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Hand Made In Heidelberg: Fd Ryan Toolmakers

toolmakers
toolmakers

Clockwise from above: James pulling the tools from the furnace; A range of the FD Ryan hand tools; Trowels straight from the furnace; Tools in the making. Photos by Emma Belyea

toolmakers
toolmakers

Hidden amongst the factories and warehouses of Heidelberg West, FD Ryan Toolmakers is a father and son collaboration between Matthew and James King. They specialise in hand making bespoke garden tools that are built to last. While the collaboration may be young, this fledgling business has a long history that incorporates the family’s own story over four generations.

The FD Ryan workshop sits alongside the larger warehousing operations of the family’s main business—a bustling warehouse involved in importing garden tools for the Australian horticultural market. Matthew recalls that when he began working in the family business, started by his blacksmith grandfather Frederick Daniel Ryan in 1933, it was heavily involved in metal manufacturing (in particular, steel caps for the booming footwear industry in Fitzroy, Melbourne). But with the decline in Australian manufacturing, and iconic brands like Blundstone shipping operations offshore, the business had to change. ‘We went from being a manufacturer to an importer,’ says Matthew. And so a workshop full of steel manufacturing tools, some of them over 100 years old, lay dormant for nearly 20 years.

Their toolmaking collaboration came about when James, 26, was searching for meaningful work. His father Matthew suggested he come and create something for himself with the unused furnace, forge and other blacksmithing tools from the old manufacturing days. The battered anvil originally owned by FD Ryan is still used in their workshop to hammer red-hot glowing fork tynes. Many of the other tools and machines in the workshop also hail from this era. Honouring their ancestor’s legacy, Matthew and James named their collaboration after him, and FD Ryan Toolmakers was born.

In their cavernous forge workshop, lit by dramatic chiaroscuro lighting (care of sawtooth factory windows), Matthew demonstrates the difference between high tensile steel before and after it has been heat treated in their furnace. ‘Many tools are made out of this high tensile steel, but without the heat treating,’ he explains. Matthew holds up an untreated rod of steel and fits one end into a jig, then steps on the other with the full force of his weight. It takes a few jumps, but the steel eventually bends. He then repeats the demonstration using a heat-treated rod, which, after the same exercise has barely a bend in it.

James dons his fire-proof suit and shows the furnace in action. The furnace has been heated to 800 degrees and the tray of steel tools he carefully manoeuvers into it begin to glow red-hot. Once they have been heat-treated, they are plunged into a cool bath, before having Tasmanian mountain ash handles fitted carefully by hand.

‘I knew that we couldn’t make money massmanufacturing tools in Australia, so we decided to make artisanal, small batch tools for people who are looking for this sort of quality,’ says Matthew. The FD Ryan range is still growing, but it already incorporates a variety of tools that are a far cry from your standard garden trowel, and appeal to gardeners who are interested in exploring new ways of growing. Their popular broadforks (for small-scale tilling without inverting soil structure) and traditional Asian-inspired ‘hori-hori’ and ‘ho-mi’ are examples of these.

Given the business has largely grown organically, and without any great deal of planning, James and Matthew are pleased and even surprised at the positive reception and the traction they are gaining. In a market saturated by cheap tools and shopping centre hardware warehouses, it’s heartening to see that there is a market for quality and locally hand-made items once again. With care, these tools will last a lifetime; maybe even a few generations.

Check out www.fdryan.com to purchase these beautiful tools. They are also available from the Pip shop.

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