out. This is essential as wet wood shrinks when put together,” she says.
“Tar and cement are removed with a grinder, followed by three stages of sanding. To start with, I use 80 grit sanding paper. This has the roughest finish so removes more. It is followed by the finer grades, 120 then 240. After each stage, the wood becomes smoother and more suitable.”
Vicki often relies on her intuition when creating her pieces. For the coffee table, she works by instinct to create the angles for the legs. “I know the angle I need because I’ve been taught to do this by eye.”
However, before she cuts the plank which is to be used for the top of the table she takes careful measurements. She does this twice to ensure they are accurate.
“Once the plank is cut, I screw the top into the legs. Once finished, the table needs a final re-sand because of the holes drilled for the screws. I use a fine 250 grit for this. Then I apply two layers of beeswax by hand. It takes two days to complete a table like this.”
Vicki’s growing knowledge and experience help her solve more complex problems. “Before I would have wondered how a crate was put together,” she says. “Now I can look at a big piece of furniture and know what I need to do. I won’t make something that I wouldn’t want in my own home. If I make a mistake, I learn from it.
“Usually I just go ahead and make the furniture. Sometimes, however, more precision is needed. Intricate pieces have to have the angles and dimensions right so I might sketch them out first.”
Experimentation is crucial in generating the right image for her furniture. Vicki makes paler pieces for customers who favour a driftwood appearance. Her darker, stained, waxed wood has a rustic look. Unable to obtain large, black bolts for dark furniture, and to match the ironmongery, she found a way of ageing new ones by dipping them in gun blue. This liquid is used to protect steel against rust, and results in a blackening appearance. “The darkening effect is instant,” she says.
“I design everything and make it from scratch to order. Using new wood would be quicker, but I can renew something old, giving people furniture that is unique,” she says. “The wood is so interesting and no two pieces are the same. The grain and worn areas enhance each item.
“The wood is harder to make things with because it has been thoroughly exposed to the elements. But it is very fulfilling to be able to turn something that is knotty and no longer used into functional, bespoke furniture, giving it a new lease of life.”
Words: Sandra Smith Photography: Clive Doyle
The feature about Vicki Brand's woodwork originally appeared in the Nov / Dec 2015 issue of LandScape.
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