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Woodsville Woodcraft – Meet the Maker

by Camilla

Meet Geoff Coates from Woodsville Woodcraft

Geoff Coates started his Folksy shop Woodsville Woodcraft as a way to reduce waste from his business as a maker of musical instruments by using precious timber offcuts, reclaimed wood and various bits he has collected over the years to make beautiful wooden birds and fine wooden boxes inspired by Mid Century Design. Here, Geoff talks to fellow Folksy seller Aimee from Aimee Mac Illustration about his too-small workshop, sustainability and how not being a natural performer led him to making instruments instead of playing them.

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Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

Hi Geoff! Absolutely beautiful work. How and when did you get into woodworking? 

Thanks Aimee – love your illustrations, by the way! I was terrible at woodwork at school, so for a long time I never even thought about going back to it. It was music that got me interested again. I realised that many of the instruments I wanted to play were either hard to find or too expensive for me, so I thought I’d better try making my own. I did a part-time furniture making course at Bridgend College and the tutor there, Roy Williams, was very encouraging; he allowed me to use the workshops to build an Appalachian dulcimer, which I still have and play over 25 years on. 

Later I went to the Totnes School of Guitarmaking – another fantastic place of learning – and about six years ago started up as a luthier, making custom guitars, mandolins and zithers, etc. It was the ever-growing pile of offcuts from these instruments that got me thinking about how to reduce the waste by making them into little birds and boxes (and later, jewellery).

Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

Can you tell us about a typical day in your studio?

Because I make quite a few different things I’m not sure there is a typical day! I’m often working on several things at once. Recently I’ve been working on a baritone ukulele commission (which is taking far longer than I’d hoped – sorry Brian!), along with a batch of ring and earring boxes for brilliant local jeweller Katharine Daniels, a set of three large birds for a customer in Romania, and a couple more birds for the lovely Glass By Design Gallery in Penarth.

Fitting all these different jobs around one another can be challenging, and I’m not always very good at time management! I do try to get the bulk of the machine work done in the morning, so the afternoons can be a bit quieter to concentrate on working with hand tools and finishing. Radio 3 is usually on all day, so my classical music knowledge is also improving while I work…

Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

Have you always been creative?  

I’d say yes – in my head at least, though it has taken me a long time to find a medium I’m really happy in. 

I always dreamed of making a living from music, but I’m not a natural performer, so instrument making is the next best thing. I can get bored doing the same thing all the time, so I really enjoy making the birds and other craft pieces as well, to have a break from the instruments. 

I’m still looking down new avenues, too. There are electronics and electronic music projects coming in the very near future.

Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

You say on your Folksy bio that you work from a tiny studio. Tell us about it – where is it and what is it like? 

I have a wooden workshop in the back garden. It’s about 5m x 2.5m, which sounds like a decent size until you try fitting in a load of woodworking tools and machinery, a couple of workbenches, piles of timber, dehumidifier and all the jigs and fixtures that instrument makers use to make life easier!

A bigger workshop would be nice, especially as I’m often working on several projects at once, but it does have the advantage of being a few metres from my back door, and we live in a small village, so it’s quite peaceful (apart from the planes coming into Cardiff airport and the kids in the primary school next door, but you get used to those).

Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

Do you have a stand out favourite piece of work or commission? 

It’s always the latest one, isn’t it? In my case a set of three long-legged birds in cherrywood and bronze (including one new design), which I just sent off to their new home in Romania.

Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

I also have a great fondness for the lovely mandolin I made for my friend and ex-bandmate Andy Baillie of Reverend James and the Swingtown Cowboys (a fantastic Western swing group).

Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

There are lots of natural shapes in your work and I can see from your social media that you like to garden. Tell us about where you find inspiration for your work.

I love Mid Century Modern design, and the original inspiration for my birds came from the ones made by Danish architect and designer Jacob Hermann in the 1950s, though mine are less stylised. 

I enjoy creating the different shapes and sizes to suggest some of the birds in the lovely Vale of Glamorgan countryside around me, without them being a direct representation of any real bird in particular. I like that I may see a blue tit, blackbird or heron, whereas another person could see something altogether different.

I worked as a gardener and in a garden centre for a while, so I do love the garden, but it is still very much a work in progress. I don’t think I take much inspiration directly from it, but I do believe that ‘what goes in must come out’ so I’m sure the abundance of natural forms must at least have had a subconscious affect on my work.

Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

Your work is beautifully finished, how long does it take you to make one of your birds? Talk us through the process 

I use templates to make my birds, but only to mark out the basic outline shapes. All the cutting and shaping is done freehand – that way, each one is slightly different, and they often develop their own character as work progresses. 

They are cut from the plank with a bandsaw, then I shape the profile on disc and drum sanders, and drill holes for the eyes and legs. Turning them from flat pieces of wood into three dimensional creatures is done mainly with Japanese carving rasps and files, then a lot of scraping and sanding, before finishing with 3-4 coats of shellac, and a final polish with a microcrystalline wax. I’ve experimented with other finishes, but settled on this one for its beauty and simplicity of application (it’s also very easy to repair if necessary). Some of my deluxe birds do get the same oil varnish finish that I often use on my instruments for a glossier look, but this is a much longer process so I tend to reserve it for birds made from very special pieces of wood.

The eyes are either made from coloured shellac – heated and inlaid directly into the eye holes – or short lengths of bronze rod glued in and filed flush. I make the legs from galvanised wire (for the basic birds) or thicker bronze rod (for the bigger and deluxe versions), bent in a vice and glued into place. The legs are polished but unfinished, so they quite quickly develop a natural patina. 

So several hours work goes into each bird, but over a 3-4 day period to allow glue and finishes to dry.

Geoff Coates Woodsville Woodcraft Wales

Do you have a dream piece that you’d like to create in the future? 

Not a dream piece, as such. I use timbers from all over the world, and I’d just love to be able to create any piece knowing that all the wood I was using came from a sustainable, well-managed source as a matter of course. Many exotic timbers are now out of bounds for conscientious woodworkers, having been over-exploited in the past (and the present, in some cases). Wood is potentially as sustainable a raw material as it gets, but despite promising developments in recent years, there is a long way to go before those of us who work with it can afford to be too complacent about how it is produced.

Woodsville Woodcraft

Meet the interviewer

Aimee Mac Illustration

The maker asking the questions this week is designer, maker and illustrator Aimee Mac.
Read Aimee’s interview here >
Shop Aimee Mac Illustration on Folksy >

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