Our latest 'Introducing Orkney's Makers' feature focuses on Fraser Anderson and his Orkney Hand Crafted Furniture business.
What was it that initially fired your interest in traditional, Orkney furniture?
I’ve always been interested in making things and working with wood fascinated me from an early age. I remember sitting in an Orkney chair as a child and just thinking it was the best thing ever – the way the straw felt, how the back and hood towered up over you – and it just sparked something for me. I became interested in the stories behind Orcadian furniture too, as well as the people who have made pieces throughout generations. It’s quite a fascinating subject when you take into account the different materials used, the different styles from different islands and the unique touches added by the craftsmen and women. As I came closer to leaving school, I knew it was something I wanted to get involved with so I worked with a local craftsman whilst gaining an SVQ in Hand Crafted Furniture at Orkney College. From there I launched my own business and things haven’t really slowed down since.
Did you find that you picked up the skills quite quickly?
There was a lot of learning required - in-fact, there still is - and a lot of patience too. Let’s just say in my early days there was a fair bit of kindling collected for the fire! It did come to me quite quickly though. I’ve always worked with my hands and the creative element was there too. We still make everything by hand in the workshop - we don’t use machines except to cut the wood down – so I very much depend on skill and experience. I just think it adds something to the finished piece, it has a sense of authenticity and a connection to how furniture was made here all those years ago.
You work a lot with driftwood - why's that an important part of your work?
Again, it’s about that connection with the past. Driftwood has always been a precious find in Orkney, thanks to the lack of native woodland here. Centuries ago, folk would have been on the lookout for pieces of driftwood on the shore to use for a number of reasons, including to make furniture with. These people didn’t have a lot of money and had to make do with what they could find, which is where the Orkney chair came from. Using driftwood these days means we can give a nod to our island heritage.
Is it a challenge to work with driftwood compared to having timber delivered directly from the merchants?
It’s definitely different. You’re working with wood that could have been in the sea for years. It comes in all shapes and sizes, in all kinds of conditions, and you have no idea if it will be usable until you can get it up off the shore and cut through. We’ve got a network of beachcombing, surfing and walking friends who keep us updated about any finds – then the challenge is to get there before anyone else! We’ve used jet-skis and off-road vehicles to collect driftwood in the past so it’s always an adventure. The pieces tend to have to be quite large so we can make tables, chairs and more from it. Sometimes a piece looks perfect but it could be hollowed out by shipworm, so it can be a bit of a lottery. But there’s nothing quite as beautiful as a sea-stained, well-travelled piece of driftwood, full of natural blemishes and markings. The best thing is you can guarantee the finished piece will be one-of-a-kind.
Is it a long process to create a driftwood piece of furniture?
Unfortunately, yes! Once we get the piece home and cut into sections, we have to let the Orcadian elements do their thing. We need to let the rain wash out the salt water, then the wind – which isn’t scarce here – dries it off. After all that we have to place it in our hot room just to get it ready for working with. I’ve had pieces of driftwood drying outside the workshop for three years, just to get it in the perfect condition. It’s a painful process as you’re itching to get going with it, but you know it's best to wait.
You sell Orkney chairs to clients around the world. Why is the design so timeless?
Simplicity has a lot to do with it – I mean, how could the design possibly be improved?! It is timeless, and nowadays it’s all about that tradition and that connection with the past. A lot of our chairs go to people with Orkney links or Orcadian heritage, with most of our overseas sales heading to North America, Australia and New Zealand. A lot of these folk want to have a piece of Orkney in their homes. They’re a talking point and a chance to share their connections with the islands, no matter how far away in the world they are.
How has the past year been for your business? Are people still as keen to invest in this sort of product?
When the pandemic hit and lockdown was announced in March 2020, we were honestly quite worried about what the future would hold. We had plenty of work in the order book and enough wood to get us through, but the challenge was going to be delivery - with non-essential travel stopped, we wouldn’t be able to ship our furniture. We also generate quite a lot of custom during the summer months with folk stopping off at the workshop to see some furniture and have a chat about our pieces, but obviously the summer season last year just didn’t really happen. It’s safe to say we set off into spring apprehensively, but thankfully we managed to generate enough orders to keep going over the course of the year. I think people had time on their hands to rethink their priorities and they maybe had money to spare too, so they decided they wanted to invest in something special. We want to forget 2020 in general, but we will remember all of our customers during those twelve months.