We met a kindred spirit this weekend in Collie Burt, a 76-year-old master craftsman whose talent goes largely hidden in a small garage in Featherston. You see Collie 1) appreciates good timber 2) hates seeing it go to waste and 3) uses his craft to connect people with quality wood.
His workshop is scattered with coffee tables, wall art, screens and side tables each adorned with flowers, ovals and concentric shapes. Nothing in the workshop has a defined pricetag – since Collie recognises himself how he can’t put a true value on anything as everything is a ‘labour of love’. Furniture that would have taken hours of handcrafting the intricate panels, go for half of what they should really cost.
Such is the sad reality of a consumerist society where craft is second to price and where the false-economy of cheap quality is lost to those wanting accessibility not lastability.
“Everything you see here is a labour of love.”
‘They had a tendency in the past to put dark stain over everything. That table you see there is solid Kauri’, he informs us pointing at one of his many stunning marquetry-inlaid tables with two swirling rewarewa, pine and rimu flowers cascading across the surface. Beneath the inauthentic stain masquerading the timber as richer mahogany you can just about see the smooth grain that reflects it’s true virgin material, now-threatened Kauri. The only finish acceptable to a man of Collie’s high standards are good old Danish oil and a bit of elbow grease for sanding. Around the room buckets of water sit to bring moisture to the air, ensuring the pieces don’t dry out under the harsh Wairarapa sun blazing through the windows.
A purist at heart, but born of an appreciation for the intrinsic qualities that come with the huge array of timbers – many of which are now in decline – Collie shows us rimu, swirly heart rimu, oak, genuine ebony and mahogany (no staining shall ensue from his weathered hands) and rewarewa. The stunning array of finishes in the natural timbers are like a diversity parade of umber, russet and ochre contrasting and complementing each other. Heart wood richness lies against complex patterns of sliced burrs – growths on trees that form intricate lines and patches. Dotted rewarewa contrasts with sweeping lines of the same wood, cut laterally instead of horizontally.
He cut up the rewarewa to use as firewood.
It’s not even any good as firewood!
‘A local guy told me how he cut down a New Zealand Honeysuckle the other week to open up a track. Used it for firewood.’ The audible groan echoes around his workshop muffled only by the layer of wood dust, as we share the pain. Rare, difficult to acquire native timber used for…firewood. Herein lies the challenge that we feel, in educating the masses on the value of native timbers, on preservation and celebration of quality furniture.
‘I only use existing frames and legs which I buy from op shops or a local guy in Masterton and then I replace the tops,’ he tells us, as if unconsciously an Economate-advocate trying to salvage the best qualities and replace the worst to preserve the furniture for years to come. ‘I replace the tops with solid 5-6mm timber marquetry inlaying with my CNC router and finishing by hand.’ He shows us his chisels, brought over from the Islands where he says they are thinner than those from the UK or US.
‘It’ll come around again,’ he tells us referring to the trends and styles, ‘young people will start buying solid again. This is what I’m trying to leave for my family. This is my legacy,’ he tells us picking up one of the many table tops. ‘These will be around long after I am gone and hopefully people can appreciate the wood and work that’s gone into them. There aren’t many practising marquetry in New Zealand. I’ve spoken with just a few – one from Invercargill, Auckland and some foreign visitors who pass through but it’s a skill that’s never really taken over here.’
Owner of a Dairy for most of his working life, Collie turned to Joinery in later years only picking up marquetry upon his retirement 8 years ago. ‘It was a good woodwork teacher than inspired me all those years ago.’ Of course Collie is referring to over 60 years ago but remembers the teachers name fondly, ‘his name was Stacey. I must have had a natural affinity but never did anything with it for all these years.’ Collie is proof that you are never too old to learn a new thing. ‘I’ll keep doing this as long as my eye-sight allows me to. You never know how long that might be though’, he sadly admits acknowledging his more senior years.
We hope others out there take inspiration from Collie Burt and learn to value the long-lasting and beautiful qualities of NZ native timbers. Because we need to preserve our natural taonga through the oldest way of connecting with the natural world – simple, timeless craftsmanship.
Collie and his Traditional Wood Inlay Craft workshop can be found in Featherston next to the old Royal Hotel on Fitzherbert St. Collie by his own admission is ‘old school’ and has no website.