LAST week, following Greg Hatton’s advice about learning from old furniture, I spent a day with Michael Kelly. It has been over a year since we finished building the tiny studio, though I have visited his shop often in the meantime.
Michael decided we would refurbish old dining chairs, by replacing the seat with lath (thin timber strips used in old plaster interior walls), stripping them back and shaping them smooth.
The original chairs were rickety and ugly, with a flaky stain obscuring the timber. The Oregon lath, in contrast, has a rich and varied grain. Before long, it was clear that the chairs would become very attractive.
Throughout the last few weeks I’ve been shifting uncomfortably at my desk. As spring emerges from winter, I haven’t been able to write much. I have had little in my head besides the desire to work with my hands more often.
I sat in the shop and looked at all the things Michael had made from lath. There were bookshelves, coffee tables, tables, boxes, cabinets, shutters, and several small studio-sheds. So I said to him: “Lucky you came across lath – what would you be doing without it?”
He replied that wherever he went, he built with whatever material was in abundance. “In the city, forests of hundred-year-old timber are thrown away. There’s a constant supply that very few people make use of.”
He explained that when he lived in an old gold mining town in New South Wales, he had built with abandoned stone. He made stone walls and dry stone walls.
“And when I was living on a block with good clay soil,” he said, “I made mudbricks.” As a teenager, he built a mudbrick hut in the bush, spending only $30 on glass for windows.
Michael told me he took great confidence from the knowledge that wherever humans go, we have the capacity to use what is around us to gain the necessities of existence. Although life can seem complex and expensive, what is truly important is simple. Building, too, can be simple.
He showed me photos of timeless things he had built from timber, stone, brick and mudbrick – materials that humans have used for so long that we feel immediately comfortable in their midst.
And so we passed the day in this fashion, talking about life and building while we trimmed the wood and hammered dozens of small nails into the chairs, making them both firm and beautiful; unwanted objects that now will be treasured for decades.