It’s a glorious day at Waihua, in northern Hawke’s Bay, when bodger Jasper Murphy sets up his foot-powered pole lathe under a pohutukawa tree and begins turning chair legs.
He’s using pin oak from a recently felled 70-year-old tree on the edge of the Haynes family’s garden, where Bob and Jill Haynes’ daughters Rose, Gretchen and Victoria grew up.
Rose now farms Waihua Station in partnership with her dad and it was her idea to commission three of Jasper’s trademark Shaker-style rocking chairs – one each for herself and her sisters – using wood from the pin oak, felled after it had developed an alarming split. The chairs will become heirlooms for the next generation, and not just because of where the wood comes from.
As far as Jasper knows, he’s the only bodger (a traditional woodturner using “green” or unseasoned wood) currently working in New Zealand (though he’d be delighted to meet others). His chairs and stools come with all the subtle variations only a hand-crafted object can display. There are single and two-seater benches – with or without rockers; colours range from palest blond to deepest honey, with seagrass seats woven in a range of traditional patterns.
Jasper decided it was easier to move his lathe to the Haynes’ farm to work the still-green wood rather than transporting large and heavy lengths of oak home to his workshop on an organic orchard at Waerenga-a-hika, just west of Gisborne.
Traditionally, bodgers made legs for Windsor chairs, working in the forest with freshly cut or fallen timber. A 50-something farmer who retired early after a back injury, Jasper came across the craft in 1992, in the UK, where he went with his wife Judi for her midwifery training.
Jasper was eager to learn more after reading a book by green woodworker Mike Abbott, a pioneer in the revival of the ancient craft. So, when Judi offered him a residential fortnight at Abbott’s Herefordshire property, Brookhouse Wood, as a birthday present, Jasper seized the opportunity.
He was initially taken aback to find his forest “cabin” for the course was a structure made of hazel poles plaited together with a tarpaulin over the top. Students found themselves sharing their food at times with the crafty resident squirrels, which were adept at unscrewing jars and neatly taking lids off cake tins to help themselves to biscuits.
Traditional crafts such as bodging were lost through a break in the handing down of practical knowledge; the sort of skills that were once learned through apprenticeship had disappeared, says Jasper. And, because most books on the subject were written by historians rather than chair-makers, there was no “how to” information, he says. The Brookhouse Wood course offered the hands-on learning he needed.
“I learned the extra little tricks. You can’t learn that through books – you have to learn it the hard way.”
He has made his own tools too, branded with his distinctive monogram, for cleaving, shaving and turning freshly sawn lengths of timber into legs, spindles, rungs and rockers. He’ll steam curves where necessary but there are no nails, screws or glue used – the more slender the components, the stronger the finished article, he says. As the wood dries out, round mortise and tenon joints become oval, locking the parts tightly together.
In the British tradition, a different craftsman made the chair seats but Jasper weaves his own from seagrass. The Haynes’ chairs are some of the first he has stained. Though he favours natural products such as Danish oil, he admits the dark colour shows up the oak grain particularly well.
Jasper prefers to work with wood that is destined to be cut down and has made chairs from Tasmanian blackwood, oak, beech, cherry and hickory. But his favourite green wood is the long, straight kanuka – dense with an even grain – that grows prolifically on the East Coast. The honey-coloured wood is perfect for his exquisitely crafted Shaker-style chairs – tomorrow’s heirlooms.
See more at chairsbyjasper.co.nz
Story: Ann Packer
Photographs: Richard Brimer & Kerry Fox